PersonalHistories

Care & Destruction of a Childhood // Lemn Sissay

Where does one start with an energy like Lemn Sissay’s? Lemn appears on stage and immediately builds a rapport with the audience as only he can. Lemn takes us on an intensely personal journey full of humour and poignancy. I have been privileged to have heard many people speak about the care system, and it is indeed a privilege to listen to his thoughts and experiences.

Sissay’s story begins in 1966 when his mother came to England from Ethiopia whilst pregnant. As a single mother, she was sent to Lancashire to give birth to Lemn, who was then promptly placed into foster care in order for his mother to complete her studies in Berkshire. Lemn goes on to say that he was given the name ‘Norman’ and placed into the foster care of a white English family. “Norman?” he asks, “Do I look like a Norman?”. I feel stunned. He is talking of a system that is trying to take away his identity, his name, his culture, his background, his people. This is what that feels like.

Lemn is at pains to stress that to foster a child is amongst the greatest acts of humanity, and that his story should not deter from that. It is, after all, his story he is telling and no one else’s. Intertwined throughout his talk are profound observations like “Dysfunction is at the heart of all functioning families”. It takes a moment for that statement to truly sink in, but it makes complete and perfect sense.

Although it is the story of his journey, there are also life lessons. He talks of the need for people to be kind to themselves, to try and forgive, for it is only through forgiveness that Lemn has found redemption and a certain closure. I leave the auditorium reflecting on Lemn’s journey and what he has to say, and although there are moments where one feels dismay at the social care system, it is also a story of hope and never giving up on dreams and aspirations. Inspirational!

- Amar Hussein

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay (Profile) - Guardian

The Emperor’s Watchmaker (Lemn Sissay Blog)

Lemn Sissay: Why Does Society Hate Young People in Care? - The Big Issue

Poet sets out to help young care leavers - Channel 4 News

Fatherland

The all-male cast in a strangely intense musical ode to fatherhood has no baritone. More’s the pity as who doesn’t love a good baritone?

The bread and butter of Fatherland involves stories from a range of fathers, young fathers, grandfathers and single fathers. ‘It wasn’t fashionable back then’, one father says in relation to his status as a single father during the 80s shortly after his wife apparently took most of the family funds, went off on holiday and finally left him with the kids. He brings them up; having to explain periods and all.

One of the more joyful scenes involves a father being alone for the first time with his new-born. Just the two of them in the early morning and he literally takes flight to call out to all and sundry and maybe Mother Nature herself, ‘THIS IS MY SON!’

Many studies do, of course, highlight the fact that kids with involved fathers benefit. They’re less likely to be criminals, more likely to delay sex, do better in school, stay at their job longer and are less likely to gender stereotype. These benefits are there whatever form the father figure takes i.e. grandfather, stepfather and presumably 2 fathers.  In contrast, when kids feel rejected by parents, they’re more likely to be hostile, emotionally unstable or have low self-esteem.

Research is also a theme within the performance. The stories are gathered by Frantic Assembly, a team of 3 performer/researchers, whose role is explicitly challenged throughout the performance by the constant questioning of one of the interviewees (played by an actor). What will you do with the stories? Will you make money out of this? Are we going to see any of this money? Why are you doing this anyway? Though a plot device which sees the interviewee finally rejecting to take part at all, the question resonates. What will happen to these stories after Manchester International Festival? Where are those fathers now? Can their stories be used for even greater benefit i.e. comparisons with fatherhood in its present form or as an introductory text to fatherhood for high schoolers? The show covered key themes which might benefit young people especially. Each tale beginning somewhat wistfully with the question, ‘What is your first memory of your father?’  

One tale queries how fathers speak to their children with the father telling a young child to f-off in a moment of anger. Even when forgiven, he takes the time to tell his daughter that no one, not even he, has a right to speak to her in that way ever. An unseen father does not respond well to his son’s mental breakdown at university.

All of these stories broker the path that many men, young or old, will take over time so perhaps the most stimulating query that Fatherland engenders is simply this. With all the evidence in support of involved fathers, why are there still so few occasions and creative performances/plays etc that explore, celebrate or focus on fatherhood singularly? Like single fatherhood in the 80s, is discussing fathers and fatherhood somehow not seen as fashionable today? (RY)

- Reina Yaidoo

Links Relevant to this diagnosis:

Fatherland - MIF 2017

The Science of Dad: Engaged Fathers Help Kids Flourish

Why Dads Matter According to Science - USA Today

Dads Play a Key Role in Child Development