Interview Lemn Sissay

By Alula Abadi Amdu, September 01, 2019

Lemn Sissay’s name has been one of the household names in the global literary and creative industry for several years now. This incredible man who started from humble beginnings as a troubled young man searching for his lost family has risen to become a leading literary personality with 9 books and 7 plays under his name. What’s more, he was the Official Poet at the 2012 London Olympics, Winner of the 2019 PEN Prize and Chancellor at the Manchester University. As a man of Ethiopian heritage, Lemn frequently visits Ethiopia where he makes public appearances and gives speeches. LinkUp’s Alula sat down with him in his most recent visit, to chat with him about his life and writing career. Enjoy the interview.


Do you believe in divine inspiration in your writing process?

I do believe that if we look carefully at the world around us we can be inspired by it. So, I do believe that I need to be inspired to be able to write and be able to live creatively, but I also believe that… that is available to everybody.

Do you think that someone could be a good writer if they have difficulty accessing their emotions?

Sometimes being a writer can be hard anyway. I know writers who do not express their emotions in the way that I do, but they write brilliant books. So, you don’t have to be an emotionally explosive person to be a writer. You just need to do the action of writing and discovery.

What authors/s or literary work/s do you think had the biggest influence in your writing career?

So, I am inspired by writers all the time. Writers who write academically as well as writers who write creatively. When I learn Amharic, I will be able to read Bewketu Seyoum, who I enjoy and Ephrem Seyoum who I also enjoy. Ephrem is more spiritual-minded and Bewketu is more politically charged. Those are two but there are many more like…. Meaza Mengistu. Meaza actually has a new book coming out soon and she lives in New York. I’m looking forward to that. 

You have started from humble beginnings and have gone as high as becoming the first Chancellor at Manchester University with African roots. How tough was that journey?

Success to me has always been the ability to look in the mirror and know that I’m OK. I am from a harsh childhood; I lost all of my family, spent my adult life searching for them, and I found them all over the world. I understand what success is. Success is…. being kind to yourself and to the people around you. Success is being able to tell your truth within pretty much everything that you do. Success is being able to connect with people on a one on one basis. I’m afraid that for me success has never been an award or an accolade, but I must now admit that I am successful in all areas. Successful as a writer, as a broadcaster and so on. But that’s not to say I walk around thinking I am a success because actually when it comes to what I really wanted in life, to be able to find my family find my people and finally be at peace with myself, I am more successful now than I have ever been. 

Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym?

No. They stole my name as a child. I only found out what my name was at the age of 18. So, I was basically saying, now that I know my name it may seem strange to you but call me BY MY NAME. Because it was the only thing I had got at 18. No family no sisters no brothers. I didn’t know their names, didn’t know who they were but I had a birth certificate and it told me my name was Lemn Sissay, my mother’s name was Yemarshet Sissay and that I was from Ethiopia.

One of the many issues writers are challenged in is balancing between the urge to write like someone they idolize and keeping the originality of their own style. How do you tackle this balance issue?

I mean……. I have always pursued my own voice. Let me explain it like this…. If a man who works with wood; like a carpenter or a businessman; when he makes a chair, he doesn’t ask everyone to sit on the chair to see if it fits them. He has to make the right chair for him. The audience can be so vast and it’s hard to understand what they want completely, so I follow my voice and my own path.

We hear a lot about your past. What things in your past do you think are the pillars of who you are today?

I would say that I am not defined by my scars but the incredible ability to heal. That is everything to me. We are all healing, and this is the miracle of nature. It is how you pick yourself up and how you accept yourself for who you are rather than who you’re supposed to be. Who you are is who you should aspire to be. How can I be the best I can be. I had been very angry, and I believe anger is an expression in the quest for love. It’s a natural thing. I had my family stolen from me, and so I reserve the right to be angry. But bitterness rocks the vessel that carries it. And so does cynicism. Cynicism will eat away at us and kill us. Anger is something you work through. Not around, not under…. I believe anger and love are celebrations of being human. And so, whether we’re angry or in love, we are just in different degrees of love.

How hard/easy is it for you to embed your Ethiopian heritage in your work?

In my next book “My Name Is Why” …in the introduction… preface, the last line is… “…this is for my mother and father and my aunts and my uncles and for Ethiopians. I’m British, I’m Ethiopian, I’m from the north of England, I live in London, I’m suburban… I’m all of those things. I’m a collection of molecules, I’m a human being… all of these things and I have always been asked to choose. Are you this or are you that? What is your second name? where are you from?… I think we are from everywhere. I do consider myself a global citizen but I’ll tell you something, I am proud to be an Ethiopian. I am proud and honored. I have traveled around the world as a writer but I have been inspired by what is happening in Ethiopia than anywhere else in the world. The young writers… there seems to be something happening here. I mean it’s happening in other parts of the world but it’s happening here. I’ve been to Ras hotel. I’ve seen lots of people at the poetry reading. I have been to Fendika and what’s happening here is exciting. And it is the voice of the young writers which is exploding. There is more communication happening now than any point in human history and from the perspective of someone who’s been raised in England, most of the writing from Africa has been west African writing. But what is happening now… I was just at the East African literary festival for cultural studies and papers have been published by writers in Africa and the Arab world.

After all, is said and done, what do you think is the most important thing about being a writer?

I would say that creativity is not the monopoly of artists, and it is available to anybody. It could be the way a mother solves a problem for her child, it could be the way a person dresser or thinks. It’s not something that is far away from any of us its in all of us. We were not in a box to think out of the box. We are already creative. We need to pursue creativity and recognize it in our selves. That is to say, many of us can find our selves trapped in our way of thinking and the exploration of creativity allows us to disintegrate those walls. This is what makes writers brilliant and this is what makes them dangerous.

Do you believe in the existence of an Original Idea?

Every single morning, I write a morning poem that the criteria is that it’s never been said since the beginning of time. It’s like the 52-card thing. If you throw a deck of cards in the air and you put them back together, they will never have been in the same order. So any way, it’s a rhyming four lines and I do it every morning to describe the darkness, the light…. and how I’m feeling. So you can have consistent original thoughts and writing. The way to get to them is the more specific you can be, the better. I might write about the present prime minister and someone else might do the same and say you stole my idea. But the key is to dive deeper and be specific because it’s all about detail.

What was the biggest challenge you had to deal with?

It’s to understand that one of the things that hold family together are the secrets they can’t talk about.


Photos By: Courtesy of Lemn Sissay