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.
In 1984, YES! Publisher Fran Korten worked alongside Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Soetoro, at the Ford Foundation’s office in Jakarta, Indonesia. Ann’s daughter, Maya, who was 14 at the time, attended the Jakarta International School with Fran’s daughters, Alicia and Diana. Maya was recently in Seattle preparing for the launch of her new children’s book, Ladder to the Moon , and Fran talked with her for the first time in 27 years. The book is a tale of Maya’s daughter Suhaila’s adventure with her grandmother Ann, who died in 1995, long before Suhaila was born. In the storybook, grandmother and grandchild climb a ladder to the moon where together they look back at the Earth. As they see tragedies unfold, they reach back to help. The book, launched in April 2011, is illustrated by Yuyi Morales, and published by Candlewick Press. Fran talked with Maya about the book, her life, and her reflections on her mother and her famous brother.
Fran Korten: This is your first book. What inspired you to write a children’s book?
Maya Ng: In 2008, I was campaigning for my brother and had a bit of down time because my husband was taking care of Suhaila, who was then 3 years old. So I was in Chicago in the basement of my brother’s home, and I thought to myself, if my brother can risk the enormous rejection [of possibly not being elected], then I can risk the much smaller rejection of not having anyone pick up my book. I became emboldened. I think the campaign resulted in a lot of people, not simply relatives, being emboldened to try new things. It was a very fruitful time.
One could also say that the book was born years earlier. When I was pregnant with Suhaila, I came across some boxes that Mom had saved for me that said “for Maya’s children.” They contained my childhood toys and books. Seeing them filled me with sadness that she wasn’t there to share this time with me. In a way it was like losing her all over again.
My daughter was born in 2004, just a couple of months before my brother made his speech at the Democratic National Convention. I suddenly had all of these new questions. So this was when I began imagining what my mother would have been like with her grandchildren and what they would have gotten from her.
Korten: Have your children read this book?
Ng: Yes, I’ve read it to them. In fact Suhaila, who is now 6, helped me with a couple of the ideas. The orphan children leaping up like flying fish—that was her idea.
Korten : How does your other daughter, Savita, feel about her sister being in this book?
Ng: She doesn’t know it’s her sister because she is 2 and can’t read, so she thinks it’s her. She points and says “That’s me.” Then Suhaila says, “No, that’s me,” and she gets very upset. I’ve got another book in the works. It’s a young adult novel entitled Yellow Wood, based on the Robert Frost poem—two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and we took the one less traveled, and that made all the difference. In that book the main protagonist’s name is Savita. I joke that I can’t have another child without another book contract.
Korten: Ann is, of course, grandmother to Barack and Michelle’s children, Malia and Sasha. Have they read the book?
Ng: Yes, they have. They liked it, though they have not seen the version with the illustrations. I had received that version at Christmas, but we had so much going on I forgot to bring it. My brother’s book had just come out, so we talked more about his book. At Christmas several families and old friends join us—there’s about 13 children in this group. It’s a wonderful opportunity for my brother to be precisely who he has always been. He can completely relax. He even connects with high school friends.
Korten: In the book, why did you have the grandmother and grandchild go to the moon?
Ng: Mom loved the moon. She would wake me up in the middle of the night to go gaze at the moon. I named my daughter Suhaila because in Sanskrit it means “the glow around the moon.” So it was in honor of my mother. Part of why she loved the moon was that for everyone it was the same. Maybe they were looking at it at a different time of day, but if it was a new moon for you, it would be a new moon for me.
So the moon became a symbol of connection in that way. The main message of my book is that we are interconnected, that we can help one another, that our actions have an impact on others. So why don’t we act to impact one another benevolently instead of adversely? I wanted the moon to act as a place where everyone could gather, since it is the same for everyone. It’s a very calming force. I think of the moon and the tides—there’s sort of a sweet earthly caress that takes place through the water. So I thought of the moon as a place of sanctuary, as a place of healing and a reminder to all of us that we share the same space. Even though it feels like we are far away, we are in fact united and connected.
Korten: If you think of a 5-year-old reading this book, what do you hope the child gets out of it?
Ng: I don’t imagine children of that age reading this for the first time by themselves. I think it can be a means for parents to have conversations with their children about the people who came before them, people perhaps who are gone.
I was thinking of specific things when I wrote about worlds and languages lost and about natural disasters, strife, and trembling towers. But I don’t name them because I want the book to be relevant for many years to come—to others who will have their own events. I want parents to be able to choose whether to use this book to talk to their children about the fact that bad things happen—people did lose their lives with this tsunami or that quake.
I wanted the images to be neutral enough that parents could simply say that sometimes life is hard. And if you have the power to make others feel better and if you are loving and kind, what does that mean? What does that look like? I think it’s an opportunity to have conversations about empathy, about caring, and about humanizing traits that we want to develop in our own children. And perhaps giving kids a place where they can safely ask questions about things that have happened. But not every parent will feel comfortable talking about that with a 7-year-old. So a parent or a teacher can choose. I’d love for this book to be used in elementary schools as well.
Korten: 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?
Mom loved the moon. She would wake me up in the middle of the night to go gaze at the moon. I named my daughter Suhaila because in Sanskrit it means “the glow around the moon.”
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.
Maya Soetoro-Ng with brother Barack and mother Ann. Photo from Maya Soetoro-Ng.
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.
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.