Refugee Boy: Lemn Sissay’s show hits Southbank Centre

BYLINE: Teju Adeleye

Lemn Sissay 4

The Weekender spoke to Lemn Sissay ahead his adaptation of Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy running at the Southbank Centre
‘This idea of migration is an interesting one’.

Lemn Sissay has the charming habit of playing with words and ideas as he goes. For him, migration isn’t just about people moving from one place to another, but rather it becomes an extended metaphor for the fact that life itself is in a state of constant flux. In this he locates the experience of refugees – not at all to simplify their experiences, but to universalise them: ‘we’re all refuges in one way or another. We all came from somewhere and went somewhere; we’re all looking to define our identity. We travel from the mother’s womb to open air, we have travelled outwards and have broken new ground, and we’ve travelled as people inside of ourselves, from child to adult. As a species we migrate as a celebration of who we are – I really believe that’.

We’re talking about migration because it’s a theme central to Refugee Boy, the acclaimed Benjamin Zephaniah novel that Sissay has adapted for the stage – following a successful touring run last year, the play returns to the London Southbank Centre from Feb 11-13.

Of taking the tale from the page to the stage Sissay confesses, ‘It took me 6 years between being asked to do it and actually doing it – it’s been a long journey because of work commitments and travelling’. On adapting the work of Zephaniah, his friend of 20 years, he continues ‘I just wanted to do a good job that he’d be proud of. I have a lot of respect for him as both a writer and a person, and that made me quite intimidated I think. A bit like doing something for someone in your family, like a big brother whose asked you do something, you know that if you do it badly, it will look bad’.

The tale follows the journey of Alem, half Eritrean and half Ethiopian, he’s visiting London with his father on what he thinks is a family holiday, before he waking up one morning to find himself alone in a foreign country. Overnight he becomes a refugee battling bullies in school, the asylum system in courts and a war that eventually claims both of his parents’ lives. It’s an endearing drama that tracks the protagonist’s path as he comes of age and supersedes all of the labels he is afforded in order to establish his own identity.

As part of the adaptation, Sissay sought advice from different writers, including Peters Goldsworthy. ‘I went to see an adaption of one his short stories into a film, and he said to make an adaptation work, you have to disrespect the text. That’s quite a big deal, you have to write it for yourself, you have to lose things – it’s like taking a track that’s already been a massive hit and remixing it’

The act of disrespecting the text must have taken on an additional degree of complexity as the similarities between the writer and central character are so uncanny, down even to their names – and in Lemn’s own words he felt like the ‘perfect person to write’ the adaptation. ‘My own personal journey has some similarities to the story of Alem’, he goes on, ‘but in many ways that makes it more of a challenge, because it’s important to translate the book, and not to…well maybe it’s okay to be inside it: I feel like I’m inside the adaptation’.

A few years ago Sissay filmed his story in the moving documentary Internal Flight, chronicling his own difficult journey through care homes and being fostered in the 70’s and 80’s, to playing detective with the few letters and certificates that would eventually help him trace his family, his heritage and even his name. Dealing with discrimination and prejudice therefore is familiar territory for Lemn, as for Alem, and furthermore: ‘His relationship to his parents is similar to my relationship with mine. The fact that Alem is from Ethiopia and Eritrea is similar, as I’m Ethiopian with a little Eritrean heritage. The sense of being utterly alone and parentless is one that I’ve experienced as well’

Rather than this state of isolation being the sole point of definition for Alem, it becomes the starting point for his migration into his own identity. Sissay points to the fixed presence of orphaned heroes in popular culture – from Moses to Oliver Twist. These characters because of their heightened outside status become the perfect embodiment for self-actualisation and resilience – both of which are perhaps the ultimate messages of both the text and Sissay’s adaptation.
‘My experience in care, may seem negative when you hear it, but is hasn’t damaged me and hasn’t been the making of me. I am the man that I was and Alem is the man that he is going to be: we’re constantly being challenged and constantly becoming who we are.’

When asked how his own experiences along with the adaption have shaped his understanding of what home means, he says simply: ‘home is where the art is’. Alem’s journey in crafting his identity when faced with the challenge of being consigned to the status of a faceless refugee makes his tale all the more powerful: ‘Alem is an interesting animal’ says Sissay, ‘he finds a lot of solace in stories and poetry: I think that what many refugees come to realise is that they are their own home’.

The tale also pertinently draws parallels between social outsiders, and those in need of care: ‘often the child of the state is without a state. If you’re a refugee, you find yourself in this no man’s land, and that’s a really original kind of experience: you’re not a citizen of any country, and therefore do you belong anywhere?’

It’s a timely moment to revisit the idea of cultural belonging – the word refugee features less and less in our lexicon – and in its place rhetoric has moved instead to the blanket, highly politicized term ‘immigrant’. When migration is top of the agenda in Westminster and the commentary of popular politics – having a tale that asks its audience to respect people’s individual narratives alongside difference is both necessary and poignant.

As Sissay points out: ‘I’m always amazed by how quickly people of all races will reject the idea of difference, or feel threatened by refugees, when everything in global religions and political systems is about helping others. Refugees offer us as a community the opportunity to be the best we can be: maybe some people are frightened of that opportunity’.

Refugee Boy is at the Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX, from February 11-13.