This is a time for recommending books for gifts and whilst there are many books on growing up fostered and adopted, there are few that reach a mainstream audience.
Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker series is one that is the exception and remains popular, especially with teenage girls. Wilson’s Tracy Beaker has now grown up and started a family of her own and I guess that her fanbase will stay loyal. The series was fiction and this is often the best way to get over powerful messages about life in care.
However, a new book is fact-based and hard-hitting but also makes for gripping reading about life in care. My Name Is Why is written by Lemn Sissay, a British author and broadcaster. Sissay was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics, and he has been publishing poetry since he was 21 in 1988. His life story is gripping.
Sissay’s mother is Ethiopian and give birth to him in Billinge Hospital, near Wigan, Lancashire, in 1967.
He got his first name, Norman, from that of his mother’s social worker who had found foster parents for him while his mother returned to Bracknell to finish her studies. His mother was in her teens and had hoped to return to claim him and so refused to sign adoption papers.
However, Sissay remained in foster care until he was 12. Then his foster parents (who by then had had three children of their own), placed him in a children’s home. For the next six years Sissay was moved around four children homes. He grew up as the only black boy in the village where his foster parents lived and strangers spat on him from buses. In the care homes he was named Chalky White. Whilst in care Sissay was always told his mother had abandoned him.
It took him the best part of 20 years to gain access to his social work and foster care records, the earliest of which revealed his Ethiopian name (Sissay means ‘why’ in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia) and a note that his mother had sought to have him returned to her when he was a year old. About gaining access to his adoption papers, Sissays says: “In the past, reading my files from social services made me feel like a rat in a lab. Now I feel like a lion.”
Sissay began writing poems and his first was published when he was 21. Since then he has written poetry collections, stage adaptations and plays. He also acts and performs live poetry. Sissay was awarded the MBE for services to literature in 2010. This year he won 2019 PEN Pinter Prize, awarded to writers who take an “unflinching, unswerving” view of the world. One of the judging panel said: “In his every work, Lemn Sissay returns to the underworld he inhabited as an unclaimed child. From his sorrows, he forges beautiful words and a thousand reasons to live and love”.
My Name is Why begins by outlining his campaign to retrieve these records from Wigan council. He was finally granted access in 2015. The book is mostly Sissay’s thoughts on growing up in the care system, and considerable poignancy is added by the inclusion of material from his retrieved files.
There are social workers’ reports and letters about him that Sissay takes issue with because they give an institutional version of events, replete with “misinformation” and “misdirection”, which Sissay probes, rebuts, and corrects.
Sissay eventually made contact with his mother again – however he also found out from her that his father had died in a plane crash. Reading Sissay’s memoir, I was struck by the parallels between his experiences of frustrated efforts to access his records and the work of Birthlink. Frequently people get in touch with Birthlink and open the discussion with the words: “I’ve hit a brick wall”. Online searching does not take the place of real hard work in the systems throughout which news of a life can be scattered.
Records are dispersed across a range of sites, including social work files, court papers and adoption and birth certificates. The effort needed to locate and assemble this material – often containing the building blocks of identity such as place and time of birth, never mind, the names of parents – can be exhausting as well as very expensive.
Birthlink has a skilled group of professionals that do this day in and day out and Sissay’s successful struggle is testament to his resolve. Unmistakeably, personal resources can be severely tested in finding out who you are. When these dry up, Birthlink can be there for you.
My Name Is Why is available for £16.99 from all good booksellers.
Dr Gary Clapton for Birthlink.