Q&A: Maya Soetoro-Ng on Dreams From Her Mother

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Just before the crack of dawn, Stanley Ann Dunham made it a ritual to wake up her daughter Maya to gaze at the moon. As Maya complained about being sleepy, Dunham would share with her “moon baby” stories about life and about the importance of empathy, love and global interconnectedness.

Maya Soetoro-Ng on Dreams From Her MotherA few decades later, the lessons Maya Soetoro-Ng’s mother taught her would become more urgent than ever after the shocking terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. As the world reflects on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Our Kids spoke with the education advocate, author and U.S. President Barack Obama’s half-sister about how her book Ladder to the Moon was inspired by dreams from her mother, with important messages for children beyond the tragedy.

Q: What inspired you to write your first children’s book, Ladder to the Moon?

A: I definitely was prompted to write it by travelling around the country during my brother’s (Obama) presidential campaign. And what I saw was there were so many people who were doing posters and doing YouTube videos, new media, T-shirts and books. They were expressing themselves, and a lot of it was for the campaign. But in the meantime, it was an example of self-expression where they were sharing parts of themselves. It wasn’t just about their leader; it was also about their community and their family and what was inside their heart. I just thought all of these stories were really cool, and I’ve always wanted to write children’s books.

As a teacher, I was also definitely inspired to write this particular book because I worked with high school students teaching peace education and I found that by the time they got to high school, a lot of young people still had not had a chance to talk about empathy or to explore their interconnectedness globally, and a lot of young people haven’t had real opportunities for service. They also hadn’t had a chance to explore their own identity. So those are the things that this book is about. It’s about identity, who we are, where we came from, and the people who came before us. It’s about service, and it’s about reaching out trying to help others. It’s about our interconnectedness—the fact that we are all the same in so many ways and we would be better served to remember that. Also the book helps young people know that they are strong.

My feeling was those ideas and those themes should be talked about much younger than 14, which was the youngest age I taught. I thought it would be fun to write a children’s book that included these themes, where parents and elementary school teachers could open up conversations with their kids about some of these themes and how young people can be empowered to make a difference in the world.

The third inspiration for the book was definitely my mother. She was someone who travelled extensively and worked in many different places in the world. And when she looked at the moon, she thought of it as a unifying force that connected all the places and people she loved in the world. So she loved the moon, and she said the moon was very calming to her. She was an early riser. She’d go to sleep at 9:30 and she would wake up at 4:30. And she’d wake me up to go gaze at the moon and I would totally complain and moan about being sleepy, but we would watch the moon and we shared many conversations. That’s where she taught me a lot about life and who she was and my inheritance. So when I was a teenager, she actually gave me a post card of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting called “Ladder to the Moon,” and she said she was giving it to me because I was her “moon baby” since we watched the moon together. I really liked it because it was mysterious, the destination was unknown, but it wasn’t scary. I thought it was pretty and I hung it on my wall for some time.

Many years later I was pregnant with my daughter Suhaila, whom I named Suhaila because Suhaila means the glow around the moon, so I was thinking of mom when I named her. I came across a bunch of my childhood books and toys and mom had written across one of the boxes “For Maya’s children.”  It moved me very much and I cried because I missed her and because she would never meet my unborn child, but I was also comforted by the knowledge that I could share stories with Suhaila about her grandma Annie. So some of those stories later began and those three things came together (as inspiration for Ladder to the Moon): my work as a teacher, the influence of my mother, and also the effect of the presidential campaign of 2008 which inspired a lot of people to act and express themselves.

Q: What is the greatest lesson your mother taught you?

A: It was that we don’t have to be afraid of other people, other places and other points of view and that there’s great value in learning how to move through many worlds, and have a community that is really big and to speak many languages. She was very loving and it was her love and her empathy that I remember the most. She was an intellectual woman, she was very smart, and she was funny. She was many things but really the thing I remember about her is her love and her ability to understand and sympathize and care for others. And it is I think the greatest human gift, and the thing that is worthy of most admiration: love as seen very broadly. I also think that she was special in that she didn’t do the expected thing. She was very resourceful in the way she lived her life. And she didn’t take the story that was given to her and say OK this is my story. Instead she wrote her own story and crafted her own life and was very adventurous. I think that bravery is one of the things that made her exceptional, unique and special.

Q: What do you hope children will learn from the book?

A: The book introduces a woman who would wrap her arms around the whole world if she could. And the idea is that we don’t have to hold ourselves back, we can be warm and embracing and reach out to others. The book is about Suhaila learning that she is powerful and that she has the ability to touch others in positive ways and to make a difference in her surroundings. And that comes from the kind of love and empathy that I’m speaking of. And this adventurousness, the bravery, is what the journey to the moon is about. That’s how we make the world a better place: It’s about being brave, about taking action and reaching out and building things, and having conversations and courage – all kinds of courage, including moral courage – that I think is so important. And I do hope that those themes are reflected in the book, and I hope children can begin talking about those things in classrooms and around the dinner table, and they will think about those themes as they play out in their own lives.

My mother taught me about a great many things while looking at the moon. But those are lessons that emerged from her life. She was born in Kansas and she ended up traveling all over the world. She helped people through her work as an anthropologist. She worked on microfinance programs giving people loans, building small cottage industries and businesses, so that they would have more control over their own lives and the lives of their children. She found community and family all over the world. Wherever she travelled, she had friends that spoke many different languages, people of many different faiths, people of many different professions and background. So those lessons are all the lessons of her life. And they’re reflected in her words as well as to me while looking at the moon but even more so by her example.

Q: What was the connection or message related to 9/11 in Ladder to the Moon?

A: After Sept. 11, 2001, I wished that we could always emerge from tragedy more compassionate. Unfortunately, sometimes terrible tragedy brings out rage and a desire for retribution–understandable but unproductive, leading to continued violence and distance between peoples. In Ladder to the Moon, the two sturdy sisters represent the courage that it takes to love in the middle of chaos or pain.  They work together and weave their own paths and don’t allow the crumbling structures to crush them. They stick out their tongues to catch soft rain and are thereby cleansed of fear. Together they find peace.

Q: Where were you and what were you doing on Sept. 11, 2001?

A: I was in Hawaii in our grandmother’s home and a friend called me to rouse me from slumber very early in the morning Hawaii time.  She wept as she told me to turn on the television. I had just moved from NYC the previous year and had visited NYC the previous month during my summer break, so I spent the morning glued to the television feeling terrified for my friends and colleagues. Today new media would play a much bigger role in disseminating information, but then we didn’t have much choice so it was mostly traditional media we watched, seeing the planes crash again and again and feeling stupefied. We watched and waited, knowing that the nation would be forever altered and wishing we knew what to do.

I went to work that morning and tried to answer my students’ questions. I think that it’s a mistake to not try to teach and explain such events to children and youth. We can try to teach them in a way that is not frightening but since students will be impacted profoundly by such events, I believe our silence will not serve students well. Again, we can focus on the messages of empowerment — for instance discussing heroism and responsibility, and the students’ power to sympathize and assist after crisis and tragedy. In this way, we help the students grow stronger and more humane and growth can emerge from wreckage.

Q: Have you observed any positive changes (especially with youth) in learning empathy, courage, interconnectedness, compassion and making a difference to make a better world after 9/11?

A: That was a terrible day. Many of my students were very confused and couldn’t understand why anyone could hate enough to do such a thing. Rather than allowing them to lose faith in human nature and surrender, I wanted my students to feel empowered to contribute to a better future in which such madness is lessened. I asked them to explore the history of the region from multiple perspectives in order to try to understand what went wrong and how suffering can lead to violence.  I believe that the work that the students did to build understanding (without excusing the act or individuals who committed it) will make them more capable leaders and peacemakers in the future. They began to recognize the role that education, media, and poverty can play in building peace or justifying war. They began to think about the responsibility of religious and civil leadership — as well as artists and scientists — to promote and inspire solution-building as well as moral courage.

Q: Have you talked to your daughters about the lessons of 9/11? What would you say to your daughters, educators and other parents on how they should understand and mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11?

A: I will do my best to talk to our seven-year-old about the suffering of those who lost loved ones that day. We have a friend who lost a beloved brother that day and we know a family who lost a dear daughter that day, and I will try to conjure their faces in our shared and unspoken prayers. Our youngest daughter is only three and therefore too young to comprehend the events, but I will talk to both daughters about the importance of quiet reflection and how peace begins with each of us. We will have a moment of silence then, and ask in that moment that those who are still hurting be healed.

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