A woman who should need no introduction–my full interview with Maya Soetoro-Ng (a short version ran in the Advertiser in June 2008), conducted on the day she arrived in Chicago to start campaigning for her brother’s candidacy.

What I’m Reading | Maya Soetoro-Ng
Teacher, La Pietra; Obama Campaigner

Q&A with Christine Thomas
June 2008

-What are you reading?

I recently started reading a lot of Toni Morrison books and I love Toni Morrison. She has a way of using words to build very thick images. Most recently I’ve been rereading “Sula,” which is, I think, a wonderful example of this interesting, strong and deeply flawed person. She’s a sensual and adventurous woman but it’s her humanity that makes her so real and makes us empathize so much with her.

And I also read this book by Camilla Gibb, “Sweetness in the Belly.” It’s a book about this woman born to sort of hippie parents who end up getting murdered at a Sufi shrine and she herself ends up in Ethiopia in the walled city. Her name is Lily and so with no home to be sent to and no relatives to speak of she ends up raising herself but also being raised by this fellow Englishman who’s taken the name Mohammed Bruce. The book is full of images of spices and saints and small and large moments of cruelty and heroism, too. She basically ends up befriending this doctor and in that sense it becomes a romance with two people who are straddling worlds. The book takes place in Ethiopia and London so goes back and forth in time and between the two places. She ends up working as a nurse in London catering largely to poor immigrants. One of the things that make it so interesting to me is it sort of played with the idea of memory and how it’s not something that is fixed but something we shape and something that we build, and we are both shaped by it and we shape it. But also I just loved the contrast between her in London and going back and forth, the different textures and smells and tastes.

Also I could relate to it personally. My homes have been in Indonesia, New York and Hawai`i—all three very different. All three places have this gorgeous cacophony, this swelling of human sound and lots of crowded voices. You think about Hawai`i and all the different voices that come into play and all the influences that make up pidgin and all the cultures colliding. The same can be said of New York and Indonesia. I found this idea of belonging to more than one place simultaneously very appealing to me for personal reasons, also because she is an orphan. My brother and I have lost our parents and this idea of having to build our identities without the ease of conforming to given identities was interesting. You discover it but you have to make choices as opposed to being handed your identity ready-made.

There’s this point that talks about the city being unkind to outsiders at times, a very strong and vivid world, and it being difficult for her to make her way in the world and to be trusted completely. There was a sense of constant difference but ultimately by loving it and committing to it she very slowly earned the trust of the people there.

Right now I just started Glen Page’s “The Non-killing Global Political Science.” He’s at the Center for Global Nonviolence up on Tantalus, and sent me this book to give to my brother; I’m doing so but also checking it out. It has some concrete ideas about the potential of nonviolence to transform and it offers resources but also attempts to convince that a nonviolent world is possible. It talks about Liliuokalani, Tosltoy, Gandhi, and King of course, and I’m just getting started but I teach this class called Peace Makers: On the Power of Nonviolence at La Pietra; so I’m enjoying the idea of taking a look at Glenn’s ideas for problem solving, leadership and educational training, and facilitating research into nonviolent practices and also taking a look at spiritual, artistic and scientific resources for fostering nonviolence.

-How did you discover Morrison and Gibb?

Toni Morrison has been one of my favorites since I was a teenager. I loved “Song of Solomon” and I love the way that she is able to take single sentences and paint a whole world. It’s like her sentences have a life. I can imagine her sentences dancing off the page—and they are so elegant. So I’ve always loved her and more recently she came out with a beautiful letter of support for my brother and I decided to re-read her. It had been a decade since I had read anything of hers so I was inspired to read to “Sula,” which I had read at least one time before.

Sweetness in the Belly” I stumbled across by accident in the bookstore. I do that a lot—I browse in the bookstores and enjoy discovering contemporary fiction that way. I love the classics and the new classics from several decades ago, but I love finding new voices and first-time writers. Sometimes you get such richness by taking a chance with a writer you’ve never heard of before or who has never written a book before. …

Glenn’s: I had heard about him—turns out a close friend of mine Katherine is his research assistant. I had investigated the center a bit and was thinking of perhaps taking the kids there, but found that the class was so full already. …He wanted to foster this notion that we can have a world that finds non military solutions that peace can endure and be sustained.

-What did you like most about Gibb’s book?

The idea of a woman who is basically an outsider in all of these worlds but ends up through patience and commitment actually being a part of all of them in a very meaningful way. The idea that we can build our identity and that the process of finding our community can be part of this glorious adventure. That we can find community and family in unexpected places sometimes. …

-Do these windows into global communities engender ideas about how to present a vivid vision to your students and the American people as you campaign for your brother’s presidency?

Absolutely. I think, and have said on numerous occasions that my brother’s brilliance—I believe—as a politician is in his ability to craft a braver narrative of our future, to offer a vision that is more pregnant with possibilities than we imagined, that is more inclusive, that is broad. And that’s what I try to do on a smaller scale as a teacher, and that’s what all teachers do—to not only tell a wide variety of stories, but to help students shape their own stories and imagine stories of the future that are courageous.

Photo linked to barackobama.net. Mahalo!