President's Sister Pays Homage To Mother In Children's Book
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Maya Soetoro-Ng, she's an educator and a mom. But her children never had a chance to meet her mother, who died a decade before her first child was born. So she wrote a fable to somehow try to connect the generations. It's called "Ladder to the Moon."
Ms. MAYA SOETORO-NG (Author, "Ladder to the Moon"): (Reading) One cool new evening Suhaila asked her mama, what was Grandma Annie like? She was like the moon; full, soft and curious, her mother responded. Your grandma would wrap her arms around the whole world if she could. Mama gave Suhaila a hug. You know, you have Grandma Annie's hands.
MARTIN: Grandma Annie was a woman named Stanley Ann Dunham who was also a scholar and a writer. And if that name sounds vaguely familiar, that's because Ann Dunham, Grandma Annie, was also the mother of our current president, Barack Obama. And Maya Soetoro-Ng is the sister of the president, and she's with us now from our studios in New York.
Welcome, thank you so much for joining us. Or welcome back, I should say.
Ms. SOETORO-NG: Thank you. It's so good to be back. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: And I'm saying welcome back because we actually had the opportunity to visit with you a little bit during the presidential campaign and I understand that you actually started writing this book during the campaign. Is that right?
Ms. SOETORO-NG: Yes, that's correct. I met so many people who were embarking on new artistic and expressive projects and I felt emboldened by their example, as well as that of my brother's because I figured if he was brave enough to run for president, I could probably be brave enough to try being a children's book author. So the first iteration of the book sort of unfolded in between campaign stops, between Iowa and New Hampshire.
MARTIN: Now, as I mentioned that this book is in part an effort to educate your own children about your mom, who they did not have a chance to meet. Have they been asking questions about her?
Ms. SOETORO-NG: A little bit. Suhaila had seen some pictures of Mom and had started to ask simple questions. But of course I had thought for many years about what our mother would have shared with not only my daughter, but the president's daughters. The questions therefore came mostly from me. I had some sense of the magnitude of the love and compassion and the wisdom and the curiosity that our mother would have given to Suhaila.
MARTIN: Could you just talk a little bit about your mother? Because of course she, really, if you think about what she did in the time in which she did it, seems like she was a pretty courageous lady.
Ms. SOETORO-NG: Yeah. I think that word applies beautifully to her. She was courageous in her work, in crafting a life made up of surprising raw material. She was someone who was tremendously imaginative, who was not content to do the prescribed thing. She, in her dissertation, was looking at cottage industries in Indonesia and was challenging some very well-known scholars and anthropologists. This was when she was a graduate student. And she was right, I think, and very brave to do so.
MARTIN: And just to clarify for those - when you talk about her dissertation, she married President Obama's father when she was a young woman, young college student, and then subsequently moved to Indonesia with your father.
Mixed-race marriages were not very common or as common then as they have become now. And I'm just wondering if you ever talk to her about some of her choices and how she did have the courage to go down a path that a lot of other people didn't or wouldn't - to move, you know, halfway across the world, you know, with her young child to pursue higher education, to kind of go against the grain. Did you ever talk to her about that?
Prof. SOETORO-NG: I mean, I did. I didn't do so with as much admiration and emphasis as I might today, because I don't think I had the benefit of perspective and didn't have as holistic an understanding. But what was clear was that she spent a lot of time in Kansas looking up at the big sky, at the shapes in the clouds, and dreaming about what would be found ahead and around the corner. And she was never frightened of the unknown.
And that part of her - the part that allowed her to embrace marriages with men from other parts of the world - is the same part of her that made her intellect so formidable and her spirit so broad, you know. She was - she really was very brave in all ways, emotional and intellectual.
MARTIN: And before we talk more about the book - and I know you've talked about this before. But what do you make of this ongoing debate about this whole question about where your brother was born and whether he is indeed eligible to be president of the United States under the Constitution? What do you make of that?
Prof. SOETORO-NG: I like to just point out the facts. And the facts are that he was born in the United States, that he is a U.S. citizen, that he has always been a U.S. citizen, that his birth was announced by papers in Hawaii, which was a state at the time of his birth. And that his birth certificate has been authenticated on numerous occasions by a variety of sources, including the Republican governor and administration who would have nothing to gain in fabricating in his favor. So it is clear these are the facts, and let's move on.
MARTIN: Once again, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with Maya Soetoro-Ng about her new book, "Ladder to the Moon." Ms. Soetoro-Ng is an assistant professor of education at the University of Hawaii. Yes, she is the sister of the president of the United States, Barack Obama. And her book is, in part, an homage to their mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, Grandma Annie in the book.
Tell me about the title.
Prof. SOETORO-NG: The title is actually based on a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. So it's not original in that sense. The painting was, in postcard form, given to me by our mother and placed on the wall of my childhood room with a thumbtack, and I really liked it. It was mysterious and beautiful, but also comforting. And it really was very simple - just a golden ladder with a crescent moon.
And mom loved the moon, and I think that's the reason she gave me the postcard. She loved to share the moon with me. She would wake me up at early hours of the day to go gaze at the moon. And she would share her thoughts and her feelings and her reflections with me under the moonlight, and she just thought it was so beautiful. But it was also powerful, powerful enough to impact the tides.
And it became, for me, later in her absence, a symbol not only of her - both her fullness and her strength - but also of, you know, the fact that the moon is a unifying force. It is everywhere the same, and it connects us. And it's light, and so I wanted in this book - which emphasizes our interconnectedness and our responsibility for one another - to, you know, have the moon be the central symbol.
MARTIN: And the book also talks about healing, is that people don't - they don't just go to the moon just to go, but while they're there, you know, they work to connect each other, to kind of reach out to people, to heal each other. And I just can't help but note that in the author's notes of the book, that you talk about how becoming a parent yourself made you think of your own mother with both intense grief and profound gratitude. And I can certainly understand that.
I mean, how - you know, to become a parent and not to be able to share that experience with a parent must be very, you know, profound. Did you feel a sense of healing, yourself, in writing this book?
Ms. SOETORO-NG: I really did. It's not something I anticipated. I wanted more to give something to my daughter. But as a beautiful side effect, I felt rather healed in the process. I got it. I understood her so much better when I became a mother. I understood her strength and her fear and her admonitions and her worries and all of that, and - because I had them myself. And suddenly, I wanted so much to let her know, hey, I understand and I not - you know, and I empathize. But I also wanted to be able to lean on her and ask her advice and find shelter underneath her arms.
And so it was with some sadness that I finally accepted that I couldn't do that. But it was with joy that I was able to sort of craft her fictionally in this child's book and think of her protective love and how it would manifest today.
MARTIN: Have you shown the book to your girls? What do they think of it?
Ms. SOETORO-NG: You know, I have shown the book to both girls. But I haven't talked about every theme in the book with them. Some of the themes are challenging. And, you know, it's a book that is meant to be shared, I think, in stages. I have spoken to Suhaila about some of the motifs. But she ends up using the book in whatever way she needs to at any given time.
So, at present, what she likes is the teacup. She likes the idea of having a tea party on the moon and, you know, sharing stories around a fire and, you know, some campfire songs and that sort of thing. And it's more, you know, sort of fun and magical, and that's good for now.
MARTIN: Maya Soetoro-Ng. She is the author of the new children's book "Ladder to the Moon," and she was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York.
Maya Soetoro-Ng, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. SOETORO-NG: It's was such a pleasure, once again. Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.