My Life in Cities: Lemn Sissay

The poet and broadcaster on Manchester, Addis Ababa and the city as 'family.'

By Simon Ingram
Published 7 May 2019, 15:38 BST, Updated 11 Dec 2020, 21:50 GMT
"The city’s a personal place. We speak of cities as being where a person becomes anonymous ...
"The city’s a personal place. We speak of cities as being where a person becomes anonymous and it’s not true."
Photograph by Hamish Brown

Lemn Sissay MBE is a poet and author. Born in Wigan in 1967 to an Ethiopian mother, he was re-named ‘Norman’ and placed with foster parents, who later put him in care and severed contact. Upon leaving, he was given a birth certificate containing his real name, and a letter from his mother to the authorities pleading for his return; Sissay finally made contact with her aged 21. Selling his first poetry to striking miners, he published his debut book in 1988. He was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics and became Chancellor of Manchester University in 2015.

My first memory of a city is sitting on the hill of ‘Pretoria.’ Pretoria is an upsurge of earth in a little village called Over Hulton in Lancashire caused by a mining explosion in the early 1900s. If you sit on Pretoria at night, through the silver birch, you can see, glinting on the horizon, the warm glow of Manchester. That’s what I remember staring at. It was like Oz.

Manchester had all of the answers, to questions that I hadn’t formulated. Eventually I longed to be there. It had that enticing pulse that sort of made a teenager wonder: what am I going to be? And is that where I’m going to be, whatever I’m going to be? 

The mines and the mills of the were the sort of internal rhythm setters of the villages and towns that I grew up in. My world was a world of shops that close on a Wednesday afternoon, and miners and mill workers that come home at set times. In the city, the rhythm was different. It had skyscrapers, less space, less green space. At night you could see its fire, its light. It was another world. It was where there were people from other cultures. 

"Manchester had all of the answers, to questions that I hadn’t formulated." The city, in north-west England, as seen from the uplands of the Pennines which rise up around it.
Photograph by A.P.S. UK, Alamy

I was going to leave children’s homes at 18 years of age. At that point [I was] in the care system of Wigan, another very small town. I had been held in these various institutions, that were tucked away inside these villages and towns of Lancashire, as some form of shameful place. I remember very clearly thinking, ‘just because I’m in the children’s home, I’m supposed to be thought of as bad’, and thinking, I wasn’t born bad, so I must be good.’ And I wanted to get rid of institutional shame, because it had very little to do with me. The city seemed a place of questions, and a place of answers, and a place of growth. I think not having a family has made me make family out of the world. Nobody stuck to me, so there was nobody to blame, so I had to go out with that idea, and find answers to my questions: why was I in care? Why do I not know who my family are? Where are they? How can I find them? How can I explain that I didn’t do anything wrong?

My life up until that point had been very monocultural. It was all white. Those were all the people that were around me, and I knew the city had black people in it. And I needed to learn more about the world, and myself, by finding them. I outgrew my village, I had no family there. When I left the children’s homes at 18 years of age, I needed to find family. And undoubtedly, Manchester became my family, and still is. 

I moved to the city from the villages to be seen. I had a nickname in my village when I was a child because I was the only black boy. My nickname was Chalky White. I was only seen in a negative way regarding the fact that I was an Ethiopian boy. I didn’t even know I was Ethiopian at the time. So, for me to go to the city was to be seen. 

Photograph by Hamish Brown

“I think not having a family has made me make family out of the world. ”

Lemn Sissay

I needed to learn about myself. So, I went to the city. I realised, there’s not just ‘black people’, that’s reductive! There are Caribbeans, and there are Guyanese and there are Jamaicans and there are Ethiopians, there are Gabonese. All these things I wasn’t aware of until I came to the city. It’s one of the greatest gifts of the city, is diversity. 

The change in cities is extraordinary. I travel consistently to cities all over the world, to read as a writer and speak as a speaker. They are undoubtedly losing their individuality. And I think only a few people see it. In England, only people who travel to a lot of cities, and have for done over 30 years, can see how the same model is being replicated whatever the city is. Whether it’s Canterbury’s high street, which is trying desperately to hold on to its individuality, or whether it’s Manchester city centre.

Cities are freaking dynamic places, they really are! But there is something about green space that is really important, for the mental wellbeing of humans. I wish that we were more mindful of that when developing property in cities. 

The kind of people that are living in cities in 20 years will be interesting. Will the cities be only for gated communities? Will people who are not earning money be forced to live outside of the city, to service it? A little like Washington DC, where the workers come from outside to service the city, and you can see them leave at night on the trains, getting out. I wish we didn’t do that here, because we’re a just little country really.

I don’t think that the city is any less lonely than the countryside. It’s all got to do with how you feel. I think lonely is a place you can find yourself in just as much in the city as you can in the country. In the city you can feel lonely and see a sea of people; in the country, in rural areas, you can be lonely and see very few people. It’s the same principle of loneliness: that you feel it. So, I know my shopkeeper, my shopkeeper knows me, I have my friends. But I think the city makes you more independent, and more independently minded. That’s what it felt like when I came to London. I think you can win in London if you step up to that question: "who are you? What are you doing here?"

"To come to Addis... was simply me getting back to who I was." Addis Ababa's modern downtown.
Photograph by Eduardo Blanco, Alamy

We’re a migratory species. We migrate from childhood into adulthood, from single to partnered to married. We migrate when we learn at university and grow. We migrate when we leave our house for the first time to go to school. It’s the nature of us to move, whether that’s to move in our growth, in our personalities, in our learning, in our emotional selves, in how we connect with the world, or whether that’s to move physically. 

I went to [Addis Ababa for the first time] when I was 29. My mother had to flee Addis in 1974 when the emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown. Her husband was the vice minister to finance, and he was jailed. And she had to flee the country under the Communist regime which became known as The Derg. To come to Addis, for the first time, as an Ethiopian, who'd had his whole heritage taken away, whose name, ‘Lemin’ as it said in Amharic, means the question “why”? – I was living out a life that was meant to be for me, you know? Simply me getting back to who I was. 

Cranes over the City of London. "That’s how you can see how well a city’s doing, isn’t it? The giant cranes. It's a sign of growth."
Photograph by Gregory Wrona, Alamy

There are cranes all over Addis at the moment. That’s how you can see how well a city’s doing, isn’t it? The giant cranes. You see it in London, you see it Manchester, you see it in Addis Ababa. It’s a sign of growth. And this is good, but it also is a challenge to the citizens. Will they see this growth, and embrace it, or will it frighten them? Will they start to ask questions about ownership? Cultural, financial, emotional? Growth has a way of making a citizen ask: what is happening around me? And this is all part of development, whether its Manchester or Addis Ababa.

You can tell a city by its poets. And you can tell its wellbeing by the size of the poetry readings in it! It will tell you what kind of city it is: cosmopolitan, diverse, questioning. 

I think this is the most exciting time to live in my life. The internet has changed our cities, changed our thinking, our way of shopping, our way of communicating, and this is a good thing – it’s just how we adapt and how we challenge it as well. I like to see the kids marching in our streets as they are today.

The city’s a personal place. We speak of cities as being where a person becomes anonymous and it’s not true. They are not. I know too many really kind people, neighbours, shopkeepers, people who’ve helped other people, and I have as well. I oversee the Christmas Dinners for Care Leavers. I started it, and they’re in over 17 cities. Just people getting together in September, to work out how they can make a Christmas dinner for people who left care at 18 years of age and are in bedsits or friend’s houses, a place for them to go on Christmas day where they get food, they get picked up in a taxi, they get presents, they get treated like royalty for one day. People from the community raise the money. That’s my biggest contribution to the cities in England. My dream is to do one in Addis Ababa. It’s the greatest project I’ve ever done, started, and been involved with. 

Lemn's words on a wall in Old Trafford, Manchester...
...and a wall in Greenwich, London.
'Let There Be Peace' is inscribed on a wall at Manchester University.
Photos by Lemn Sissay

I don’t think my journey to the city could have ever been more beautiful. I ran away to Manchester in bare feet, from the children’s homes and slept in the doorway of a record shop in Moss Side, just because I wanted to be around people who have the same colour skin as me. And now I have a series of poems [written in public spaces] all over the city. My poems are tattooed into the skin of Manchester and there are poems in London, and in different parts of the world. That started in Manchester and then grew, and I’m really proud of that. 

When I became chancellor at the University of Manchester, I told the students that I want to inspire, and be inspired. And that is what you want in your engagement with a city. I only write poetry, man – you know, there are people who clean houses, there are people who build houses. These are all really important parts of our culture, whether it’s the poet, the cleaner, the dustbin man, the council worker, the designer – we all really do need to inspire and be inspired, and you can’t have one without the other. It’s a deeply personal relationship with the space that you’re in. And I’ve got to say, I love Manchester. You can love a city, you know. 

Lemn Sissay's memoir, My Name is 'Why?', is released in the Autumn.

Manchester city centre by night.
Photograph by Tetra Images, Alamy

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