Sissay’s mother arrived in England from Ethiopia in 1966. Pregnant at the time, she was sent from Bracknell to Lancashire to give birth. Sissay was born in Billinge Hospital, near Wigan in 1967. Norman Goldthorpe, a social worker assigned to his mother by Wigan Social Services, found foster parents for Sissay while his mother returned to Bracknell to finish her studies. Goldthorpe named Sissay “Norman” and gave him to foster parents, telling them to treat it as an adoption. The events are depicted in the play Something Dark and in BBC documentary Internal Flight.
His strongly religious foster parents wanted to name him Mark after the Christian evangelist Mark and give him their surname, Greenwood.
When Sissay was 12 years old, after his foster parents had had three children of their own, they placed him into a children’s home and said neither they nor any of their family would contact him again.
From the ages of 12 to 17, Sissay was held in a total of four children’s homes. With no surrogate family or birth family upon leaving the care system, he was given his birth certificate, showing the name of his mother, Yemarshet Sissay, and his own legal name, Lemn Sissay. He was also given a letter from his files dated 1968, written by his mother to Norman Goldthorpe, pleading for his return. She wrote “How can I get Lemn back? I want him to be with his own people, his own colour. I don’t want him to face discrimination”. From the point of leaving care, he began the search for his mother and took back his real name.
When Sissay was 18 years old he moved from Atherton to the city of Manchester, At 19 he was a literature development worker at Commonword, a community publishing cooperative in Manchester.
He met his birth mother when he was 21, after a long search. She was working for the UN in the Gambia
In 2017 Sissay staged a one-off show entitled The Report, based on a psychologist’s report about Sissay’s early life and how it affected him. The show details his experience with social services, foster homes, abuse and his psychiatric diagnoses.
Watch Lemn Sissay MBE here