The audacity and hope of Barak Obama, the writer

May 25, 2008 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, writers, writing.
  • Barak Obama wrote his own book — no ghostwriters or co-authors. He did the literary heavy-lifting himself.

It was with plenty of audacity and no small amount of hope that Barak Obama sat down in the early 1990s to write his life story.

He had just turned 30 in 1991 and could reasonably assume that much was ahead of him — an assumption that would be true, of course — but he also knew that his life to that point had been like no one else’s whom he knew:

  • The son of a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya;
  • Raised in Indonesia, Africa and Hawaii;
  • Intellectually brilliant, confirmed by the fact that he was editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Obama’s defining experience to that point had been his relationship with his father, with him he had lost touch early in life and then re-established contact. Shortly after that, however, his father died, and Obama traveled to Kenya to find out more about the man. There, many of the images he had of his father are shattered. He finds that his father had slid from being a brilliant and respected academic to a drunk and an object of pity.

The small amount of fame that Obama achieved as being the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review netted him a call from a literary agent, a book proposal and a publisher. His first idea was to write about race relations, but that didn’t suit him and where he was, according to an article about the book by Janny Scott published this week by the New York Times.

That journey of discovery through the images he had of his father is what he decided he had to tackle. What he produced was Dreams From My Father (Amazon).

He did so with confidence and flair — even audacity — using composite characters, invented dialogue, out-of-sequence events and a variety of literary techniques. He has since come under some criticism for his account. Inquiring journalists and political opposition researchers say things didn’t happen the way he said they happened.

But there is one fact that no one disputes. Obama wrote his own book.

He struggled with sentences, phrasing and structure. He edited, rewrote and rethought.

The words are his and his alone. He didn’t pay a ghostwriter or take on some partner to do the literary heavy-lifting. The writing is his creation. In this age of spin and carefully calibrated public pronouncements, getting an unobstructed look into the mind of a prominent political figure does not happen very often.

Obama wrote his own story. In my book, that counts for a lot.


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