In Conversation with Lemn Sissay

Interview by Joe Fuller

The much-loved British and Ethiopian poet, playwright, broadcaster and speaker, Lemn Sissay MBE returns as our Guest Director this year. 

We have a quick chat with Lemn to find out more about his new project Tell Me Something About Family, the importance of storytelling and the theme of ‘care’.

Lemn, how does it feel coming back as guest director for the second time and doing it all over again?

Really, this is my first Festival because 2020 was cancelled. I’m honoured that the Festival team – after having worked with me last year and having seen the entire Festival cancelled – said that they wanted to work with me again. The answer was a hands-down ‘yeah!’. 

Where did the idea come from for your Brighton Festival project, Tell Me Something About Family?

I’ve never had a family. I was fostered for a short period of time and then I was brought up in children’s homes. I found my birth family, who were located all around the world. I met my mother maybe 15 times and my brothers and sisters maybe five or six times, but I never met my father. I’ve never had that relativity, so I’d like people to share something about their family with me and what it means to them.  

Lemn Sissay sits infront of a dark background, lit up with many sparkling star-like dots

Tell Me Something About Family

7 May - 6 Jun 2021

Light up Lemn’s interactive map with stories, phrases…


What kind of things would you like people to share with you?

It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a memory from childhood. It could be a phrase that your father used to say that you thought everybody said, but you discover they don’t! It could be the smell of your mother’s cooking. The more detail the better but something that represents family to you. It could be something good, or bad.  

It’s all going to come together on a new website, and I want to gather as many memories as possible so that they collectively become part of a bigger online family.  

Why do you think these stories are important to share?

Even if we are physically a long way from family, as many people have been throughout this pandemic, we have become closer to family and our relationships with them, whether good or bad. We have considered what family is, and who matters. Your comment might be ‘my family is my best friend: they were with me when I was ill’. It can be whatever your interpretation of family is. There is something beautiful about hearing people speak honestly about the things that really matter. We have learnt in this pandemic that family really matters.  

Can you tell us more about the theme for this year’s Brighton Festival?

Care. As we walk gently out of lockdown into our ‘new normal’, care has got to be what we take, for ourselves and for the other people that we meet. When we go out to events, or when we engage with online events, it’s important that we care for ourselves and tread carefully, but with joy. That’s what I want to happen at the Festival. Care is the word that we want to see in every event that we do. That could just mean ‘go and enjoy yourselves, you deserve it’. 

But remember that we haven’t experienced this amount of art for a whole year. We need to be careful. Our senses are gonna be alerted! We will all be reminding ourselves of how important it is to engage with each other. Enjoy these experiences and take them as an action of self-care. 

Finally, what are you excited about seeing or experiencing at Brighton Festival this year?

The author Jacqueline Wilson is really important to me because she brought children in care right to the heart of popular culture in children’s writing with her character Tracy Beaker. She’ll be doing an online talk about her new book, The Runaway Girls. Another great storyteller is the poet and singer Eliza Carthy performing with her 80-year old father Martin and some really special guests at Brighton Dome. We’ve got Chineke! Chamber Ensemble coming to perform classical music. And the actress Jane Horrocks is presenting a film about her own family, Yolk and Aliens, in a shop in Dukes Lane and I’ll be doing a live in-conversation with her which I’m really looking forward to.