Obama on reading, writing and radical empathy

He invited authors and historians to the White House and had already published a best-selling memoir. That didn’t make writing his latest book, A Promised Land, any less of a grind.

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 2 1/2 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.”

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 organiser 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 favourite 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.”

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.”

Obama says he “was very much the list keeper at that time.” He would “hear about a book, and then I’d read that book, and if it referenced another book, I’d track that one down.” And, sometimes, “It was just what was in the used-book bin because I was on a pretty tight budget.” He read everything from classics by Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, to novels like Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and works by Robert Stone. He read philosophy, poetry, history, biographies, memoirs and books like Gandhi’s Truth by Erik Erikson.

Not only did he read books voraciously, but he inhaled and synthesised the ideas he found in them, assimilating ones that resonated with his personal experiences and values. In those years, Obama recalls, “everything was just fraught with existential weight,” and he did not really regain his sense of humour until he moved to Chicago and began work as a community organiser.

“I got outside myself, right? You know, the self-indulgence of young people who take themselves too seriously, who have the luxury — because they don’t really have responsibilities — of wondering who they are and should I eat this peach? And suddenly, I was in neighbourhoods where people are trying to pay the bills and keep their kids safe and make sure that neighbourhoods don’t fall apart and they’ve been laid off. And my job was to help, and the wisdom, the strength, the fortitude, the common sense of the folks I was working with — who were all my mother’s age or older — reminded me that work wasn’t about me.”

While in Chicago, Obama began writing short stories — melancholy, reflective tales inspired by some of the people he met as a community organiser. 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 “practised 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.

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 — his belief that 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.”

Obama also learned from writers whose political views differed from his own, like V.S. Naipaul. Though frustrated by Naipaul’s “curmudgeonly sort of defense of colonialism,” the former president says he was fascinated by the way Naipaul constructed arguments and, “with a few strokes, could paint a portrait of someone and take an individual story or mishap or event, and connect it to larger themes and larger historical currents.”

So, Obama adds, “there’d be pieces of folks that you’d kind of copy — you steal, you paste, and you know, over time, you get enough practice that you then can trust your own voice.”

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.”

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 endeavours 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.

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

Whereas 20 years ago, Obama says, he would have needed an army of researchers to help him with a presidential memoir, the internet meant he could simply “tap in ‘Obama’ and then the date or the issue, and pull up every contemporaneous article — or my own speeches, or my own schedule, or my own appearances — in an instant.” The actual writing remained a painful process, requiring him to really “work at it” and “grind it out.”

“This is a really important piece of business that I’ve tried to transmit to my girls and anybody who asks me about writing,” he says. “You just have to get started. You just put something down. Because nothing is more terrifying than the blank page.”

Obama wrote A Promised Land — the first of two volumes about his presidency — much the same way he’s worked on speeches and earlier books. Because he thinks the computer can lend “half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness,” he writes his first drafts longhand on yellow legal pads; the act of typing it into the computer essentially becomes a first edit. He says he is “very particular” about his pens, always using black Uni-ball Vision Elite rollerball pens with a micro-point, and adds that he tends to do his best writing between 10pm and 2am: “I find that the world narrows, and that is good for my imagination. It’s almost as if there is a darkness all around and there’s a metaphorical beam of light down on the desk, onto the 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.”

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?”

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.”

‘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.’

The last several years, Obama says, have made it clear that “the normative glue that holds us together — a lot of those common expectations and values have weakened, have frayed in ways that de Tocqueville anticipated” and that “atomisation and loneliness and the loss of community” have made our democracy vulnerable.

“You don’t have to be glued to the news broadcasts to sometimes feel as if we’re just locked in this Tower of Babel and can’t even hear the voices of the people next to us,” he says. “But if literature and art are good at “reminding us of our own folly and our own presumptions and of our own selfishness and shortsightedness,” he adds, “what books and art and stories can also do is remind you of the joys and hope and beauty that we share.”

“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. We all have different ways of coping, but I think that the sense of optimism that I have relied on is generally the result of appreciating other people, first and foremost, my own children and my family and my friends. But also the voices that I hear through books and that you hear through song and that tell you you’re not alone.”

Written by: Michiko Kakutani
Photographs by: A.J. Chavar and Doug Mills
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES

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