Thursday, 14 March 2013

In conversation with Benjamin Zephaniah and Lemn Sissay at West Yorkshire Playhouse

words by Kate Scott,
audio interview by Jon Cronshaw,

Throughout March, the play Refugee Boy is being performed on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The book Refugee Boy was originally written by writer, dub-poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah. Award-winning poet and playwright Lemn Sissay has taken up the challenge of adapting this raw and thought-provoking novel and translating it into a stage performance.


Refugee Boy is the story of a young African who is brought to England by his father, only to be abandoned and left in the hands of the British care system as a refugee.



The story is strikingly similar to Lemn Sissay’s childhood which makes the collaboration even more significant. Lemn Sissay was born in England to African parents, but his mother fostered him and returned to Africa. Lemn then experienced the struggles of being a young boy in care until he was old enough to search for his birth family.

West Yorkshire Playhouse provided a rare opportunity to see both Zephaniah and Sissay in conversation and listen to their stories behind the book and adaptation as well as answer audience questions.

Their talent and charisma was evident throughout the conversation and the whole audience left feeling inspired and moved by the heart-warming discussion that had been witnessed.

Benjamin Zephaniah began the discussion by telling the audience where his idea to write the novel had originated. He said that after speaking to a young refugee boy struggling to adapt to life in England, he found out that he was traumatised from witnessing the slaughter of his parents in Sri Lanka. Benjamin described how he helped the boy by listening to his story and explaining the difficulties to his teachers so that they could be more understanding towards his situation. This young Sri Lankan refugee inspired Zephaniah to write his novel the Refugee Boy.

Lemn Sissay recounted the challenges of immigration in today’s society. He described how migration is a completely normal aspect of human nature and that being against immigration is unnatural because we all experience migration throughout our lives - a child migrates from the womb when they are born. A person experiences migration when they move from a village to a town just as a spaceman experiences migration when he travels to the moon.

Lemn described how Benjamin Zephaniah had magnified the issues of immigration in his novel Refugee Boy, and that he himself had managed to stay faithful to its sentiments while adapting it to stage.

Although the book is similar in some ways to Lemn’s own story, it is not directly imposed from his own experience. He describes how the team at West Yorkshire Playhouse fully supported him throughout the entire writing of the adaptation.

Benjamin Zephaniah and Lemn Sissay


 After listening to the entertaining discussion between the two writers the audience were then given the chance to ask questions.

The first question was from a member of the Refugee Council in Leeds. She asked the writers what inspired them to write.

Benjamin described how he enjoys telling stories and has a love for words. After witnessing injustice, racial hatred and sexism he felt as though he could change people’s minds through poetry. He acknowledge that he cannot change the world, but that he can change the minds of individuals who can go on to make a difference.

Another member of the audience asked which book he most enjoyed writing. He describes all his books as being different, but that he didn’t really have a favourite. He added that he is excited about his most recent novel which deals with the controversial subject of youths and terrorism.

Another question came from a woman who works with adopted children. She asked Lemn what advice he had to offer to people searching for their birth parents. Lemn described how wanting to search for your birth family is completely normal, but that also not wanting to find your birth family is also completely natural. He said the process is a“long, emotional and biblical journey,” and that you can’t expect not to be hurt or for things not to change. He stressed the importance of building a strong relationship with the adoptive parents before embarking on such a journey. He added that he has now found all his birth family, and that they are just as dysfunctional as everyone else’s.

Benjamin was asked about the transition of his novel into a play. He told the audience that he didn’t need to interview Lemn as there was already a mutual trust between them. He described how he likes his work to reach out to everyone, and that there may be many people who see the play that have never read the book. He added that he likes to keep his poetry and writing work alive through performances on both television and at various youth centres. Lemn agreed, and said that being able to reach out to people was his drive to carry on writing.

Both writers were asked what age they began writing. Lemn joked that he began writing in his mother’s womb - he texted her and asked for a pen so he could write on the placenta! He said that becoming a writer was meant to be.

Benjamin noted how he struggled with dyslexia and didn’t actually learn to read or write until he was in his twenties. He also encouraged anyone who struggles with dyslexia that is doesn’t matter when you start writing. If you have an idea then you have a story to tell. You can still change the world and change the way you are viewed and become liberated. He added that governments around the world imprison writers and burn books to kill their ideas, but that it is the ideas in your mind that can never be killed.

Overall, the discussion was empowering and enlightening. West Yorkshire Playhouse are offering us the chance to see this powerful novel brought to life on stage by director Gail McIntyre throughout March. There are also a number of events being held in conjunction with the play including a programme called Welcoming the World which involves community and education projects coming together to celebrate diversity.

On Saturday 16th and 23rd of March there will be a number of school performances, as well as exhibitions and stalls selling a variety of food, art and crafts. There will also be drumming workshops as well as dance and choir performances. These events will be an amazing opportunity to witness a whole range of cultures showcasing their talents.




Refugee Boy is being shown at West Yorkshire Playhouse until March 30.

West Yorkshire Playhouse. Benjamin Zehpaniah. Lemn Sissay.

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