Lemn Sissay urges chidren in care to ‘reach for the stars’ as he is made OBE

The poet and playwright has been honoured for services to literature and charity.

Lemn Sissay
Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay urged people who have grown up in the care system to “reach for the stars” as he was made an OBE.

The poet and playwright was honoured for services to literature and charity in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Sissay detailed his experiences in the British care system in his autobiography of his early life, My Name Is Why, and shared the abuse he suffered over 18 years as a child in the one-off show The Report at the Royal Court.

The writer, who was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics and in 2019 won the PEN Pinter Prize, told the PA news agency: “I’m chuffed to bits. If I could say to my 17-year-old self or my 25-year-old self, in 2021 you will receive an OBE, I just would not believe it.

Foyle Young Poets of the Year
Lemn Sissay (Anthony Devlin/PA)

“I do the work that I do as best as I can. I wish I was a better writer. I wish I could do more in particular areas and then it’s like somebody tapping you on the shoulder and saying, ‘just keep going, just keep doing what you’re doing’.

“Because you can’t be an activist if all you’re bothered about is who’s looking at you, if you’re bothered about the impression you’re giving, you’ve got to get on.

“For anybody who thinks that that for all kinds of reasons, I shouldn’t accept this honour, just walk a mile in my shoes, be the child that I was, go through the journey that I’ve been through in my life. And then you tell that child who’s become a man that they shouldn’t accept an honour, which honours who they are, where they are.

“Success to me is being able to look in the mirror in the morning and know that I’m OK. Success to me is being able to treat the people that are close to me kindly, and for them to treat me kindly.

“Those are the parameters of success and they have been all my life, I don’t have a family who are going to call me and say ‘well done’, and I’ve never had one.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu unveils memorial
Sissay (right) with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (centre) and artist Michael Visocchi (Ian Nicholson/PA)

“So, my parameters of understanding of what successes are actually about the people around me and also about how I feel about my self without, wanting to be too self centred, as well.”

Sissay released his first book of poetry when he was 21 and in 1995 made a BBC documentary, Internal Flight, about his life.

His one-man show Something Dark detailed how as a baby he was given up by his Ethiopian mother in the 1960s and renamed Norman Greenwood, only finding out his real name at the age of 18.

The drama was adapted for BBC Radio 3 in 2006, winning the UK Commission for Racial Equality’s Race in the Media Award (RIMA).

Asked what he would say to young people in care today, he said: “I would say to the young person who’s in care, you’re gonna be okay. Be kind to yourself, be good to yourself, you’re going to be okay.

“I guess I would also say, reach for the top of the tree, and you might get to the first branch, but reach for the stars, and you might get to the top of the tree.

“I’ve always reached for stars, they are my poems, the blank page is like the universe to me and finding stars is like writing a poem and being able to build a constellation or be part of a constellation, that is the challenge of every day.”

He continued: “Celebrating ourselves and celebrating each other, that’s the one of the things that that is missing in the care system.

“I don’t want to be down on it because I know a lot of people from it but I do want to say that celebrating the existence of young people in care is a wonderful thing.

“Harry Potter was a foster child, Superman was also fostered, Jane Eyre, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. We can celebrate the nature of children and care inside popular culture inside literature, but also as our next door neighbours.”

Sissay was previously made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2010 New Year Honours.

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