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.”

在芝加哥的时候,奥巴马开始写短篇小说——忧郁、引人深思的故事,灵感来源是他作为社区组织者遇到的一些人。这些短篇小说和他当时写的日记培养了给《应许之地》带来动力的文学品质:一种对地方、情绪的敏锐观察力;在自我评估时寻找努力(比如想搞清楚他竞选总统的决定是否有一部分是因为“向抛弃了我的父亲证明我的价值,满足我母亲的乐观期许”);以及创造对顾问、政治人物和外国领导人经过敏锐观察、具有狄更斯作品特点的人物刻画。在他的描述中,时任俄罗斯总理的弗拉基米尔·普京(Vladimir Putin)的声音表现出一种“经过练习的漠然”,这表明他是“一个习惯了被下级和哀求者围绕的人”,而且他还是一个细致安排自己媒体拍照活动的人,“像一个Instagram上的青少年那样仔细。”

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.

从他对这些思想者和活动人士的研究中,奥巴马学到了他称之为“尼布尔式”的一课,即我们能够“对这个世界,残酷、罪恶、贪婪和暴力的现实有着清醒认识,但仍然能心怀一种希望和可能,作为意志力和信仰之跃的表现”。这一深入心底的信念正是让奥巴马最为震撼人心的演讲生动起来的地方,例如他在塞尔马游行50周年纪念日发表的讲话,以及2015年大屠杀之后,他在南卡罗来纳州州查尔斯顿以马内利非裔卫理圣公会教堂发表的“奇异恩典”演讲。那种“在不确定性下”要找到“希望”的决心,仍然存在于他今天的乐观主义里——因为新一代年轻人的政治参与,他感到振奋起来。在夏天的乔治·弗洛伊德(George Floyd)抗议活动中,这些年轻人的参与如此有力。

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.

个人和政治紧密交织在非裔美国文学中——从早期奴隶叙事到弗雷德里克·道格拉斯(Frederick Douglass)和马尔科姆·X的自传——在年轻的奥巴马构建自己信仰的哲学支柱时,他同时也在自己的日志里奋笔疾书,整理自己生活中种族、阶级和家庭的一团乱麻。

‘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.

他对美国人都寄望于共同的梦想,并且每人都能超越差别的看法不仅呼应了拉尔夫·艾里森的《看不见的人》(Invisible Man,在其中,叙述者得出结论“美国是由许多根线织成的”,“我们的命运是‘一’与‘多’的统一”。),也是他自己家族史的一部分:母亲生于堪萨斯州,父亲成长于肯尼亚。他后来也在2004年民主党大会演讲上表达了这一信念,正是那次民主党大会将他介绍给了整个国家。

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.”

《林肯——一个作家的传记》(Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer)一书的作者、学者弗雷德·卡普兰(Fred Kaplan)将亚伯拉罕·林肯(Abraham Lincoln)与奥巴马进行了比较,指出他们都精于语言,有着当总统的“一流气质”:“坚忍、灵活、愿意听取不同的观点。”

Like Lincoln’s, Obama’s voice — in person and on the page — is an elastic one, by turns colloquial and eloquent, humorous and pensive, and accommodating both common-sense arguments and melancholy meditations (Niagara Falls made Lincoln think of the transience of all life; a drawing in an Egyptian pyramid makes Obama think how time eventually turns all human endeavors to dust).


The two presidents, both trained lawyers with poetic sensibilities, forged their identities and their careers in what Kaplan calls “the crucible of language.” When Obama was growing up, he remembers, “the very strangeness” of his heritage and the worlds he straddled could make him feel like “a platypus or some imaginary beast,” unsure of where he belonged. But the process of writing, he says, helped him to “integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole” and eventually gave him “a pretty good sense” of who he was — a self-awareness that projected an air of calmness and composure, and would enable him to emerge from the pressure cooker of the White House very much the same nuanced, self-critical writer he was when he wrote “Dreams From My Father” in his early 30s.


Although Obama says he didn’t have time as president to keep a regular journal, he would jot down accounts of important moments as they transpired. Like the time at a climate summit in Copenhagen, when he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton crashed a meeting of the leaders of China, Brazil, India and South Africa because they were “avoiding me and a deal we were trying to broker that would, ultimately, many years later, lead to the Paris Accords.” After the meeting, he wrote down what had been said and what the scene felt like — he knew it was a good story.

奥巴马说他当总统的时候没有时间定期写日记,但他会记下那些重要的时刻。比如在哥本哈根的气候峰会期间,他跟国务卿希拉里·克林顿(Hillary Clinton)闯入中国、巴西、印度和南非领导人的一场会议,因为他们“绕过我和我们试图促成的一项协议,最终,在多年之后,这个协议成了《巴黎协定》”。会后,他写下了自己说的话以及当时的情景——他知道这会是一个好故事。

‘You just have to get started. You just put something down. Because nothing is more terrifying than the blank page.’


While he was writing “A Promised Land,” Obama did not read a lot of books — maybe because he was “worried about finding excuses to procrastinate,” maybe because he gets swept up in books he particularly enjoys and can hear those authors’ voices in his head. But when he finished writing “A Promised Land,” he eagerly turned to his friend Marilynne Robinson’s new novel “Jack,” the latest in her Gilead series, and Ayad Akhtar’s “Homeland Elegies,” which he describes as “a powerful and searching examination of contemporary American politics and attitudes.”

在写《应许之地》的时候,奥巴马没有读太多书——可能是因为他“担心自己会找借口拖延”,也可能是因为他会沉浸在自己特别喜欢的书里,脑海里总能听见那些作者的声音。但在写完《应许之地》后,他急切地翻开了友人玛丽莲·罗宾逊(Marilynne Robinson)的新小说《杰克》(Jack),这是她的基列系列(Gilead)的新作,以及阿亚德·阿赫塔尔(Ayad Akhtar)的《故乡哀歌》(Homeland Elegies),他称这部作品是“对当代美国政治和态度有力而深刻的审视。”

What literature would he recommend to someone who just arrived in America and wanted to understand this complex, sometimes confounding country?


Off the top of his head, says Obama, he’d suggest Whitman’s poetry, Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” “just about anything by Hemingway or Faulkner” and Philip Roth, whose novels capture that “sense of the tension around ethnic groups trying to assimilate, what does it mean to be American, what does it mean to be on the outside looking in?”

奥巴马说,在第一时间想到的作品里,他会推荐惠特曼的诗、菲茨杰拉德的《了不起的盖茨比》(The Great Gatsby)、艾里森的《看不见的人》、斯坦贝克的《愤怒的葡萄》(The Grapes of Wrath)、莫里森的《所罗门之歌》(Song of Solomon)、“海明威和福克纳的任何作品”,以及菲利普·罗斯(Philip Roth)——他的小说捕捉到了“族群之间试图同化彼此的紧张感,作为美国人意味着什么,作为局外看客又意味着什么?”

As for nonfiction: autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, Thoreau’s “Walden,” Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” And Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which makes us remember, Obama said, “that America really was a break from the Old World. It’s something we now take for granted or lose sight of, in part because a lot of modern culture so embodies certain elements of America.”

至于非虚构类则是:弗雷德里克·道格拉斯和马尔科姆·X的自传、爱默生的《自助》(Self-Reliance)、林肯的第二次就职演说、马丁·路德·金的《寄自伯明翰监狱的信》(Letter From Birmingham Jail)、还有亚历克西·德·托克维尔(Alexis de Tocqueville)的《美国的民主》(Democracy in America),奥巴马称,这本书会让我们记得,“美国确实是对旧世界的一次突破。我们现在认为这是理所当然的,或者忽略了这一点,部分原因是太多现代文化都承载了美国的某些元素。”

‘I think whether you’re talking about art or politics or just getting up in the morning and trying to live your life, it’s useful to be able to seek out that joy where you can find it and operate on the basis of hope rather than despair.’


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