It's not hard to see why Lemn Sissay was the obvious choice to adapt Benjamin Zephaniah's teenage novel, Refugee Boy, for the stage. Zephaniah's book tells the story of fourteen year old Ethiopian boy who is forced to flee his homeland following a violent civil war in his homeland. As Alem and his father take flight to London, a litany of thwarted attempts at asylum and institutional red tape ensues.
While Sissay was born near Wigan in Lancashire, his mother too left Ethiopia for England. That was in 1966, when she was pregnant with Sissay, who, for most of the next two decades, was shunted from foster home to children's home by a care system that was bound by less explicitly hostile but equally bureaucratic measures.
By his late teens, Sissay was working with a community publishing company in Manchester, and by twenty-one had published his first book of poems. Tender Fingers in A Clenched Fist was a street-smart collection that could be said to have picked up the mantle of Birmingham-born Zephaniah, who, as the dyslexic son of a Barbadian mother and Jamaican father, published his first book, Pen Rhythm, in 1980 aged twenty-two.
The result of such umbilical cultural and artistic links can be seen in Gail McIntyre's West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Refugee Boy, which opens at the Citizens Theatre tomorrow night, hard on the heels of Glasgow Girls, an even more contemporary refugee-based play. As Sissay himself observes, since he took Zephaniah's story off the page, it too has led something of a nomadic existence.
“Theatre is a sort of refugee in itself,” Sissay muses. “It comes to a town, sets up home, and then leaves. Fortunately,” he stresses, perhaps thinking of some refugees unhappy experiences in transit, “there is a lot of love around this play.”
It's a love that was there from the moment McIntrye first suggested that Sissay write the stage version after recognising him as a kindred spirit, both of Zephaniah and Alem.
“Although I was born in the north of England,” Sissay says, “I'm both Eritrean and Ethiopian, and I'm the only professional writer in the country with that experience, so all these things seemed to fit.”
While this may be the case, it begs the question why Zephaniah, whose playwriting has gone hand in hand with his poetry ever since his first stage work, Playing The Right Tune, appeared in London and Edinburgh in 1985, didn't opt to do it himself?
“That's a serious question,” Sissay admits. “Benjamin is probably one of the five most famous black poets in the country, and is also respected as a thinker, so being asked to do something like that is an honour. Doing an adaptation is like a musical remix, so even though it was a bit scary, having watched Benjamin go from poet to novelist with this book that adults read as well as teenagers, I really had to inhabit it, and Benjamin just let me get on with it.
Sissay relates the art of adapting other people's work by way of an encounter with best-selling Australian writer Peter Goldsworthy.
“One of his short stories was made into a film,” Sissay explains, “and he said that to truly adapt a text, you have to disrespect the original and grab hold of it. It sounds terrible, but it's a creative exercise. You've got to tear it apart, find it's heart and grow a body around it.”
Like Zephaniah, Sissay draws inspiration from black writers such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Jamaican-born, Brixton-raised poet whose 1978 album, Dread Beat an Blood, did much to popularise both dub reggae and poetry as a performed form. If Zephaniah and the late Michael Smith can be said to be the next generation, Sissay and the likes of Jackie Kay, who was born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, have continued the tradition of a black English and Scottish poetic diaspora.
“Coming to Scotland was a rites of passage,” says the Canongate published author, who spent six of the twelve years he was in foster care in Scotland. “I was brought up in England, and was the only black kid in the village, and became other people's experiment. Race was more of an issue then than now. Boys would give me nicknames, spit on the back of my coat or just pick a fight. What hurt me wasn't just the personal racism, but also the institutionalised racism.
“Oddly, I always used to think Scotland was more racist than England, even though my grand-father was called Duncan Munro. Then I came up to the Edinburgh Festival when I was about nineteen, and I thought the people were so tuned in. I've never felt safer, and I realised that not all white people were racist. Then I went to Mayfest in Glasgow, and to St Andrews, and I realised that that the Celts really have it going on.”
Racism, however, still exists, as recent events in Glasgow testify to. These include the filmed abuse of a Nigerian busker by two white men which was broadcast in TV documentary, The Street, while a man was recently arrested for allegedly abusing Glasgow MSP Humza Yousaf, who was selling The Big Issue outside Queen Street Station.
“You could say racism is an act of insecurity,” says Sissay, “and its something every new generation of immigrants has to face, with some people from previous generations being prejudiced towards them. It's easy to slip into this attitude, and it's something you have to fight against. It's the power of art that can make us realise that.
“In Refugee Boy, Alem and his father are told that they're not one of us anymore, and aren't wanted here. That can happen on a turn of a button, and you become the enemy. These people haven't done anything wrong. They've just been born into a set of historical events they have no power over.”
The day before we talk, Sissay took part in an open forum that looked at the questions of race and diversity in theatre. The event was attended by 150 people, with speakers including former National Theatre of Scotland director Vicky Featherstone.
“It was such a warm, honest idea,” Sissay says, “and it reminded me that the idea of diversity is about appreciating the other, and being open to a person to make life better. Diversity's much bigger than being black or white, but is about the idea that the world is your oyster.”
Refugee Boy, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 12-15.
Lemn Sissay – A life in words
Sissay was born in Billinge, near Wigan, in 1967 after his pregnant mother left Ethiopia.
Sissay was put into foster care until he was twelve, when he was put into a children's home. These events are depicted in Sissay's 2006 play, Something Dark.
Aged eighteen, Sissay moved to Manchester, where he became a literature development officer at a community publishing co-operative.
Sissay published his first poetry collection, Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist, in 1988. His second, Rebel Without Applause, appeared in 1992, and was republished by Edinburgh-based publishers, Canongate, in 2000.
Sissay's first play, Skeletons in the Cupboard, was produced in 1993, and was followed by Don't Look Down and Chaos By Design, with the latter also produced for radio.
In 1995, Sissay made Internal Flight, a BBC documentary film on his life.
Sissay's play, Storm, appeared in 2002, while in 2006, Something Dark, which also appeared on radio, won the Race in the Media award from the UK Commission For Racial Equality.
A further volume of poetry, Morning Breaks in the Elevator, was published in 1999 by Canongate, for who Sissay edited The Fire People for their Payback Press imprint. Since then, Sissay has published The Emperor's Watchmaker in 2001 and Listener in 2008, as well as the play-scripts of Something Dark and Refugee Boy.
In 2011, Why I Don't Hate White People appeared onstage and on radio.
In 2010, Sissay was awarded an MBE, and in 2012 he was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics.
Sissay's adaptation of Refugee Boy first appeared in 2013.
The Herald, March 11th 2014