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Obama’s Sister: What Our Mother Taught Us

Maya Soetoro-Ng reflects on her childhood with brother Barack, her own family and children, and how to keep everyone connected.
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Ladder to the Moon scan

The people in this book are drawn to be ethnically ambiguous. Did you have the illustrator, Yuyi Morales, do that on purpose?

Ng: Yes, I wanted to make sure that there were lots of people in the world who could look at the illustrations and say, “That looks like someone I know.” And I think Yuyi’s done that. The way my mom is portrayed, she could be Brazilian or Samoan or Egyptian. Creating someone who is universal reminds us that we all share certain fundamental traits by virtue of being human.

Korten: When I reflect on the work Ann did in the time that I knew her in Indonesia—with metal workers, batik makers, basket weavers, and leather workers, I realize her work was really about jobs. The Ford Foundation hired her to help answer the question, “How do all these people flowing into the cities from the rural areas make a living? What will be their jobs or livelihoods?” So it’s interesting that now her son is struggling with that same question—where are the jobs for people in this country? What do you think would be her advice to him, based on her long engagement with that question?

Ng: That parallel occurred to me as well. I don’t know for sure what she would say, but I think it would be much the same—looking at diversification of opportunity. In Indonesia, people were focused primarily on rice cultivation as the source of livelihoods. And she was saying, “Hey, don’t discount these other efforts. These cottage industries are very important in keeping this economy stable.” I think she would argue the same thing here—look at many points of entry. Yes, create jobs in new arenas—technology, alternative energy, exploration, environmental stewardship, climate, but also look back at things foundational to our country and offer to assist them in adapting to current situations. Adaptation is something that I think she would try to encourage so that older occupations wouldn’t necessarily need to die.

Korten: In 2009, for Mother’s Day, I wrote an article for YES! entitled “Would Obama’s Mother Be Amazed?” What is your answer? Would Ann be amazed that her son is president of the United States?

Ng: No, I don’t think she would be. I think that, like me, there would be moments when she would be sort of overwhelmed with the recognition that this is immense. That’s what happens to me sometimes. I’ll be sitting somewhere and look up and think “Wow—the forces impacting the world through my family are great.”

The fact that my brother became president is in keeping with his trajectory, his character. He was always a wonderful leader, he was always charismatic, and he was always ambitious. There were moments in his career when he felt his destiny resided in something larger than what he was doing at the time.

There was a moment when I walked into his office and said, “How are you?” And he said, “I feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.” I laughed at him because he was a law professor, he was consulting for a law firm, and he was a state senator. I said, “Only you would be doing all three of those things and regard yourself as an underachiever.” This was back in maybe 2003. So that indicated to me that there was something pulling him toward this place. So I’m not too surprised.

I think that he is well-suited for the job, because he’s so even-tempered. But he is a very private man in many ways. He likes meditative moments, and he likes long walks by himself. He doesn’t get those things. That’s, I think, the hardest part.

Ladder to the moon

Ladder to the Moon
by Maya Soetoro Ng
Candlewick Press
48 pages; $16.99

He is inclined to try to represent the largest possible constituency, to try to build bridges, even though there has been some backlash from people who are working only to bring him down. But the truth is, there are also a large number of people who were brought to a place of cooperation as a result of his example. I think his coolness, his fairness, his idealism, coupled with a certain pragmatism, make him well-suited to the job. I think all of those things were in evidence while Mom was alive and I think that she would have seen that it made sense for him to be where he is now.

Korten: So what’s next for you?

Ng: I want to finish my novel, but I’m not sure when. I am teaching social studies methods and a practicum at the college of education, and I supervise student teachers in the field. I do multicultural education and am also consulting for the East-West Center. And I have two kids, and I’m going to begin painting soon. So it’s hard to find time. I think, how lucky we are to be able to have all these choices.

Fran KortenFran Korten interviewed Maya Soetoro-Ng for Beyond Prisons, the Summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Fran is publisher of YES!


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