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Years After Death, Obama's Mom Gets Her Wish
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Years After Death, Obama's Mom Gets Her Wish

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GUY RAZ, Host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Dr. Ann Dunham Soetoro didn't live long enough to see her famous son forge his place in American history. President Barack Obama's mother died in 1995 at the age of 52 after a battle with ovarian cancer. In the updated version of his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," the president spoke movingly about the last decade of her life.

BARACK OBAMA: She had spent the previous 10 years doing what she loved: she traveled the world working in the distant villages of Asia and Africa, helping women buy a sewing machine or a milk cow or an education that might give them a foothold in the world's economy. She wrote reports, read novels, pestered her children and dreamed of grandchildren.

RAZ: That's President Obama reading from his memoir, "Dreams from My Father." His mother, Ann Dunham, was an anthropologist. Her fieldwork focused on the small craftsmen in a village in Indonesia. Now, nearly two decades after she submitted her dissertation, Ann Dunham's fieldwork has been published - a fulfillment of her dream.

The book is called "Surviving Against the Odds." And Ann Dunham's daughter, and President Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was the engine behind its publication. And Maya Soetoro-Ng joins me in the studio.

Thank you for being here.

MAYA SOETORO: Thank you, Guy. It's a pleasure to be here.

RAZ: Your mom's research centered around one small village, Kajar, on the island of Java in Indonesia. Describe what she was trying to find out.

SOETORO: Well, mom actually started out by looking at a number of different cottage industries. Her hypothesis was that in a time when people were looking at primarily wet rice cultivation when thinking about the economic development and stability of Indonesia, that there were a lot of cottage industries that were actually indispensible.

So she started off by looking at batik and tile making and weaving, and ultimately she decided to go with blacksmithing. And the village of Kajar is a blacksmithing village. It interested her, I think, because there were both utilitarian implements being forged there, but also the Indonesian sacred dagger, the Kris, which very often has a serpentine blade and has a rich cultural history and a significant place in the Javanese cosmos.

RAZ: Your mom was a classic field anthropologist. And I gather - I mean, you were a child through much of the time when she was doing this research in Indonesia. I gather at times you went into the field with her. Do you remember any sort of specific encounters?

SOETORO: I remember many specific encounters. I remember a lot of meals shared. I remember the ritual of taking tea. I remember time spent walking to the rivers. There is a part of her dissertation when she talks about this sort of sacred river, the bottom of which is this flat stone. And on this stone, you see the image of a dagger, the Kris, that is there basically as a result of natural color variations.

And, of course, the people of Kajar say that that is - you know, it's basically a divine blessing, that sort of thing. But I remember walking to this river. And recently, I thought, boy, it would be so wonderful to be able to go back to that river if ever I could find it again and try to find that flat stone. But the dissertation is wonderful because you really can picture it all.

RAZ: I know you and your brother, the president, were very close to your mother. Didn't this stir up a lot of emotions? I mean, it's a dissertation about, you know, this kind of esoteric topic. But did it, in a sense, stir up some emotions reading it?

SOETORO: Well, I mean, I think we both are so sad that she's not with us. I have two daughters and, obviously, the president also has two daughters. She really wanted grandchildren. She was never able to meet them. And certainly, the dissertation brought up emotions that I wish she had known that others would have the ability to read her work and to consider her suggestions.

But, of course, a lot of things have transpired in the last couple of years that have made me feel like it would have been nice to have her - more than nice. It would have been wonderful.

RAZ: What do you think your mom would have made of your success and your brother's success? She was, by and large, a single parent. I mean, the odds, the deck was stacked against you and your brother. You went on to achieve a Ph.D. in education. Your brother is the president of the United States. What would your mom have made of that?

SOETORO: You know, I don't know. She didn't necessarily anticipate who could have, that her son would become president of the United States, but she knew that he was going to do remarkable things, and that comforts me actually. I mean, when she died, I'm pretty sure that she was aware that he was going to be okay. And I think more than that, he showed her in ways large and small that he was interested in making the world better, that he was committed to the kind of service that she encouraged all of her life. And she also could see how charismatic he was, and what a capable individual and leader he was.

RAZ: Do you think it would've been strange for, I mean, somebody like your mom who was so far removed from the corridors of power, who was so connected to people on the ground in a really direct way, to see that happen?

SOETORO: Yeah. That it interesting that, you know, she spent time with people who were very, very poor and she didn't reside in those corridors of power. But certainly, the pageantry and the processes of being president would've held some anthropological interest for her.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Maya Soetoro-Ng is the daughter of Ann Dunham and the sister of President Barack Obama. She's just helped published her late mother's doctoral dissertation. It's called "Surviving Against the Odds."

Maya Soetoro-Ng, thank you for sharing the story of your remarkable mom.

SOETORO: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: And you can read an excerpt from Ann Dunham's book about what happened when the village she studied got its first television set. It's on our Web site, npr.org.

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