If you’ve read his memoirs from 2019, My name is why, it’s hard when you meet Lemn Sissay not to feel an immediate connection with him, to have the impression of knowing him. After all, he shared much of his traumatic childhood – in foster care from the age of 12 after his Ethiopian mother was forced to abandon him, then in the hands of four different nursing homes until at the age of 18.
But then, as now, there is not the slightest self-pity, and Sissay, a poet, writer and broadcaster, who received an MBE for Literature Services in 2010 and became Chancellor of the University of Manchester in 2015, speaks with disarming honesty. It also bounces back with an energy that comedian Steve Coogan, an old friend of his time in Manchester in the 1980s as an artist and activist, once called “almost manic.”
We get together to talk about the Brighton Festival, which opens on May 1st. Sissay was slated to be the guest director of the 2020 event, which was canceled for obvious reasons, and he is reprising his role with an almost entirely new line-up. The first UK public art festival to be held since the pandemic, it includes 94 events, some of which, assuming a further easing of lockdown rules on May 17, will be held indoors.
The theme is care, and what’s more topical? And for Sissay, that has a special resonance: he once described care as “a one-word oxymoron”.
“Care is a one-word oxymoron, ”he says emphatically. “At least in my case it was. But there is a lot of healing that works. Take Jackie Kay, the makar [poet laureate] from Scotland – adopted and the care worked for her. It’s just that when it doesn’t, it’s pretty catastrophic.
Care in the NHS is part of the Brighton Festival program in the form of a discussion between Sissay and his fellow poet Michael Rosen. A former guest director of the festival, Rosen recently published a book about the care he received at the hospital where he spent several weeks recovering from Covid-19.
The big difference between last year’s program and this one is the live element. Last year reportedly included many African artists – Amadou and Mariam from Mali, among them Ethiopian jazzmen from the homeland of Sissay’s mother. Did he feel compromised in virtually hosting some of this year’s events? “There is no virtual reality at the moment,” he says. “There is only reality. Our lives are online, and it’s an emotional connection as much as a professional connection. “
Since we of course meet remotely, this is an interesting point. “This year we’ve had all of our festival meetings on Zoom,” he says, “which I think is a real medium. You arrive in my place. It’s quite a trick.
Sissay hosts an event, “Tell Me Something About Family,” in which he invites the audience to reveal something about himself. Taken from the 2020 festival (one of the few events there is), it will take place this year virtually. “This is a really good example of where the online world meets the offline world – this is where they kiss.”
Given his past, family is a topic that comes up time and time again. Isn’t he worried that this could open up a whole box of worms? “I can’t wait to be there,” he insists. “I really want to know the family from the inside out. Glad it’s online, although I couldn’t wait to see the people in the eye and hear the testimonials and the humor – it doesn’t have to be sad. It could be your favorite vacation as a kid, or your favorite Christmas present, or a saying your grandpa said you thought everyone used it, but nobody used it. made. ”
His plan is to write something inspired by it. “I’m going to interweave the stories and produce a poem. We’re also building an online map where people can stick a pin and say they’ve spoken – they can do it anonymously if they choose – and hopefully light up the world with stories about family. ”
He is also delighted to see Ray Lee’s “Starting Points”, a park of light sculptures in the industrial waste of Shoreham Harbor. “That says it all about the festival – go out, go out at night, see something you’ve never seen before in the night sky and bathe in wonder. We need these experiences.
Other events he chooses include “Herstory,” an audio storytelling experience that will take place across the city, celebrating the invisible women of local history. “Yolk and Aliens” includes three films about the family of Jane Horrocks, who take control of a retail space in the Lanes for use as a “memory store”. Meanwhile, the mainstays of the Blast Theory festival return with an immersive app-based experience called ‘Rider Spoke’, in which the ‘public’ rummages through Brighton’s hidden corners by bicycle to find the perfect spot to hide a secret.
Another highlight is “Arrivals + Departures”, a work by Yara + Davina, in which the audience gives the names of arrivals (births) and departures (deaths) which are then projected onto what looks like an airport sign. . This is only until the end of the first week, after which Sissay will be filmed on a British Airways ‘flight’ in Brighton’s i360 observation tower, reading some of the entries.
Not surprisingly, written and spoken words occupy an important place in the program. Sissay invited Jacqueline Wilson to speak online – children’s author whose most famous creation, Tracy Beaker, grows up in care, while The unloading area, now in its ninth series, tells the story of a group of young people in a retirement home. “It launched a whole cultural phenomenon on the young people in care,” he says.
As a judge for the Booker Prize last year, he drew on the list of writers who participated, including American Kiley Reid, author of Such a fun age, as well as Maaza Mengiste, of Ethiopian origin, who is part of the literary program of the festival.
What was it like to be a Judge Booker? “Horrible!” he leans back with a deep laugh. “No, it actually got me through the first six months of foreclosure.”
As we discuss Booker winner Douglas Stuart, author of Shuggie Bath, his smile is replaced by a look of pain. “Why haven’t I invited Shuggie Bain?” Well, he’s got enough gigs right now.
Sissay speaks of the Brighton Festival with an almost childish wonder. “A festival is a giant playground, asking people to remember when you were playing, when you used to run around the playground and do things. It’s a giant arch, with lights on, sounds, songs, and testimonies, and we’ll walk through that arch in a post-pandemic world in color.
It’s an uplifting metaphor, and walking through this arch is something we can all look forward to.
Brighton Festival takes place May 1-31; brightonfestival.org