“First Sister” Reflects on Family from Motherhood to Brother Barack
By Kam Williams
Born in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 15, 1970, Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng is a lecturer at the University of Hawaii’s College of Education but is perhaps better known as the sister of Barack Obama. Named after the poet Maya Angelou, Maya has just published “Ladder to the Moon,” a picture book inspired by her young daughter Suhaila’s questions about the grandmother she never knew, Grandma Annie.
Here, the First Sister talks about both her best-seller and about her family, including what it was like growing up with a big brother who would one day become the 44th President of the United States.
Kam Williams: Hi Maya, I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.
Maya Soetoro-Ng: Aloha, Kam. Thank you! How’re you doing?
KW: Very well, thanks. How’s the weather in Hawaii?
MSN: It pretty much is always good, other than the occasional hurricane. The baseline here is really pretty terrific. It is very sane. It allows you to spend time outside and to devote a minimal amount of attention to getting dressed in the morning. The sun kisses your face everyday. It’s very healthy!
KW: First of all, I wanted to share with you how much I was moved by your book. It actually left me in tears.
MSN: Thank you so much for saying that.
KW: Have you been getting a lot of feedback like that?
MSN: Yes, particularly from people who have lost loved ones, elders. The book seems to conjure up memories and a certain melancholy, the bittersweet recognition of the gift that we might have once had and don’t necessarily want to lose but that we can’t access anymore. So, the personal themes seem to resonate very powerfully with readers.
KW: I lost my mother a couple of years ago. I told my readers I’d be interviewing you, so I have more questions for you than we could ever get to. Yale grad Tommy Russell asks: What do you think the chances are that the Obama administration will cut off financial assistance to Palestine now that Hamas and Fatah officially reconciled their differences? Do you think we’ll see a Palestinian State in our lifetime?”
MSN: Since I’m not a part of the administration, I try to avoid questions about policy. Generally, speaking, those are the only questions that I won’t answer. But I don’t mind talking about my brother in terms of our childhood and our mother.
KW: No problem, I’ll skip those. That’ll save us a lot of time. Mirah Riben was wondering how you feel about the birth certificate nonsense.
MSN: My brother has said it all, and I really don’t have anything to add to it. It’s a non-issue and a distraction.
KW: Harriet Pakula Teweles says that for the purposes of this interview, President Obama will be the brother of Maya Soetoro-Ng who has a rather remarkable trifecta of accomplishments as a researcher, writer and educator. If you could be teaching a class right this minute what would that class be and what would be the topic?
MSN: Well, I teach a course I really enjoy on Multi-Cultural Education which is actually quite fun. But if we’re talking about a fantasy skill, I’d like to teach capoeira, the Brazilian martial arts form. Have you ever seen it? It’s so amazingly beautiful. I wish I could do it, but it requires tremendous amounts of strength and grace which I fear it’s too late for me to develop. I would also love to teach Argentinean tango dancing, but I can’t do that either. [Laughs]
KW: Reverend Florine Thompson asks: How did you come up with the title for your book?
MSN: I came up with the title after being jostled into a memory of a postcard my mom had given me that I used to have tacked onto my bedroom wall of a painting by Georgia O’Keefe entitled “Ladder to the Moon.” It had a golden ladder suspended in a sea of blue with cliffs silhouetted in the distance. It emphasized the journey, the climb, and was both mysterious and also rather comforting. So, I thought it was very fitting to describe the journey that Grandma Annie would take with Suhaila.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: What message do you want kids to take away from the book?
KW: Patricia says: Your next book project is about peace education and conflict resolution in high schools. As a professor, do you believe that if world history were taught everywhere on a national and international level, it would be a great tool to encourage the bonding of people?
KW: Marcia Evans says: I had a chance to read the recent New York Times article about your mother. The in-depth profile really helped me appreciate her and how she raised such accomplished children. And it gave me more insight into why our President has the patience and mannerisms that he does. My question is: What did you think of the article and what mothering skills are you raising your children with that you learned from your mother, Ann?
MSN: I thought the article did a nice job of capturing mom’s complexity. Of course, my children’s book necessarily paints a much more idealized portrait, the best of her, mom’s kindness, her mandate that we treat each other well, her empathy and her broadmindedness. These are the qualities that I try to impart to my daughters [Suhaila and Savita]. Meanness is the one thing I do get upset about on those rare occasions when I see it. Another thing was that mom was tremendously curious. And thankfully, my daughters and my brother’s daughters share her love of exploration. I think those traits were among my mom’s best. She was better at loving than she was at disciplining. She always allowed us to be precisely who we were. She never asked us to change anything fundamental at the core. That’s a powerful way to love, when you accept your children, however they emerge, with all their peculiarities. It’s interesting how different my children are from one another, and the same can be said for Malia and Sasha. You do find that children come into the world with a lot of personality already imbedded in them.
KW: How often do you get to speak to your brother and to visit the Obamas in the White House since he’s been elected?
MSN: I speak to him on a fairly regular basis, and I’ve been to the White House quite a few times. He is concerned about making sure that his daughters and all of us are able to have as much normalcy as possible. He doesn’t want his job to be stressful for them. So, he still does many of the same things he did before becoming president. For instance, he spends every Christmas in Hawaii and we engage in much of the same routines as before. And we spend summers together, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see him a few times in between.
KW: Marcia also says that she loves Indonesian/Malaysian cuisine. She wants to know whether you prepare Indonesian dishes for your family.
MSN: I wish I did It’s very complex food, and I’m not a very good cook. I only make simple dishes. But I have the soul of a chef, in the same way that I have the soul of a jazz singer, but I just wasn’t blessed with any of the talent.
KW: Reverend Florine Thompson asks: How does it feel to be named after Maya Angelou and have you ever met her?
MSN: I did meet her many years ago when I went to see her speak on three separate occasions. She knows that I was named after her, but I haven’t seen her in recent years, although my brother has. I have always enjoyed the great rhythm in her voice. And there have been ideas she’s shared that were very influential to me, like the notion that words are tactile and enduring and swirling around us. That’s stuck with me and perhaps guided my choices as a teacher
KW: Reverend Thompson also asks: What message would you give to young students who aspire to the lofty heights of your brother, President Obama?
MSN: Go for it! My brother didn’t run for student government, he didn’t get straight A’s, and he wasn’t perfect as a child. And he was much more interested in basketball than in student government. The key was that he never made any mistakes from which he couldn’t recover. They were all mistakes which allowed him to grow and develop. We came from exceedingly humble beginnings. So, as clichéd as it might sound to some adults, I think that his life should remind children that they really can achieve anything with the right support. You need support to develop both the skills and the confidence. I think young people should be emboldened by the fact that he managed to craft this extraordinary life by thinking about how to make his mark, and how to make his footprints matter once he decided that his life should serve some meaningful purpose.
KW: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
MSN: I honestly think that it’s love. You really need to love something or someone in order to work hard enough to be very successful. You have to believe in something and have a certain optimism. Faith and optimism come from love. So, I really do think that’s the starting point.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
MSN: [Chuckles] Huh? That’s a good question. I wish someone would ask me what my favorite pickup line is.
KW: Okay, what is your favorite pickup line?
MSN: It’s from Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The character Tea Cake looks at his woman, Janie, and says, “Janie, you’re the kind of woman who would make a man forget to grow old and forget to die.” I always thought it was so great. Imagine being told that you’re so extraordinary that you can stop time and biology. My husband [Konrad] never delivered that line to me, but I decided to marry him anyway. [LOL]
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
MSN: Yeah, definitely. I worry whenever I falter in my conviction about the message that I deliver about the importance of optimism and continued dialogue. That sort of thing scares me. And anger and malice scare me. But I’m not often afraid and I try to not let any fear impact the way that I live my life or to touch my children. They certainly deserve to be fearless. Weren’t we also fearless at one time? [Chuckles]
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
MSN: Yes! I’m happy because I have a healthy family and a life that allows me enough variety in my days. And I have interesting work as a professor where I get to impact others while learning from young people. That’s pretty good stuff.
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
MSN: Oh, I laugh every day because I have the gift of these kids. They’re hilarious! [Laughs] I can’t help but feel joyful watching my sassy two year-old who just loves to walk around in my high heels while wearing sunglasses and a feathered boa. [LOL] And I could recount lots of stories about Suhaila who is so full of feeling that she not only makes me proud of her but also makes me laugh. For instance, she recently brought home a slug and a worm and adopted them until I made her release them back into the wild after a couple of weeks, at which point she wept dramatically, announcing, “Farewell! To Wiggles and Lemon Drop!” [Laughs some more]
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
MSN: Good strong coffee with a really good novel, which I unfortunately haven’t had a chance to enjoy for a while because you don’t get the time when your kids are young. I used to love just sitting in a comfy spot on a couch, under a tree or on a porch and getting lost in a good book. I could do so all day.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
MSN: Oh! “Imagining Ourselves: Global Voices from a New Generation of Women” which takes an interesting look at women worldwide.
I also recently reread parts of “Life of Pi,” a novel about a teenager who ends up adrift on the ocean in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger after the Japanese cargo ship he’s aboard sinks.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music do you like to listen to?
MSN: Because I’m not teaching high school anymore, I don’t get to keep up with what’s the latest and greatest from the teenage perspective. But what I have in my car is mostly older stuff like Willie Colon and Earth Wind & Fire. I like to sing along, but with the windows rolled up. [LOL] Good stuff!
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
MSN: I like brunch. It’s the only thing I’m really good at. Eggs, omelets with fine herbs and little bits of lovely cheeses, and salads with nuts and fruits. I’m not a cook. Isn’t that terrible? But I can do a good brunch which is fun because it fortifies you for the rest of the day and it’s a nice way to get together with friends.
KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
MSN: [Laughs] I have to confess that I don’t care very much about clothes. I have the good fortune to be living in Hawaii where people don’t pay too much attention to fashion. In truth, I merely endeavor to look respectable. I admire how Michelle’s a fashion icon but I have no parallel skill or eye. I just try to not look silly.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
MSN: These are great questions. Fun! I’m sometimes surprised by how middle-aged I look to myself, but I am working now to embrace that. [Giggles] I definitely see a woman who has journeyed and made mistakes but who has an interesting map engraved into her face. A richly-layered woman who has been alternately brave and weak but who is full of love for enough people and things and places and ideas to give her face character and to give her life meaning.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
MSN: My earliest memories are of me and my brother and mother in the house on Poki Street in Hawaii where we lived from when I was three until I was six. I have a clear mental snapshot of me rocking in a big chair trying to tip it over. And I have another memory of myself standing in front of the TV while my brother was trying to watch a basketball game, compelling him to yell, “Mom! She’s doing it again.” A third memory is of putting all my books and dolls on a big blanket in the middle of the hallway and forbidding Barack and my mom to step on the blanket. [Laughs] Those are three of my most vivid and earliest memories. I actually found those very same dolls, including a big Raggedy Ann, when I was pregnant with Suhaila because mom left all of those dolls in a box for my children at my grandmother’s. She put them there the year before she passed away.
KW: How thoughtful! If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
MSN: World peace, of course! And on a personal level, that I manage to live a good bit longer than either of my parents, so that I might see all of the extraordinary things that my children and my grandchildren will do.
KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?
MSN: I’d say Gandhi and Martin Luther King, because it was so extraordinary for them to be able to see the ways in which taking an approach which at first glance seemed to be soft could actually be so much more powerful and enduring than taking one which at first glance appears sharp. I think that it required extraordinary imagination and faith to persevere and not surrender until real change was achieved.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
MSN: I would love to be remembered as a fine educator and parent. Being a parent has become incredibly important to me. I never knew how much I would be altered by my children. I would like to be remembered by them in much the way I remember my mom: as loving and kind.
KW: Thanks again, Maya, for being so much fun and so forthcoming.
MSN: It’s been a delight, Kam! What an interesting format you’ve got. It’s refreshing. I won’t forget you and I would love to meet you someday.
KW: Same here! And best of luck with the book.
MSN: It’s been a pleasure. Aloha!
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Photo credit: Photo of Maya Soetoro-Ng by Kelli Bullock