Chapter Two: Dreams From My Father

What is outside of Obama’s world in this excerpt–what is foreign, Indonesian, what would be frightening to a child–is written in an extraordinarily matter of fact manner.  When Lolo wants to show Obama where his dinner is coming from, Obama recounts the incident in a terrifying manner “its head lolling grotesquely against its side, its legs pumping wildly in a wide, wobbly circle…the blood trickling down to a gurgle….” (35).  Obama, however, appears to maintain a distance from seeing this.  It happened.  That’s where the chicken stew came from.

It’s when Obama speaks of America, or of his race in America that we see his matter of fact manner disappear.  Although, through most of the chapter Obama keeps us in Indonesia and shows us how he has come to be a part of that culture in learning the language quickly and learning how to take care of himself in that environment, it still remains at a distance and somehow separate from his self.  We are more aware when Obama takes us into his mother’s mind in the chapter of how she feels in this place than of how Obama feels.  The bookends of the chapter, however, bring us into his confusion and his insecurities.  It is when he realizes he is a foreigner in his home…in the country he was born in that Obama become anxious.  “There were thousands of people like him, black men and women back in America who’d undergone the same threatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person.  I felt my face and neck get hot.  My stomach knotted; the type began to blur on the page.” (30).

In stepping into this chapter it is Indonesia that  should make the reader feel uncomfortable or out of place.  Obama depicts hectic street scenes, fights where he has had rocks thrown at him and religions that are separate from what he’s ever known.  He describes things he knows will make the reader uncomfortable–he tells us things he would not tell his grandparents in letters, “I didn’t tell Toot and Gramps about the face of the man who had come to our door one day with a gaping hole where his nose should have been: the whistling sound he made as he asked my mother for food.” (37).  But Obama is an observer of these scenes because he is still outside of this world.  It is not where he has come from.  Instead, Obama uses place–a foreign place–to show how he does not feel like he belongs to where he came from.  It’s the glimpses of America Obama gets in Indonesia that truly make him feel foreign, such as the Roebuck catalog and even his own mother.

8 responses to “Chapter Two: Dreams From My Father

  1. In this except from “Dreams of My Father” we see how facing the world head on by navigating through different worlds becomes a way of exploring and discovering one’s identity by overcoming the racial differences and tensions that surround us in different settings. By looking back at how one floats to new surroundings at a young age and thus surveys these new surroundings and the ‘text’ in front of him, helps bring some sense of clarity to one’s “identity” and position in the world. As we follow a cultural journey such as Obama’s – through realization, manhood, and self-discovery – we can seek to decipher how there are only certain levels of comfort individuals can have based on the boundaries they are placed in. Sometimes a person has a certain persona he is projecting to those around him and at the same time has a different idea that is still clearly visible in his own head.

    While still at too young an age to fully understand the ways he’s portrayed differently within this setting he reflects on because of his skin color, Obama is still aware of subtle differences occurring in his presence around him because of his race. Obama is able to subconsciously sense that he may be in uncomfortable in this world, but can’t quite consciously see it because he doesn’t have a lot of information at the time on other worlds to compare it to. However, his sense of awareness at a young age was very strong nonetheless, and those experiences helped shaped his mindset as he began to see his blackness in a different light while he entered into uncharted territory. Thus, Obama is negotiating with the surroundings by finding his own path that isn’t clearly defined for him. It seems very difficult to uproot someone out of a setting they’ve always known and place them into a whole knew world, and expect them to immediately adapt and feel comfortable in their new surroundings. However, by having a prolonged experience in a certain setting, and taking time to cope with it and then reflect back on it, allows one to gain a heightened awareness of both the unique identity of the setting and how the setting affects the individual himself.

  2. Response to Where Worlds Collide (Pico Iyer)
    Note: I am really sorry I cannot figure out how to make a new post so I will leave me post as a comment.

    I found this piece to extremely long-winded and scattered but also informative and rewardingly opinionated.

    While other pieces that I have read have been successful in employing the listing method, this piece was very daunting to read as it included too many lists of unnecessary information that failed to enhance the piece.

    My favorite part of the piece was the opening anecdote of the immigrants in LAX airport being compared to newborn babies blinking in the sunlight and finding everything so strange and unfamiliar. I was a bit disappointed when the piece took a turn in its tone toward a more didactic and analytical voice than a narrative one.

    Iyer very conspicuously used race as a literary tool to emphasize the crossing of cultures in the airport environment. He never referred to a person as just a person; it was always an Asian official or an Ethiopian worker, etc.

    Iyer pays close attention to details in his surroundings that enhance the picture he is painting for the reader such as signs welcoming arrivals to California and the appearance of the airport and the actions of the people inside. It is very beautiful while still commenting on the clutter and the messy cultural crossings that take place in such a bizarre atmosphere that Iyer says acts as a microcosm of Los Angeles and possibly even America.

  3. I was unfortunately distracted continuously throughout much of the excerpt, having previously read articles which discredit much of Obama’s account here. I do recognise that different publications have varying motivations for the journalism they produce but there is a wealth of evidence which questions the contents of ‘Dreams From My Father’. I concede that doubting the authenticity of a writer’s work is not helpful to furthering our understanding of creative nonfiction and thus I know that what I am writing here is of little significance. However, I have a few questions which arise from my reading of this text. Firstly, Obama refers to an article in Life Magazine which caused him to have a ‘moment of revelation’. Since the book’s publication, archvists at the magazine have denied the existence of the article, as have historians at many other publications which Obama could have mistaken for Life. When a statement is proven wrong, do we then have to question the truth in the remainder of the writing?

  4. I agree that the question of authenticity in a writing is not something to be taken lightly. Especially when, as you mention, experts within a specific field refute something a writer presents as truth. At the same time, I feel there must reamain a certain amount of leeway to leave the writer the ability to recreate truth from his own perspective. It is undeniable that memory constructs a subjective truth through a blending of time and experience. What is important is that the author constructs a narrative that is true to the sentiments he maintains about a certain place and experience.

    If an author articulates a certain occurance with objective, accurate detail but does not give the account in relation to the way he was exposed to it at the time, I can’t help but feel the writing would seem dry and impersonal. It’s inevitable that an adult looks back on his time as a child influenced by the knowledge he has acquired since, and this in turn changes the recreation of his past in writing. This is evident in Obama’s writing when he looks back on his time in retrospect, “She had known so little then, she realized now, her innocence carried right along with her American passport. Things could have turned out worse.” Surely he was unaware of the extent of the lonliness she felt in her new life in Indonesia, but he most likely recalls a general change, a quietness perhaps, that was indicative of the difficulty she felt in adapting.

  5. I have to say, I agree with sacutler on this one – I think that, while we should not assume that every tiny detail in nonfiction is fact, I do think it is important to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

    This entire chapter is focused around Obama’s realization that not all black people are proud to be black, as his mother has taught him to be. Whether or not that epiphany really came from a magazine article, a news program, or overhearing it from an adult is, in my opinion, irrelevant.

    It’s one of those revelations that one does not easily forget, though the means by which one came to the revelation is often forgotten.

    Whether Obama changed the truth for effect, or whether he simply didn’t remember where he heard about the man who wanted to erase his skin color, the revelation is real, and that’s the part that matters.

  6. When Obama wrote Dreams from My Father and remembered his reaction to the Life Magazine article, he was a professor and a community organizer. Hunting for details, such as “which Indonesian edition of which magazine did I find that article in?” could not have been his first priority. I’m sure if he had presidential ambitions at the time, he would have had a staff fact check mundane details for him.

    However, there is an interesting conversation to be had about Obama’s relationship to the truth and in one scene he becomes an omniscient narrator, recounting his mother’s feelings and desires as if he were in her head. Of course, the reader is more aware here than with the Life Magazine that they are being presented with something Obama could never truly know; however, in a memoir, it seems an author should hold memory in higher regard. While Obama truly remembered seeing that article in Life (whether any such article ever existed or not), it is difficult to imagine that Obama remembers his mother’s feelings at the time, especially considering he was 8. Although, personally, I do not mind this aberration from his own perspective, I feel that if anyone would like to attack Obama for being disingenuous, they would be best suited to begin here.

  7. Obama actually discusses the passage from his mother’s POV in the introduction to the audiobook; they talked about it, and she wasn’t always happy with how he represented her, but she didn’t stop him. As for the Life magazine article, snopes.com takes that one up as well; while the article itself can’t be found, the revelation still seems genuine. But you’re right, Jason, he would certainly have had it fact-checked if he’d been running for office. Would that have diminished the power of the text?

  8. Most of these responses have been throwing around the word and concept of truth, but what IS “truth” really? That’s one deeply philosophical question that I obviously can’t and won’t try to answer, but I think it’s important to recognize the importance of perspective in its treatment.

    Even if the Life article can’t be found, as Hayley says, “the revelation is real, and that’s the part that matters.” Can some relatively small haziness from the memory of a “nine-year-old boy” (29) really erase the much greater personal truth of his “permanently altered” (52) vision?

    Even if an event does so significantly affect someone at such a young age, facts around the issue are still blurry in recollection. Arguably, this is true of memory of only recent events as well, and the mind fills in the blanks.

    So maybe it wasn’t Life, so maybe the article came from somewhere else- maybe it didn’t exist. But as far as diminishing the power of the text goes, I’d sooner chalk it up to a hazy memory than dismiss the larger idea that Obama is trying to convey.

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