A Live Brew of Lemn Sissay’s ‘My Name is Why’

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It was a pleasure to see and hear Lemn reading from his memoir My Name is Why at the Brewery Theatre in Kendal at the end of September to a packed and receptive audience.

Many things struck me – as ever, Lemn’s warm, open, engaging and honest personality; and in the context of this memoir’s narrative, an emotive and at times quite angry display – though it has to be said, also deeply compassionate and empathetic in feeling despite the turmoil/injustices of his time in care – and that anger was most evident in the focus and channelling of it in a discussion after his reading.

But two aspects in particular stand out: the first was his stand-up, comic inclinations, that evening’s starting with an impromptu account of taxi rides, one local and the other previous, and this had the audience [and Lemn] in stitches, but it also reminded me of the very first time I encountered Lemn giving a spontaneous and unexpected comedy performance which I have written about here; the second was in Lemn reading extracts from the book – obviously – but closing with Chapter 7, which leads with this epigraph,

Dawn is a wake for dusk
Light will find what it must
What will be will be and thus
Shadows speak for us

On my initial reading of his book, this chapter struck me both as a turning point in the events of the storytelling but also in Lemn’s perceptions then and in the present. There is a move that is also [with apologies] moving in the language with which Lemn conveys his memory and recounting of this, encapsulated as an overarching summation of mixed/conflicting emotions in the metaphoric line,

I was born into a laburnum-tree family with its beauteous bloom and poisonous seeds.

It isn’t that Lemn hasn’t used this kind of poetic expression before, or after, but the poet in him does not ever ‘intrude’ into the narrative, as one could imagine it would in less assured hands. What I mean is, Lemn recounts throughout with a clarity and simple lyrical elegance that allows the storytelling to so often speak for itself, this propelled, of course, by the additional printed documentation of his time in care. In this chapter, the love and understanding Lemn reveals for some of his wider foster family reflects on the sensitive insights of a young boy and which informs a tale that would otherwise have been just despairing. It isn’t.

The Q&A after Lemn’s reading was thoughtfully expansive, and the ‘anger’ I referenced before was in Lemn’s profound understanding of a care system then and now with advice and recommendation for the future that should be followed from someone in the know by those in positions to implement change.

Should there be a sequel to this memoir? In purely pragmatic terms, as the ‘story’ of this book ends around 1985, there must be so much more to tell. On the one hand, the documentation Lemn only recently acquired about his time in care is the powerful and potent frame of this memoir’s storyline – one that can’t be replicated similarly; on the other, as a man and writer and so much more, it is genuinely of interest to know how Lemn achieved his subsequent public successes from the poisonous seeds of his early years.

Of little consequence to others but important to me, I first saw/met Lemn in 1990/91 when he performed [including that unexpected comic routine] at my school. The confident, ebullient, inspiring and dynamic person then was only 5/6 years on from the 1985 close of his memoir’s account. How on earth did this apparent transformation take place? We can see from reading My Name is Why that an independence and resilience and indeed defiance of character and personality was present in the child who also experienced such an absence of other personal/personality foundations in his early life. Was this 1990 persona an element of front?

Yes, I think there is much for Lemn still to tell, and I would be fascinated to hear it told. I do know that the many ‘successes’ I have alluded to in Lemn’s more recent professional life will have been hard-won, well beyond the experiences recounted in the memoir. The ‘jobbing’ life of a poet then [and now] is no picnic! Indeed, the touring life of a writer – take the sell-out readings for his memoir – is exhausting and hardly romantic as a life on the road, especially when the taxi doesn’t show up, or a driver is one wheel short of a knowing drive to the destination.

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