Saturday 18 April 2009

'sacred stories'

Dreams From My Father
by Barack Obama

I believe it may have been the knowledge that the previous incumbent at the White House (you know the chap, eyes too close together, can't speak) had named The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a favourite book from his childhood, even though it was actually published when he was almost 23, that led me to feel so elated when reading just the preface and introduction to this book. Not only can Barack Obama write a book but he can write (Let's avoid the controversy of ghost-writing and Bill Ayers aside for the moment). I didn't fancy the straight politics of The Audacity of Hopeand so plumped for the book which many had placed in their books of the year lists for 2008.

My reason for wanting to read it was less a prurient interest in his life, more a wish to see why I had the impression that this was a strong, centred man of conviction and integrity. Was he just a fantastic orator or was there something personal driving all of this. There is a fair amount of debate about what is included in the book and what is missing, so much so that I believe someone has written some kind of corrective or riposte to paint a fuller picture, but I have to say that I was amazed at the frankness with which he deals with some of his failings or potential political embarrassments. No 'I smoked but didn't inhale' or 'I inhaled but didn't enjoy it' for him, oh no. He smoked, inhaled, enjoyed, got bored, moved on. It must be fun watching your political foes trying to fashion dynamite from a damp squib like that.

As the title suggests this is a book which has at its centre a relationship between a father and son, or rather a lack of one, for apart from one occasion Obama Sr. is an absence rather than a presence. But this is not a tale of a man left drifting with no father figure to provide guidance, 'Even in his absence his strong image had given me some bulwark on which to grow up, an image to live up to, or disappoint.' Obama's mother is shown to be a huge driving force in his life (he mentions in the preface that having lost his mother after the publication he wished in many was that he had written a book about the person who was there for him), this graphically illustrated by their lifestyle when living in Indonesia. Five days a week he was woken at 4am for three hours of home tutored English lessons before school itself. When he complained she made it clear that 'This is no picnic for me either, buster.'

Even from a 'broken family' background Obama is instilled with a strong moral grounding, and his racial education comes on the melting pot island that is Hawaii. It is with confusion that he confronts his blackness having been instilled with the confidence that he can be whatever he chooses. It is his friend Ray who explains that 'We were always playing on the white man's court...by the white man's rules', a lose/lose situation where the white man had all the power, even the power to influence what you held to be 'black'. Even when he attempts to find solace in the writings of Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois, he is defeated: 'In every page of every book... I found the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect.'

During his higher education we get to see a first glimpse of that speech making persona. As part of a demonstration at the plight of South Africa he is to play the part of a speech maker who will be silenced and taken away by figures in sunglasses. Enjoying this moment of singular attention he realises as he is bundled away that he 'really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause. I had so much left to say.'

His real development comes when he goes to work in Chicago as an 'organiser', a term with a fitting looseness (if that isn't oxymoronic) given the wide scope of issues which require organising. It is also here that he meets Jeremiah Wright and Obama's description of one of his sermons (which provided him with that title, The Audacity of Hope) is written with clear admiration for a man who would later threaten to derail his journey to the White House. Again, the honesty to write about a lack of faith, to make clear that he is not a religious man in a country which holds religious observance to be so critical, is staggering. is most important development personally is what he learns about what is required to be a leader. His exposure to the lives of real people with real problems brings with it the dawning realisation that

'...beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.'

He begins to share more about his own personal story but like any child with a void or absence in their lives Obama has built up a construction of himself which may rest on shaky foundations. This in part drives his journey into the final third of the book, a trip to Kenya and into the past of his own family. Here, predictably, things become more chaotic. A family which seems to extend further and further on examination means that he is soon covered in relatives, competing claims for his attention or help and even conflict between different 'wings' of the family. But despite how far away his life is from this original ancestry, both literally and culturally, he picks up on a phrase, 'home-squared' - your ancestral home which is held above even the vast mansion you may actually live in - which shows why gains so much from this trip. In a moment of ancient storytelling we hear from his grandmother, who tells the whole story, filling in the gaps and giving Obama the knowledge which will complete his own story.

All my life I had carried a single image of my father, one that I had sometimes rebelled against but had never questioned, one that I later tried to take as my own. The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader - my father had been all those things. All those things and more, because except for that one brief trip to Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image, because I hadn't seen what perhaps most men see at some point in their lives: their father's body shrinking, their father's best hopes dashed, their father's face lined with grief and regret.

See what I mean? You can't imagine George W coming up with anything like that can you? (mind you with his father the comparison is perhaps unfair). The book is far from perfect. It feels a little long, with the section in Chicago dealing with some pretty dry politics which I found hard to really engage with. Perhaps my fatigue stopped me from enjoying the final section as much as I should have and stopped me from seeing the book as a whole in quite the triumphant light others have, but I find my positive belief in the man undimmed, intensified even. He really might be as impressive as he seems. What that actually translates into we will see and will be the measure of his presidency.


Anonymous,  18 April 2009 at 16:27  

Very interesting and perceptive review, Will. Given the parts that impressed you, I think you might find this Colm Toibin piece (from the NYRB) comparing Obama and Baldwin interesting.


William Rycroft 18 April 2009 at 23:30  

Thank you so much for that Kevin, a really interesting essay. That idea of realising more clearly who you are by travelling abroad is so important (and one of the reasons why travel is so important for broadening the mind).

There are many more things in there of note so I would encourage anyone reading these comments to follow that link above and read it too!

Anonymous,  19 April 2009 at 14:52  

I haven't read a lot of Baldwin and this NYRB piece has definitely got me primed to start reading him in a disciplined fashion. The other thing that I keep wondering about is how much Toibin's research and interest in Henry James (which produced The Master, among other writing) influenced his thesis about Obama and Baldwin. Whatever -- it certainly is a long way from Dick Cheney running the administration from a bunker somewhere.

William Rycroft 20 April 2009 at 13:17  

I haven't read any Baldwin or Toibin for that matter. How do you pronounce his name?

Anonymous,  20 April 2009 at 14:56  

I'll yield to a John Self opinion on pronunciation of Toibin (and I am missing an accent that I don't know how to pick off the Windows character map), but offer my version to see if it is close. I pronounce it "toy-bin", much as if he was named after a child's play box -- with the second syllable somewhat shorter than the container version. And, as dovegreyreader discovered last week, Canadian author Miriam Toews is pronounced "taves" not like the things on your feet.

From your reviews of other books, I think you would enjoy Toibin. The Master, his book about James, is probably best known and different from most of his work, which is what I call "good Irish". He has a new book out in a month or so -- Brooklyn -- which I am very much looking forward to.

William Rycroft 20 April 2009 at 16:23  

I'm a toy-bin man myself Kevin but I fear something far less obvious will be the case; toy-bean perhaps?

Anonymous,  20 April 2009 at 17:48  

Nice option, Will. We can only await an Irish person's correction.

John Self 20 April 2009 at 23:34  


It's pronounced, roughly, Toe-been, or just Toe-been. A similar structure can be seen in the female forename Róisín, which is pronounced Roe-sheen.

For those who care, I think that on a Windows machine you would press CTRL-ALT-o and CTRL-ALT-i respectively to achieve ó and í. On a Mac it's Alt-e followed by whatever letter you want to have that accent on top of it.

Anonymous,  21 April 2009 at 04:22  

Dilettantes? Really.

Is the "f" in Self articulated or silent?

Sort of French, like the condiment (that would be dilettantish), or more earthy, like the pottery from Holland. Either way, to thine own
Self be true, much like Obama or tor-bean, whom I will attempt to procounce but not spell correctly.

How easy it must be to be an actor and just get the pronouciation right -- pig-mail-y-un, if you know what I mean. Even worse than filling out the dumb Blogspot letters that are required to make a post on this highly democratic sitek but I digress, wry- (funny), croft (kind of an upper story).

William Rycroft 21 April 2009 at 21:21  

Blimey, what have I started? I should have realised from the Róisín clue, having once had a bit of a crush on Róisín Murphy from the band Moloko.

People know how to pronounce my name but seldom spell it correctly. I have seen some table reservations for everyone from Whycrost to Rafti (!)

And here I am debating names with two imposters; one masquerading as an Amis character and the other an international cricketer!

Anonymous,  22 April 2009 at 02:58  

It is only me, but I am going to start calling him "yon-sef" -- the L is silent. And if I am going to be cast as an international cricketer (I do quite like the notion) I may have to learn something about the game. As I recall, there is something about silly mid-off which I think fits my rather obscure personality.

William Rycroft 22 April 2009 at 12:07  

Yep, there's silly mid-off and silly point. What makes it silly is that you're right next to the batsman and stand a good chance of being hit by the ball.

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