Obama, the Best-Selling Author, on Reading, Writing and Radical Empathy
Barack Obama’s new memoir “A Promised Land” is unlike any other presidential autobiography from the past — or, likely, future. Yes, it provides a historical account of his time in office and explicates the policy objectives of his administration, from health care to economic recovery to climate change. But the volume is also an introspective self-portrait, set down in the same fluent, fleet-footed prose that made his 1995 book “Dreams From My Father” such a haunting family memoir. And much like the way that earlier book turned the story of its author’s coming-of-age into an expansive meditation on race and identity, so “A Promised Land” uses his improbable journey — from outsider to the White House and the first two years of his presidency — as a prism by which to explore some of the dynamics of change and renewal that have informed two and a half centuries of American history. It attests to Obama’s own storytelling powers and to his belief that, in these divided times, “storytelling and literature are more important than ever,” adding that “we need to explain to each other who we are and where we’re going.”
奥巴马的新回忆录《应许之地》(A Promised Land)与过去的总统自传都有所不同——很可能也不同于未来的总统自传。诚然，其中给出了他执政期间的历史记叙，并且阐述其政府从医疗保健、经济复苏到气候变化的政策目标。但这本书也是一幅充满内省的自画像，用与奥巴马1995年的书《我父亲的梦想》(Dreams From My Father)同样流畅、轻快的文笔写就，正是这样的笔触让那本书成为了一本令人难以忘怀的家族回忆录。而且，与之前那本书将作者成长的故事变成关于种族和身份的一次全面沉思一样，《应许之地》将其看似不太可能达成的旅程——从局外人到白宫以及执政的头两年——作为一个棱镜，通过它来探索定义了两个半世纪美国历史的变革和革新的一些变化。这本书成为了奥巴马自身讲故事能力的佐证，也是他认为在这个分裂的时代，“讲故事和文学比任何时候都重要，”以及“我们需要向彼此解释我们是谁，我们要去哪里”的佐证。
In a phone conversation last week (a kind of bookend to an interview I did with him during his last week in the White House in January 2017), Obama spoke about the experience of writing his new book and the formative role that reading has played, since his teenage years, in shaping his thinking, his views on politics and history, and his own writing. He discussed authors he’s admired and learned from, the process of finding his own voice as a writer, and the role that storytelling can play as a tool of radical empathy to remind people of what they have in common — the shared dreams, frustrations and losses of daily life that exist beneath the political divisions.
Obama speaks slowly and thoughtfully but with the conversational ease that distinguishes his books, moving freely between the personal and the political, the anecdotal and the philosophical. Whether he’s talking about literature, recent political events or policies implemented by his administration, his observations, like his prose, are animated by an ability to connect social, cultural and historical dots, and a gift — honed during his years as a community organizer and professor of constitutional law — for lending complex ideas immediacy and context.
‘We come from everywhere, and we contain multitudes. And that has always been both the promise of America, and also what makes America sometimes so contentious.’
Talking about his favorite American writers, Obama points out that they share certain hallmarks: “Whether it’s Whitman or Emerson or Ellison or Kerouac, there is this sense of self-invention and embrace of contradiction. I think it’s in our DNA, from the start, because we come from everywhere, and we contain multitudes. And that has always been both the promise of America, and also what makes America sometimes so contentious.”
Obama’s thoughts on literature, politics and history are rooted in the avid reading he began in his youth. As a teenager growing up in Hawaii, he read African American writers like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. DuBois in an effort “to raise myself to be a Black man in America.” And when he became a student at Columbia University in the early 1980s, he made a concerted effort to push aside the more desultory habits of his youth — sports, parties, hanging out — to try to become “a serious person.”
奥巴马在文学、政治和历史方面的思考源于他在青年时代开始的如饥似渴的阅读。身为一名在夏威夷长大的少年，为了“成长为一名身在美国的黑人”，他阅读了詹姆斯·鲍德温(James Baldwin)、拉尔夫·艾里森(Ralph Ellison)、马尔科姆·X(Malcolm X)、兰斯顿·休斯(Langston Hughes)、理查德·怀特(Richard Wright)、佐拉·尼尔·赫斯顿(Zora Neale Hurston)和W·E·B·杜波依斯(W.E.B. Dubois)。此外，1980年代进入哥伦比亚大学(Columbia University)后，为了成为“一个正经人”，他开始尽力将其少年时代那些较为散漫的爱好推到一旁——体育、派对、与朋友消磨时光。
He puts “serious person” in quotes, he explains, “because I was very somber about this whole process and basically became a little bit of a recluse for a couple of years, and just was going to classes, wandering the city, mostly by myself, and reading and writing in my journals. And just trying to figure out what did I believe, and how should I think about my life.”
While in Chicago, Obama began writing short stories — melancholy, reflective tales inspired by some of the people he met as a community organizer. Those stories and the journals he was keeping would nurture the literary qualities that fuel “A Promised Land”: a keen sense of place and mood; searching efforts at self-assessment (like wondering whether his decision to run for president stemmed, in part, from a need “to prove myself worthy to a father who had abandoned me, live up to my mother’s starry-eyed expectations”); and a flair for creating sharply observed, Dickensian portraits of advisers, politicians and foreign leaders. He describes then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a leader whose voice evinced a “practiced disinterest,” indicating “someone accustomed to being surrounded by subordinates and supplicants,” and, at the same time, a man who curated his photo ops “with the fastidiousness of a teenager on Instagram.”
The reading Obama did in his 20s and 30s, combined with his love of Shakespeare and the Bible and his ardent study of Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr, would shape his long view of history — a vision of America as a country in the constant process of becoming, in which, to use the words of the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker, frequently quoted by King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” By looking back at history — at the great sin of slavery and its continuing fallout — while at the same time calling for continued efforts to bring the country closer to a promised land, King and John Lewis situated the civil rights struggle within a historical continuum, while invoking the larger journey in Scripture from suffering and exile toward redemption.
奥巴马在二、三十岁时读的书，再加上他对莎士比亚、《圣经》的热爱，以及对林肯、小马丁·路德·金(Martin Luther King Jr.)及赖因霍尔德·尼布尔(Reinhold Niebuhr)的热切研究，塑造了他对历史的长远看法——对于在不断形成过程中，美国作为一个国家的愿景。在其中，用19世纪废奴主义者西奥多·帕克(Theodore Parker)的话说，“道德世界的弧线很长，但它是向正义弯曲的”，这句话也常常被马丁·路德·金所引用。通过回溯历史——看到奴隶制的深重罪孽以及它延续至今的影响——与此同时，呼吁不断努力，将这个国家更进一步带往应许之地，马丁·路德·金及约翰·刘易斯(John Lewis)将民权斗争置于历史情境的同时，也令人想起《圣经》中从受难和流放到救赎的宏大旅程。
From his studies of these thinkers and activists, Obama took what he called the “Niebuhrian” lesson that we can have “a cleareyed view of the world and the realities of cruelty and sin and greed and violence, and yet, still maintain a sense of hope and possibility, as an act of will and leap of faith.” It’s a deeply held conviction that animates Obama’s most powerful speeches, like his commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma march and his 2015 “Amazing Grace” speech, delivered in the wake of the massacre at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That determination to find “hope in the face of uncertainty” also sustains his optimism today — he’s been buoyed by the engagement of a new generation of young people, demonstrated so powerfully during last summer’s George Floyd protests.
The personal and the political are intimately entwined in African American literature — from the early slave narratives to autobiographies by Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X — and while the young Obama was constructing the philosophical tentpoles of his beliefs, he was also writing a lot in his journal, sorting through the crosscurrents of race and class and family in his own life.
‘When I think about how I learned to write, who I mimicked, the voice that always comes to mind the most is James Baldwin.’
His belief that Americans are invested in common dreams and can reach beyond their differences — a conviction that would later be articulated in his 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech, which introduced him to the country at large — not only echoes the ending of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (in which the narrator concludes that “America is woven of many strands,” that “our fate is to become one, and yet many”), but is also an intrinsic part of his family history, with a mother who was born in Kansas and a father who grew up Kenya.
In high school, Obama says, he and a “roving pack of friends” — many of whom felt like outsiders — discovered that “storytelling was a way for us to kind of explain ourselves and the world around us, and where we belonged and how we fit in or didn’t fit in.” Later, trying to get his stories down on paper and find a voice that approximated the internal dialogue in his head, Obama studied authors he admired. “As much as anybody,” he says, “when I think about how I learned to write, who I mimicked, the voice that always comes to mind the most is James Baldwin. I didn’t have his talent, but the sort of searing honesty and generosity of spirit, and that ironic sense of being able to look at things, squarely, and yet still have compassion for even people whom he obviously disdained, or distrusted, or was angry with. His books all had a big impact on me.”
The scholar Fred Kaplan, the author of “Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer,” has drawn parallels between Abraham Lincoln and Obama, pointing out that they share a mastery of language and “a first class temperament” for a president — “stoic, flexible, willing to listen to different points of view.”