July 3, 2013

Yardstick Festival Authors: Lemn Sissay

Having spent 18 years as a child of the state in children's homes and foster care, you could say that I'm an expert on the subject, and in being an expert, I want to let you know that being an expert does in no way make you right in light of the truth.

If you're in care, legally the government is your parent, loco parentis. Margaret Thatcher was my mother. (Laughter) Let's not talk about breastfeeding. (Laughter)

Harry Potter was a foster child. Pip from "Great Expectations" was adopted; Superman was a foster child; Cinderella was a foster child; Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, was fostered and institutionalized; Batman was orphaned; Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman's "Northern Lights" was fostered; Jane Eyre, adopted; Roald Dahl's James from "James and the Giant Peach;" Matilda; Moses -- Moses! (Laughter) Moses! (Laughter) -- the boys in Michael Morpurgo's "Friend or Foe;" Alem in Benjamin Zephaniah's "Refugee Boy;" Luke Skywalker -- Luke Skywalker! (Laughter) -- Oliver Twist; Cassia in "The Concubine of Shanghai" by Hong Ying; Celie in Alice Walker's "The Color Purple." All of these great fictional characters, all of them who were hurt by their condition, all of them who spawned thousands of other books and other films, all of them were fostered, adopted or orphaned. It seems that writers know that the child outside of family reflects on what family truly is more than what it promotes itself to be. That is, they also use extraordinary skills to deal with extraordinary situations on a daily basis.

How have we not made the connection? And why have we not made the connection, between — How has that happened? — between these incredible characters of popular culture and religions, and the fostered, adopted or orphaned child in our midst? It's not our pity that they need. It's our respect. I know famous musicians, I know actors and film stars and millionaires and novelists and top lawyers and television executives and magazine editors and national journalists and dustbinmen and hairdressers, all who were looked after children, fostered, adopted or orphaned, and many of them grow into their adult lives in fear of speaking of their background, as if it may somehow weaken their standing in the foreground, as if it were somehow Kryptonite, as if it were a time bomb strapped on the inside. Children in care, who've had a life in care, deserve the right to own and live the memory of their own childhood. It is that simple.

My own mother — and I should say this here — she same to this country in the late '60s, and she was, you know, she found herself pregnant, as women did in the late '60s. You know what I mean? They found themselves pregnant. And she sort of, she had no idea of the context in which she'd landed.

In the 1960s -- I should give you some context -- in the 1960s, if you were pregnant and you were single, you were seen as a threat to the community. You were separated from your family by the state. You were separated from your family and placed into mother and baby homes. You were appointed a social worker. The adoptive parents were lined up. It was the primary purpose of the social worker, the aim, to get the woman at her most vulnerable time in her entire life, to sign the adoption papers. So the adoption papers were signed. The mother and baby's homes were often run by nuns. The adoption papers were signed, the child was given to the adoptive parents, and the mother shipped back to her community to say that she'd been on a little break. A little break. A little break. The first secret of shame for a woman for being a woman, "a little break." The adoption process took, like, a matter of months, so it was a closed shop, you know, sealed deal, an industrious, utilitarian solution: the government, the farmer, the adopting parents, the consumer, the mother, the earth, and the child, the crop.

It's kind of easy to patronize the past, to forego our responsibilities in the present. What happened then is a direct reflection of what is happening now. Everybody believed themselves to be doing the right thing by God and by the state for the big society, fast-tracking adoption.

So anyway, she comes here, 1967, she's pregnant, and she comes from Ethiopia that was celebrating its own jubilee at the time under the Emperor Haile Selassie, and she lands months before the Enoch Powell speech, the "Rivers of Blood" speech. She lands months before the Beatles release "The White Album," months before Martin Luther King was killed. It was a summer of love if you were white. If you were black, it was a summer of hate. So she goes from Oxford, she's sent to the north of England to a mother and baby home, and appointed a social worker. It's her plan. You know, I have to say this in the Houses -- It's her plan to have me fostered for a short period of time while she studies. But the social worker, he had a different agenda. He found the foster parents, and he said to them, "Treat this as an adoption. He's yours forever. His name is Norman." (Laughter) Norman! (Laughter) Norman!

So they took me. I was a message, they said. I was a sign from God, they said. I was Norman Mark Greenwood. Now, for the next 11 years, all I know is that this woman, this birth woman, should have her eyes scratched out for not signing the adoption papers. She was an evil woman too selfish to sign, so I spent those 11 years kneeling and praying. I tried praying. I swear I tried praying. "God, can I have a bike for Christmas?" But I would always answer myself, "Yes, of course you can." (Laughter) And then I was supposed to determine whether that was the voice of God or it was the voice of the Devil. And it turns out I've got the Devil inside of me. Who knew? (Laughter)

So anyway, two years sort of passed, and they had a child of their own, and then another two years passed, and they had another child of their own, and then another time passed and they had another child that they called an accident, which I thought was an unusual name. (Laughter) And I was on the cusp of, sort of, adolescence, so I was starting to take biscuits from the tin without asking. I was starting to stay out a little bit late, etc., etc. Now, in their religiosity, in their naivete, my mom and dad, which I believed them to be forever, as they said they were, my mom and dad conceived that I had the Devil inside of me.

And what -- I should say this here, because this is how they engineered my leaving. They sat me at a table, my foster mom, and she said to me, "You don't love us, do you?" At 11 years old. They've had three other children. I'm the fourth. The third was an accident.

And I said, "Yeah, of course I do." Because you do.

My foster mother asked me to go away to think about love and what it is and to read the Scriptures and to come back tomorrow and give my most honest and truthful answer. So this was an opportunity. If they were asking me whether I loved them or not, then I mustn't love them, which led me to the miracle of thought that I thought they wanted me to get to. "I will ask God for forgiveness and His light will shine through me to them. How fantastic." This was an opportunity. The theology was perfect, the timing unquestionable, and the answer as honest as a sinner could get.

"I mustn't love you," I said to them. "But I will ask God for forgiveness."

"Because you don't love us, Norman, clearly you've chosen your path."

Twenty-four hours later, my social worker, this strange man who used to visit me every couple of months, he's waiting for me in the car as I say goodbye to my parents. I didn't say goodbye to anybody, not my mother, my father, my sisters, my brothers, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my grandparents, nobody. On the way to the children's home, I started to ask myself, "What's happened to me?" It's not that I'd had the rug pulled from beneath me as much as the entire floor had been taken away.

When I got to the — For the next four, five years, I was held in four different children's homes. On the third children's home, at 15, I started to rebel, and what I did was, I got three tins of paint, Airfix paint that you use for models, and I was -- it was a big children's home, big Victorian children's home -- and I was in a little turret at the top of it, and I poured them, red, yellow and green, the colors of Africa, down the tiles. You couldn't see it from the street, because the home was surrounded by beech trees.

For doing this, I was incarcerated for a year in an assessment center which was actually a remand center. It was a virtual prison for young people.

By the way, years later, my social worker said that I should never have been put in there. I wasn't charged for anything. I hadn't done anything wrong. But because I had no family to inquire about me, they could do anything to me.

I'm 17 years old, and they had a padded cell. They would march me down corridors in last-size order. They -- I was put in a dormitory with a confirmed Nazi sympathizer. All of the staff were ex-police -- interesting -- and ex-probation officers. The man who ran it was an ex-army officer. Every time I had a visit by a person who I did not know who would feed me grapes, once every three months, I was strip-searched. That home was full of young boys who were on remand for things like murder. And this was the preparation that I was being given after 17 years as a child of the state.

I have to tell this story. I have to tell it, because there was no one to put two and two together.

I slowly became aware that I knew nobody that knew me for longer than a year. See, that's what family does. It gives you reference points. I'm not defining a good family from a bad family. I'm just saying that you know when your birthday is by virtue of the fact that somebody tells you when your birthday is, a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin, a grandparent. It matters to someone, and therefore it matters to you. Understand, I was 14 years old, tucked away in myself, into myself, and I wasn't touched either, physically touched.

I'm reporting back. I'm reporting back simply to say that when I left the children's home I had two things that I wanted to do. One was to find my family, and the other was to write poetry. In creativity I saw light. In the imagination I saw the endless possibility of life, the endless truth, the permanent creation of reality, the place where anger was an expression in the search for love, a place where dysfunction is a true reaction to untruth.

I've just got to say it to you all: I found all of my family in my adult life. I spent all of my adult life finding them, and I've now got a fully dysfunctional family just like everybody else.

But I'm reporting back to you to say quite simply that you can define how strong a democracy is by how its government treats its child. I don't mean children. I mean the child of the state. Thanks very much. It's been an honor. (Applause) (Applause)

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