11 November 2010

Barack Obama - Dreams from My Father

First Published in 1995
Pages: 442
Genre: Memoir

It was when Barack Obama became the first Black President of the Harvard New Review, a legal periodical in the 90s, that he took his first step towards a possible career in politics. There was a burst of publicity around the event, and a publisher offered him an advance to pen down a book on his life. The excitement was mostly to do with 'America's hunger for any optimistic sign from the racial front'. "...a morsel of proof that, after all, some progress has been made' - Obama notes in his introduction to the book which was re-published during his Presidential run for the General elections.

Obama was merely 33 years old when he wrote the book, a heartfelt memoir about a bright, young boy and his difficult initiation into a fractured world. Born as a black American, with a white mother, the young Barack is uncomfortable about confronting questions about his mixed identity.  To his sense of justice and fairness, the whole system of segregating people on the basis of skin colour is inexplicable and confusing. He is in denial about it for a long time, and cannot believe his identity as a Black American should prove to be an impediment in any way. When he sees instances of racism, both implicit and explicit, Obama grows pale and uneasy. All around him, he sees the other Blacks resigned to their fate, assured that nothing really will change for them and that they are all doomed to fail.

Though more privileged than the average Blacks, he still struggles with his identity - not knowing where he really belongs. It is at this point that Obama takes up work as a community man in poor black colonies. His decision is as much an evidence of his idealism, as much as a certain faith that change will always come to those willing to work towards it. Along with this dynamism, Obama also starts seeing within this task the complex fabric of a racist society and its disconcerting truths. Obama admits about being disturbed and in denial about his Black roots, seeing all that it implied. But he ultimately makes that difficult journey to Kenya -his father's home - to reconnect and uncover for himself the other half of his identity. The exercise is humbling and emotional for Obama, but he does get the closure he seeks.

The book is divided into three parts - one, about his 'Origins', then 'Chicago' which is about the work he carried out as a community man and 'Kenya' - where he visits his black relatives after his father's death.

The parts where Obama talks about his parents, his mother's second marriage to an Indonesian student, Loco and their relocation to Indonesia are all extremely engaging and the author displays a refreshing candour in these parts. Obama's descriptions reveal his warm affection for his mother, grandparents and step-father Loco, even if he doesn't shy away to mention their quirks and difficult traits. Family tensions, awkward growing up years,  all find a place in this memoir.
As he steps into adulthood, the questions of race, identity, and his future preoccupy his mind. For most part, he comes across as a loner, quite self-contained, not given to exaggerated emotions. Which is why when Barack finally cries over his father's grave or talks emotionally about his mother, you know the feeling is a deeply felt one.  But when he writes about other characters (friends, colleagues and relatives), there is a mild condescension in his tone sometimes, though Obama always avoids pointed criticism.

The book comes alive when Obama talks about his family. The portions in the middle where he describes his grassroots work are however quite tedious to read with many long-winding episodes and forgettable characters.  Even with the benefit of hindsight -where we know what Obama become - these parts are extremely dull and I ended up skipping many pages.

On racism, rather than specifically blaming the Whites, Obama chooses to view the situation as a human tragedy, where a community - after years of subjugation and abuse - had lost belief in its ability to make any real difference. Obama is at his most eloquent and effective as he describes the tortured minds of the Blacks, their desperation to escape from the quagmire of poverty, and their mixed feelings about those among them, like Obama, rising in the ranks.

 The book is sincere, but if this weren't written by Barack Obama, it might not have amounted to as much. There's nothing terribly new in the book and even as a coming-of-age story, there are only sporadic episodes that truly capture your attention. Obama, of course, has the skill of a writer. The book is painfully arid in parts, but overall Obama has the gift of narration and his sense for drama is revealed in the manner in which he crafts the story about his father, keeping the mystery around him till the end, leading to a powerful climax.

And of course, the book demonstrates most of the qualities one has come to associate with the President - graceful, eloquent with a generosity of perception but also somewhat emotionally detached.

-Sandhya Iyer

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