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My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

My experience of facing children with unfamiliar names began when in 1972 Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda. Some of the families arrived in Coventry, and some of their children began attending the school where I taught history. At the time it seemed to me that a name is the only thing a young person brings to school that is theirs. We had to learn unfamiliar names.

All my professional life I have found it hard to learn names, but it is important for every person, a way of showing respect. So I was shocked to learn that a child, born in Wigan in 1967, but immediately taken into care, was renamed Norman by the social services. His mother had given him the Amharic word for why as his name: Lemn. This was the first act in a history of offensive behaviours that affected this child as he grew up in care. This is the treatment he describes in his memoir: My Name is Why.

My Name is Why

Lemn Sissay’s mother was an unmarried Ethiopian student who had to return home soon after his birth in 1967 because her father was ill. She refused to sign adoption papers for the child. Contact between her and Wigan Social Services Department was lost over time. He was taken into care by Wigan Children’s Department and renamed Norman. Perhaps they thought that as they were not able arrange for an adoption a less strange name would make it more likely that a mixed race child would be found a suitable foster home.

He was fostered by a couple who had no children at that time. Initially the placement was successful and three more children were born into the family. As he entered adolescence relationships began to break down as the parents were rather strict.

Over the next few years Lemn was placed in accommodation that was more and more restrictive and unsuitable. He was also nicknamed Chalky White – cruel playground humour that was common and tolerated in those days. He became more and more unhappy, began to do badly at school, and developed depression. In part this was because he believed that both his mother and his foster family had rejected him. Towards the end of his time in care at 18 he discovered that his mother had wanted him and that his name was neither Norman nor Chalky, but Lemn, the Amharic word for ‘why’. 

The short chapters are illustrated with extracts from the files from Wigan, much of it from his sympathetic social worker, Norman Mills. It took 30 years for these files to be prised out of the local authority. They illustrate the lack of departmental understanding or care for the children for whom they had responsibility, and the racism that informed the decisions taken on his behalf, beginning with his name. 

Each chapter starts with four lines of verse, perhaps written at the time, that also illuminate his emotional state. The ‘happy ever after’ part of this sad story is that Lemn Sissay has overcome these initial disadvantages caused by the actions of the social services. He has become an acclaimed poet.

A connection with this story

Many of the schools in which I worked in the ‘70s-‘90s were in run down places in Coventry, Rugby and London. There were always children in care, and always children of mixed race attending the schools. And there is continued concern that the achievement of these children remains too low, and that schools are less and less able to provide adequate support for those who need it.

During the same time my mother was a social worker, specializing in child care in Leeds and in Essex. She would have recognised the situation described in this memoir and how the young Lemn was treated. She believed passionately in listening to young people, in enabling them to speak out, now – fashionably – to have ‘a voice’. And so she would have been pleased that there is a mention of WHO CARES in this book, an organisation that supported young people to speak up, to speak out. 

The Sunday Times reviewer called My Name is Why ‘an extraordinary story’, and while some of it is, the shame is that the lack of care and racism he experienced has been experienced by so many other children in care. Sadly it is not an extraordinary story. 

As I finished this book I read about the large number of children ‘looked after‘ by local authorities who are currently placed in unregulated accommodation because there is a shortage of placements. Such lack of care and oversight has been implicated in the county lines recruitment as well as leaving many young people vulnerable to other criminal and to sexual exploitation. The care system is under severe threat. Here is the link to the article:

Revealed: thousands of children in care placed in unregulated homes [from Guardian 26.12.19]

This book then is a reminder of how things were. It confirms that personal success can still emerge from difficulties. But it must also serve as a warning about how plausibly justified inhumane treatment can be, especially to vulnerable young people. We need to be careful in every sense.

My Name is Why: a memoir by Lemn Sissay (2019) Canongate. 193pp

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