R E V I E W – B O O K
The word autobiography invokes in most readers a sense of dread due to it conjuring an image of hefty, brick-like books filled with page after page of inscrutable print that, at the end of the day, amalgamate to little more than a patchwork quilt of personal biases and spats, defence of one’s actions, and championing of ideologies — all barely held together, more often than not, by threads of dispassionate writing. And while the former American President, Mr Barack Obama, cannot be excused of writing a Goliath of a memoir (bordering at around 800 pages and with a second volume coming soon) with a healthy sprinkle of aforementioned elements, his prose can be termed as anything but impersonal.
Divided into seven parts, A Promised Land spans from Obama’s early childhood to his romps as a teenager, all the way through his tumultuous adulthood into the early years of his presidency. He touches on his journey of becoming the President of the most powerful country in the world as an African-American, the obstacles that he had to overcome as well as the hurdles he faced in Office due to his Republican colleagues. He expresses his conundrums during policy-making, his qualms about previous administrations as well as about other world leaders — without shying away. He pulls no punches while criticising the opposition or his own party. For example, he says this of both his Republican and Democratic peers in the Illinois State Committee,
“They were actors in a rigged game, I decided, and I wanted no part of it.”
Thus, he effectively makes A Promised Land an accessible, bipartisan canon that anyone can read regardless of their political preferences.
Calling the memoir ponderous would honestly be an understatement. A Promised Land serves as Obama’s Pensieve with him presenting precise memories in explicit detail, all the while mulling over the people and events that led him to make the decisions he did in his first two years in Office (2009-2011) and leaving his actions as open-ended questions to both himself and his readers. Perhaps the most striking thing about the memoir is his ruthless self-examination, leaving him bare to public scrutiny. Questioning whether this is a “blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service”, he chews over so vigorously on whether his actions were right that it makes one question whether his self-deprecation merely stems from a need to defend himself against potential attacks by being his own harshest critic.
However, despite him openly doubting himself, he upholds an uncompromising defence when it comes to the policies that he truly believes in, such as Obamacare. He exposes the unrealistic expectations of the public in contrast with the pragmatic approach that officials are usually forced to pursue. Through the tenacity with which he expresses his regrets on how his moral preferences regarding healthcare, foreign policy, economic crises, and climate change — to name a few — were often stubbed to please the majority and get things in motion, Obama manages to humanise the government.
Another thing that I loved about A Promised Land is how Obama presents things from multiple viewpoints. He understands the Democratic view and the Republican view, the view of a Wall Street mogul, as well as that of a Southern farmer trying to keep body and soul together. He speaks of his actions not according to his own ideological stances, but as how they might and have affected the American citizens. Obama’s humility also shines in how he reflects on his story as being a wager against America’s racial history, crediting his success as being a result of his rejection of the notion of a segregated America, and above all, his truest convictions about what America truly is — as is seen in his speech from the 2004 Democratic Convention,
“There is not a Black America and a White America and a Latino America and an Asian America. There’s the United States of America.”
Though A Promised Land chronicles more of Obama’s political life than his personal life, the instances when he does speak about his personal details — delving into the ups and downs of his marriage and fatherhood, he expresses raw emotions that can hardly be expected from a presidential memoir. Diplomacy can be observed in the elusiveness of his prose — he strays from in-depth emotional analysis of how he felt during moments of injustice. However, his refusal to dive back into past grievances over the actions of his Republican peers display his battle wounds better than any open-book confession could. Despite his focus on the technicalities of policy-making (sometimes a bit too much), Obama’s evident connection to even the most nittiest and grittiest of details of his career, the infectious fervour with which he delivers his immense interest in his policies — makes a reader appreciate them (if not for their content, then at least to humour his child-like zeal).
Being a casual reader who rarely, if ever, takes up the arduous task of reading memoirs, I fully appreciated Obama’s breezy and polished writing style. His use of manageable lexicons and his general ability as a writer have dealt A Promised Land a sort of conversational ease that keeps the content mobile, and allows a reader to easily shuffle from the depths of political or philosophical rigmaroles to jocular anecdotes. And damn were there some fabulous anecdotes. The charisma that drew thousands during his public speeches was not left out in this book. His voice translates effortlessly on paper; his sentence structure, words, and tone mirroring that of his voice during his speeches — silent in observation soaring in emotion and pitch-falling in regret.
While A Promised Land deals with countless topics, all of which are impossible to cover within the scope of this meagre review, it stays true to one particular theme throughout — discovering one’s identity in a highly polarised environment like America. Obama deals a chastisement of Donald Trump in the penultimate chapters of the book that is sure to continue in the next volume and calls to memory the discrepancies that characterised American politics in the last four years. This first volume of Obama’s presidential memoirs seems to foreshadow the start of a journey that will lead to a cry for hope in the future, a cry to establish what Obama and innumerable Americans of all races and genders and ages hope for every single day — to be able to live the American dream.
“It was the call of workers who organised; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountain top and pointed the way to the Promised Land. Yes, we can!”
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.