Benjamin Zephaniah's Refugee Boy steps on stage

By Ian Youngs
Arts reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Lemn Sissay (left) and Benjamin Zephaniah
Image caption,
Lemn Sissay (left) and Benjamin Zephaniah have been friends since performing together in the 1980s

Benjamin Zephaniah's novel Refugee Boy tells the story of a half-Ethiopian, half-Eritrean teenager seeking safety in the UK. It has now been adapted for the stage by fellow poet Lemn Sissay, whose own life has links with that of the boy in the book.

When Benjamin Zephaniah was asked about putting Refugee Boy on the stage by the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, he initially wanted a new local writer to be given the opportunity to write the script.

"I like doing that kind of thing and I liked the idea of someone from here doing it, somebody who's unknown," Zephaniah says.

"So they came to me with this bloke Lemn Sissay. I went, 'Him again?'"

The pair have been friends since appearing together on the performance circuit in the 1980s and are now sitting together, swapping affectionate put-downs and sharing laughs in a quiet corner of the theatre foyer.

"But seriously," Zephaniah continues. "Lemn called me and he said, 'This is my story, Benjamin. I've got to do this. It's so close to my experience.'"

Zephaniah, the elder by nine years, made his name as the "dub poet" who railed against racism and the ills of society in his Brummie-Jamaican patter at demonstrations and on the nascent Channel 4 in the '80s.

Image source, Keith Pattison
Image caption,
Actor Fisayo Akinade, 25, plays 14-year-old Alem on stage

Sissay is a well-established poet, playwright and documentary-maker who is half-Ethiopian and half-Eritrean but grew up in Lancashire.

He is an associate artist at London's Southbank Centre, an MBE and his Landmark poems have been etched onto locations ranging from the London 2012 Olympic Park to the side of a Manchester pub.

The pair are trying to remember exactly when they first met.

  • Lemn: "I just remember doing a gig with you once and you were just off a plane and the national newspapers were after you. It was right in the middle of a storm."
  • Benjamin: "I was being hounded."
  • Lemn: "I could see that you were shattered backstage."
  • Benjamin: "Was it over the Cambridge story or…"
  • Lemn: "It was before that."

The Cambridge story was when Zephaniah applied to be visiting fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1987. That prompted a poisonous editorial in The Sun newspaper with a picture of the poet and the headline: "Would you let this man near your daughter?"

The main objections were: "He is black. He is a Rastafarian. He has tasted approved schools and Borstals."

He (and we) have come a long way and he is now one of Britain's most popular and best-loved writers.

While still happily outside the establishment looking in (he turned down his OBE in 2003), he was voted the UK's third favourite poet of all time in a BBC poll in 2009, is chair of Creative Writing at Brunel University and has even been mentioned as a possible poet laureate.

Refugee Boy was his second novel and was written after he befriended a young Sri Lankan who had fled to London after witnessing both of his parents being shot.

"Day after day, I was listening to various refugees who'd come to Britain for one reason or another," he says. "I just noticed that they were getting younger and younger but their stories were getting more horrific.

"At the time in the media, there were a lot of things about refugees, but they always said something like 'bogus refugees' or 'fake refugees' or refugee statistics and I just thought, you know, behind all those statistics there's a human story."

Refugee Boy follows the fictional 14-year-old Alem, whose father is Ethiopian and mother is Eritrean, meaning they were persecuted on both sides of the border against the backdrop of the war in the late 1990s.

Alem's father takes him on what the boy thinks is a holiday to London, but abandons him there because he thinks his son will be safer in Britain.

Sissay shares the same parental roots as Alem, although he was born in the UK and brought up by foster parents and then in children's homes.

"What are the odds of finding a book to adapt that is of an Ethiopian Eritrean based in England?" he says. "That stuff is written in the stars."

The book has had an "amazing" reaction since its publication in 2001, Zephaniah says.

"It's usually one of two things. It's usually 'That's my experience, or I know someone who's had that', or 'I was ignorant and that enlightened me.' So on both levels it's doing its job."

In the mainly middle-class, middle-aged world of theatre, is it a rarity to have a play about and for young black people. Is this an attempt to redress the balance?

Zephaniah considers his answer before telling a story about his first novel, 1999's Face, which features a white teenager as its lead character.

"I knew people were expecting a black Brixton novel or something like that," he says. "And I did a novel about a white kid. I wanted to just show I could put a novel together.

"In a way, I really think there are not enough plays for young black kids.

"But I have to say, when I'm in my university, I see all these black kids who are teenagers and in their early 20s who say, 'I love Face.'

"I say to myself, the main character was a 15-year-old white kid, but they still connected with it. So intelligent black kids, just like intelligent white kids, will connect with human stories wherever they come from."

'Universal' message

For his part, Sissay replies that Refugee Boy has a "universal" message that appeals far beyond those who may relate to Alem.

"You can tell more about a street of people when somebody moves in who is not like everybody else on the street," he says.

"I will learn more about people's empathy, compassion, honesty, humanity from how they react to that person who can't speak their language. Therefore the story of the young refugee tells us about ourselves much more than Coronation Street."

Zephaniah had no reservations about letting Sissay loose with his novel, he says.

"I had confidence in Lemn because there's a conversation that somebody like me would have with somebody who is adapting the play, which is, 'I want to tell you what this play's really about.'

"I didn't have it with him. He just said to me, 'I know what this play is about.' I trusted him with it. I wouldn't trust him with my wallet. I wouldn't trust him with my girlfriend. But with my book…"

And the pair break into laughter again.

Refugee Boy is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 30 March.

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