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Questions for Maya Soetoro-Ng

All in the Family

Published: January 20, 2008

Q: Let’s talk about the Democratic presidential caucuses taking place on Feb. 19, in Hawaii , where Barack Obama was born. Will you be campaigning for your brother? Yes, of course. I have taken time off from my various teaching jobs in Honolulu and just got back from two months of campaigning. I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “1-20-09. End of an Error.”

What kind of bumper sticker is that? It doesn’t even mention a candidate by name. That’s just one bumper sticker. I have three others on my car, including one that says, “Women for Obama.”

What is the age difference between you and Barack? I’m nine years younger. Our mother, after divorcing Barack’s father, met my father at the same place, the East-West Center on the University of Hawaii campus.

Barack’s father was Kenyan, and yours was Indonesian. Your mom was what used to be called a freethinker, a white anthropologist from Wichita, Kan., who moved to Jakarta after her second marriage. My mother was a courageous woman. And she had such tremendous love for life. She loved the natural world. She would wake us up in the middle of the night to go look at the moon. When I was a teenager, this was a source of great frustration because I wanted to sleep.

She died at only 52, from ovarian cancer ? Today, more than anything, I wish all the women in Barack’s life — our mother, his wife and daughters, my daughter, our grandmother, his Kenyan half-sister — I wish we could all sit together and gaze at the moon.

Your mom has been described as an atheist. I wouldn’t have called her an atheist. She was an agnostic. She basically gave us all the good books — the Bible, the Hindu Upanishads and the Buddhist scripture, the Tao Te Ching — and wanted us to recognize that everyone has something beautiful to contribute.

You didn’t mention the Koran in that list, although Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. I should have mentioned the Koran. Mom didn’t really emphasize the Koran, but we read little parts of it. We did listen to morning prayers in Indonesia.

Are you worried about mentioning Islam because it has already been evoked by negative campaigners trying to tarnish your brother? I’m not worried. I don’t want to deny Islam. I think it’s obviously very important that we have an understanding of Islam, a better understanding. At the same time, it has been erroneously attached to my brother. The man has been a Christian for 20 years.

What religion are you? Philosophically, I would say that I am Buddhist.

What effect do you think your mother’s wanderlust had on Barack? Maybe part of the reason he was so attracted to Chicago and his wife, Michelle, was that sense of rootedness. He elected to make a choice, whereas Mom sort of wandered through the world collecting treasures.

Do you think of your brother as black? Yes, because that is how he has named himself. Each of us has a right to name ourselves as we will.

Do you think of yourself as white? No. I’m half white, half Asian. I think of myself as hybrid. People usually think I’m Latina when they meet me. That’s what made me learn Spanish.

That sort of culturally mixed identity was seen as an anomaly when you were growing up. Of course, there was a time when that felt like unsteady terrain, and it made me feel vulnerable.

You were ahead of the multicultural curve. That’s one of the things our mother taught us. It can all belong to you. If you have sufficient love and respect for a part of the world, it can be a meaningful part of who you are, even if it wasn’t delivered at birth.

INTERVIEW CONDUCTED, CONDENSED AND EDITED BY DEBORAH SOLOMON

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