In order to keep my hero-worship in check, I am going to focus not on Pres. Elect Obama’s undeniable brilliance, compassion, humanism, feminism, social conscience, historical perspective, innovation—ok, see why I need to get a hold of myself here?—but on his book, Dreams from My Father, as a work of literature.
Based on a recommendation from a very discerning literary friend, I had the idea that I would admire Dreams from My Father on a craft-level, but it definitely surpassed my expectations in terms of the beauty of its language and its structural sophistication. It is divided into three sections, a system of organization readers of this blog know I admire. Section one encompasses Pres. Obama’s early years in Hawaii with his mother and his maternal grandparents, his time in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather, his tenure at an exclusive private school and his bi-coastal college experience. Section two centers around his community organizing on Chicago’s South Side. Section three, just as long as the other sections, depicts only his brief first journey to Kenya to meet his father’s side of the family.
Given the many disparities between these three sections, Dreams from My Father could easily have seemed like three separate books bound into one. What kept the narrative feeling unified was the continuity of concerns that Pres. Obama wove through the entire book. No matter what event he was recounting—running barefoot through mud in Djakarta, meeting his father for the first and only time at the age of ten, helming a catastrophic failure of a community meeting, trying to order lunch at a café in Nairobi—he did not lose sight of his goals for the book. It is subtitled A Story of Race and Inheritance; rarely is there a moment in the book that strays from these interlinked themes. There are sketches here and there of Pres. Obama’s more day to day experiences—one particularly delightful moment for me was when he mentioned in passing that he wasn’t sleeping alone one night (imagine having had a one night stand with Barack Obama!), but every detail is, in some way, in service of his themes. Reading Dreams from My Father, it is clear that even years ago, Pres. Obama had that often-mentioned scalpel in hand, excising all the excess, leaving us with an economical yet rich picture of his life, and inner life.
What we learn right away about Pres. Obama’s inner life is that it is a searching one. He asks himself questions, deep questions that in another’s mind might have been rhetorical, and then tries his best to answer them. Faced with a changing Chicago, boys who have lost the light in their eyes, he wonders if he is afraid of these black teenagers, just as everyone else seems to be. He thinks he is not. But, chapters later, when he impulsively confronts a group of black boys in the middle of the night, the reader is just as surprised as he is to discover, in the tense moments before danger passes, that yes—he is afraid. Moves like this abound in the book, small seemingly insignificant moments included so they can echo—loud and powerful—chapters later. Questions are asked, complicated, answered and revisited, creating an accessible yet intricate braid of concerns throughout the narrative.
Pres. Obama does a remarkable job weaving the heaviest of contemplations through a novel-like story, full of love and drama, success and failure. I’ll end with one of his far-reaching passages. It is from the end of the book and is exemplary of the way he will take a real, concrete detail from his life and spin it out until it encompasses everything. This particular section also leaves us with an idea that is so important in this book: that the past isn’t static, but living, changing, and right here with us in the present, bleeding into our many futures. Enjoy–you’ll see that Pres. Obama’s language, though colloquial, is precise, poetic and shows us that, come January, we will have a true writer in the White House.
Eventually, the rain stopped, and we found ourselves looking on a barren landscape of gravel and shrub and the occasional baobab tree, its naked, searching branches decorated with the weaver bird’s spherical nests. i remembered reading somewhere that the baobab could go for years without flowering, surviving on the sparsest of rainfall; and seeing the trees there in the hazy afternoon light, I understood why men believe they possessed a special power–that they housed ancestral spirits and demons, that humankind first appeared under such a tree. It wasn’t merely the oddness of their shape, their almost prehistoric outline against the stripped-down sky…Each tree seemed to possess a character, a character neither benevolent nor cruel but simply enduring, with secrets whose depths I would never plumb, a wisdom I would never pierce. They both disturbed and comforted me, those trees that looked as if they might uproot themselves and simply walk away, were it not for the knowledge that on this earth one place is not so different from another–the knowledge that one moment carries within it all that’s gone on before.