Benjamin Zephaniah & Lemn Sissay In Conversation

Stuart Forward

Refugee Boy

It was on a somewhat dingy, monochrome Saturday afternoon in Leeds that I made the snap decision to leave the rugby behind and take my day in a slightly different direction. This decision took me to the depths of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s basement auditorium to attend ‘In Conversation: Benjamin Zephaniah and Lemn Sissay’, a discussion held in anticipation of the stage-adaptation of Zephaniah’s novel Refugee Boy.

As a quasi-veteran of ‘literary events’, the years have taught me to be a bit wary of writers ‘in conversation’. Few manage to avoid the pitfalls of talking for an hour about their ego or equally find themselves lost in academic wankery (technical term). Fortunately, what followed was an expansive, yet intimate discussion, exploring their individual creative processes and the often international dimension of influences that have steered their work, their lives and their readership for many years.

On entering the hall I was immediately struck by the freshness of the audience that had gathered to listen to these two writers speak. In stark contrast to the usual fare of well-meaning yet inevitably greying culture vultures of the older generation, the room was packed by a diverse and interested group of all ages and backgrounds. This mix of individuals affected by Zephaniah and Sissay’s work demonstrated the allure of the writers’ words and their success in engaging with an audience beyond the page. The reach of the play became further apparent as audience members stood up to testify to the importance of the novel’s staging in furthering their own charity work within the refugee community. The play’s run has given a cultural prominence to the struggle of immigration, previously unseen in the Yorkshire region.


The event launched the WYP’s production of Refugee Boy, as adapted by Sissay. It is a story about migration, arrival and the inconsistencies of home for an Ethiopian/Eritrean boy abandoned in London due to the political unrest of his home nation. Zephaniah opened the discussion with a touching yet disarming memory, as he related the experience that sparked the original novel. He recounted meeting a boy who was written off as a “trouble child” by his teachers, only to find out that he was in fact suffering from trauma, having seen his mother and father killed and desecrated in Sri Lanka.

Sissay spoke at length about the parallels and boundaries he faced when adapting the novel, both embracing and denying his personal background of Ethiopian/Eritrean descent and his childhood without birth parents, an experience which directly echoes the life of Zephaniah’s child protagonist Alem. However, he made clear that any accusations of autobiography were misplaced, as the resounding message of Zephaniah’s original work and Alem’s harrowing journey have been faithfully reproduced to find a fresh audience twelve years after its original publication.

The conversation hit upon the multi-faceted influences and cultures that have driven their lives and viewpoints, with Zephaniah having lived in more countries than I’ve had hot dinners. Having spent considerable time in Jamaica, Barbados, Yugoslavia, Britain and China amongst many others, alongside the small matter of having been kidnapped with Tim Roth in Ethiopia, Zephaniah’s outlook and influences are admirably international in scope. This viewpoint illuminates his words and anecdotes with a wisdom and vitality few of us can hope to replicate.

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However, there were inevitably jarring moments in the discussion, as Sissay somewhat awkwardly responded to a question about when he first started writing with a drawn out metaphor of scribbling on his mother’s placenta in the womb. Cue woman next to me quietly and unnecessarily trying to explain to her 6 year old son, through some quite dramatic, yanking hand gestures, what exactly a placenta was. It made for a very surreal few moments.

Nonetheless, the passion and talent the two writers have imbued Refugee Boy with was evident in this conversation, as they touched upon migration, adoption and childhood. Knowing Zephaniah primarily as a poet, with him having been on our screens and bookshelves since the early 80s, it was refreshing to see him talk passionately about his novel and its transformation to the stage. The talk came to mirror Zephaniah’s broader artistic impulse to bring his words to as wide an audience as possible. Just as he has become renowned as a great performance poet, taking words from off the page, directly into the hearts of his viewers, the staging of Refugee Boy promises to mimic this process, taking his work off the shelves of Oxfam Books into the imagination of a dynamic new audience, normally unaffected by literature.

The discussion has certainly whet my appetite for Refugee Boy and I would encourage anyone in the Yorkshire region to go see it. It has also reignited my love for Zephaniah’s work, meaning that I have spent the last hour trawling through his poetry on YouTube. It has been an hour well spent. You can find a couple of my favourites below. Enjoy.

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Refugee Boy is showing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from the 9th – 30th of March 2013. Get tickets via the box office on 01132137700 or book online at


About Stuart Forward

Recent graduate living in Leeds. Lover of the Caribbean, obscure books, beer and things people don't give a toss about. Aspiring publisher. Wannabe Belgian. @StuForward