By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Maya Soetoro-Ng, President Obama’s younger sister, discussed her just-published children’s book, “Ladder to the Moon,” at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo on April 20.
Describing Soetoro-Ng as “a very good friend of the museum,” Lisa Sasaki, JANM director of program development, said, “We’re very blessed to know her and to be part of her book tour … She is the sister of President Barack Obama, but she is also an educator, a speaker, an author, and somebody who knows the areas of multiculturalism and education very well.
“Maya actually created this particular book as a way of telling her daughters about their grandmother, her mother, and to be able to share the wisdom that comes down through the generations in a way that’s part fantasy but also part folklore.”
Soetoro-Ng and Obama are the children of anthropologist Ann Dunham. Obama’s father (Barack Obama Sr.) was from Kenya and Soetoro-Ng’s (Lolo Soetoro) was from Indonesia. The siblings grew up together in Hawaii and Indonesia. Soetoro-Ng and her husband, Konrad Ng, have two daughters, Suhaila, 6, who is a character in the book, and Savita, 2, who joined her mother at the podium during the reading.
As Secret Service men discreetly looked on, Soetoro-Ng told the audience, “I am so happy to be back here. I actually did one of my first book events for ‘Ladder to the Moon’ here some months ago … I love this place so much because there is constant dialogue about identity, about who we are.”
She acknowledged the presence of Kip Fulbeck, who had an exhibit at JANM about multiracial children entitled “Mixed.” “I was very fortunate to participate in that … He’s somebody who is vital … in discussions about identity,” she said.
Soetoro-Ng read excerpts from the book and showed the illustrations by Yuyi Morales. It starts with Suhaila asking her mother, “What was Grandma Annie like?” She is told, “She was like the moon — full, soft, and curious. Your grandma would wrap her arms around the world if she could.” That night, Grandma visits Suhaila and they climb a golden ladder to the moon.
Looking at Earth, “they see much that is beautiful, brave, potent and tender, but they also see a lot of suffering,” said the author. They reach down and lift up people who have been swept away by a tsunami. Seeing that there are other troubles in the world, they decide that there is still much to be done. Annie promises, “We’ll throw in our hearts and minds and work with our hands to make the world a little more kind.”
Soetoro-Ng explained, “Together they would build … bonds between people. And there on the moon, people who have been fighting because of differences in religion find their common center. They realize that all religions are the same … People of all languages find a common language on the moon.”
Suhaila realizes that she too is powerful and begins to reach down and help people on her own. She returns home, proud of what she has accomplished, and tells her mother about her adventures.
“Each child at each age will have a different point of entry,” Soetoro-Ng said. “You can use this book to simply help a child enter into an imaginative world that’s far away … You can open up conversations about … the people who have passed on, the nature of life and death, and connect children to those who they can no longer meet in the flesh … You can use it to talk about current and recent events, about war and peace, about our interconnectedness and about the value of service, about the fact that what we do impacts others … My hope is that this is just the beginning of many conversations you have with kids.”
She stressed the need to help children “feel secure about who it is that they are and what it is that they inherited, but also what they can build on their own without a script … If we want a world that is more peaceful and more compassionate, we should help give them those skills early.”
Holding up the book, she pointed out, “In the front is the moon from the Earth’s perspective … in the back, the Earth from the moon’s perspective. It’s a very simple lesson that we need to think about things not only from our small sitting place … When I teach history, I don’t do regular debates; I do debates where students don’t know what side they’re debating until a few minutes before the debate, so that they have to learn both sides. Or I show history using multiple textbooks from around the world, or you can go online and look at the front pages of English-language newspapers from all over the world on any given day and you can see … differences in views of the truth.”
Asked what it’s like to be the president’s sister, Soetoro-Ng responded, “It’s a tremendously powerful journey. He values it because it’s an opportunity to engage in service, to see a problem and to try to make it better, and to increase social justice … I think it’s a hard time to be president, so we endeavor to remember the lessons of our mother to stay steady and purposeful and broad-minded and to keep reaching across the aisle, even when doing so is challenging.”
Her involvement in Obama’s presidential campaign influenced her decision to become an author, she recalled. “I was seeing everywhere so many people who were really jazzed, really excited about their own voice, creating stuff on YouTube, so much new media, so much art and song, some of it silly, some of it profound. But what I saw was that people were unafraid, and that actually helped me to be brave about trying this out.”
Soetoro-Ng said she was 25 when her mother died of cancer at the age of 52. “It was 15 years ago, but I tell you, you long for them still. When I became a mother, I really, really felt how much I needed her and wanted her to lean on. I wanted to ask her questions and to have her unconditional love not only for me but my brother — who could use it — and for all of our children. She wanted very much to be a grandmother and I wrote the book thinking about all that she would impart to her grandchildren.”
She added, “Mom was born into a not-so-big city in Kansas and she was given a script that was fairly tight, and she really broke it open and decided to craft … her own narrative. She did not feel afraid in doing that. She was pretty brave about crafting her story, and I think that’s something we can encourage in students.”
It was her mother’s love of the moon that inspired the story, Soetoro-Ng said. “She loved it because everywhere it was the same, because the moon that she saw here is the same moon that someone beloved to her would see thousands of miles away in another place, and it was therefore a connecting force. She would wake me up and go look at the moon with me at all hours … I would complain because I wanted to sleep, but those times ended up being very precious to me, and when I lost her, that was the thing that I missed perhaps most.”
When her mother was terminally ill, “at first she wanted to be buried atop a hill with a nice view … Then she changed her mind and she said she wanted to be scattered in the ocean because the moon would take the waters and transport her. How else could she get to all of the places of people she loved? …
“Mom worked in so many different worlds, and everywhere she went she was very open and vibrantly so, and she built strong networks of kinship and extended friendship, and … never stopped being curious enough to bridge divides. Curious to the end. “
Of Suhaila, Soetoro-Ng said, “She is like her grandmother, a lover of critters large and small. She routinely brings home snails and slugs, bugs and worms, and when, after two weeks of watching them lovingly tortured inside Tupperware containers, I force her to release them, she weeps profusely …
“She’s an activist, so these lessons of compassion and empathy are lessons she’s learned quite well … She puts signs all over the building saying, ‘Please do not harm the lizards and the ants in the building. Thank you. Love, Lizard and Ant.’ ”
Although she is still too young to appreciate it, Savita is a character in her mother’s upcoming novel for young adults. “It’s a book about a young woman coming of age in a world at war, and she comes from more than one world,” said Soetoro-Ng. “She straddles worlds and she’s a healer and recognizes that it is not enough to heal bodies. She decides that … she’s going to try to end the war, so she’s a peacemaker.
“There is of course a love interest and he’s a soldier, the son of a general, brother to four other soldiers, and he’s based on Arjuna from the “Bhagavad Gita” (a Hindu scripture) … I’m trying to bring in some East and West, bring them together, which is a lot of fun.”
Asked how she is influenced by Indonesian culture, Soetoro-Ng elicited laughter when she said, “I was born in Indonesia; my brother was not.” (There are persistent claims by “birthers” that Obama was born outside the U.S.)
She continued, “It is the place that gave me my first dreams, my first textures and sounds, and I can’t really explain how much it means to me. It’s not an intellectual thing. It’s really a visceral, emotional thing. I can say that even though I’m not fluent in Indonesian anymore, the rhythms of the language still comfort me, and even though I can’t cook Indonesian food, if I smell those spices I get a little weak in the knees …
“It’s something that I want to share with my children, so every night I speak a little Indonesian to them … The idea is that they will hear it, they will perhaps take in some part of that, and on a subterranean level they will be able to access it so that later if they ever choose to study it … they will be able to do so.
“I hope it will always be a part of them … I think they’re extraordinarily fortunate to have that world as one of the many worlds to which they are granted access.”