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Obama's sister reflects on an extraordinary mother and her legacy

Maya Soetoro-Ng is the maternal half-sister of Barack Obama.

Sarah Dea for The Globe and Mail/sarah dea The Globe and Mail

Leaders are not born. They're raised.

Maya Soetoro-Ng should know. Her big brother happens to be President of the United States.

The raven-haired mother of two, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii's College of Education, is between sips of cappuccino in the back seat of a hired car, speeding up the Don Valley Parkway. It is 6:50 a.m. and she is in Toronto to promote her first book, Ladder to the Moon, a charming children's story about a girl who travels to the moon to visit her grandmother.

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And while the topic of conversation cannot be about her half-brother (so says the White House), in many ways it is, because Ms. Soetoro-Ng's storybook is inspired by Stanley Ann Dunham, the remarkable woman who raised them both and died in 1995 at the relatively young age of 52.

"I don't know who said it," Ms. Soetoro-Ng, 40, muses. "But very few people are born leaders. We become leaders when we begin to act. So I think that young people need to be given the opportunity to act benevolently."

At times, she sounds like a politician and some similarities between the woman I am sitting next to and Barack Obama are striking: their cadence of speech, the tilt of their head, and even their laugh.

She is self-deprecating and warm, preferring to hug rather than shake hands. She is also unabashedly erudite, bordering on straight-up nerdy.

Describing her elder daughter, seven-year-old Suhaila, throwing a tantrum, for example, Ms. Soetoro-Ng says the girl "weeps copiously."

Ask what upsets her most and she replies: "I think a lot about our globalized world, our global interconnectedness and it really saddens me when I see people 'othering,' when I see people who are willing to live narrowly."

Not exactly a sound bite but she comes by her bookishness honestly. Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, Ms. Soetoro-Ng attended Barnard College and the University of Hawaii, earning a master's degree in secondary education from New York University.

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She developed curriculum for New York public schools for four years before moving back to Hawaii in 2000 and earning a PhD in international comparative education.

Along the way, she married Konrad Ng, a Chinese Canadian who was raised in Burlington, Ont., and is an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii's Academy of Creative Media.

Always, Ms. Soetoro-Ng, who is named after Maya Angelou, dreamed of becoming a writer but never had the courage. That changed during her brother's 2007 presidential campaign when, holed up in the basement of the Obamas' Chicago home, she penned Ladder to the Moon.

"I started feeling the need to share my mom with my eldest daughter when she was old enough to begin asking questions. I wanted to include stories about mom in our bedtime ritual and I began wondering how mom would have shaped her character so I tried to answer that question in a very deliberate way by having them meet in the book," she recalls.

"It was as a mother that I needed my mother back and I needed to conjure her anew and think about what she would have counselled and what she would have given," she adds.

The President's mother has, of course, been written about before. She was the "white girl from Kansas" who provided the counterpoint to Mr. Obama's black father from Kenya in his own book, Dreams from My Father.

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Janny Scott's recent book, A Singular Woman, sought to fill in the blanks about Ms. Dunham's life. She is revealed as both a peripatetic figure who squandered her money and had no fixed address, and a disciplined visionary who woke up her children before dawn to study, and worked as an anthropologist in remote Indonesian villages in the aftermath of the anti-communist violence that killed half a million people in the southeast Asian archipelago in the mid-sixties.

Ms. Soetoro-Ng does not attempt to reconcile her mother's various incarnations. She sees nothing "dishonest or duplicitous" about contradictory characterizations of her mother. "I think you can have varied and seemingly contradictory depictions of a single person because we all have many facets and, in a way, many selves," she says.

The same is true of Ms. Soetoro-Ng herself. A trilingual, self-described philosophical Buddhist, she considers herself both an educator and an activist. Her own children, Suhaila and Savita, were named, respectively, after the moon and the sun.

"I know I have changed many times. I suspect that the people who knew me when I was in my teens or my 20s would say very different things about me than those who know me now," she explains.

"Mom acquired many layers in her later years by virtue of her travels and her work," she adds.

Her own storybook features Grandma Annie as an idealized version of the woman that raised her.

"I'm not going to present a wholly realistic version because it's a children's book. Because she's my mom and I do carry an idealized version, but don't we all, or wish we could?" she asks.

Not to say that her mother didn't have faults: "We all have a limited amount of good judgment. Hers failed when it came to her marriages. She remained optimistic, but I don't think she really found a person who would love her well for a lifetime. She wasn't particularly good at saving money. … She wasn't good about exercising. She never learned how to drive," Ms. Soetoro-Ng recounts.

"But she was the only one who was harmed by her faults. She didn't harm other people and I can't say that for everyone," she says.

In many ways, the mother who raised her brother was a different incarnation of the mother who raised Ms. Soetoro-Ng, who is nine years Mr. Obama's junior and has a different father.

Ms. Dunham married Barack Obama Sr. in 1961, divorcing three years later. She later married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student and joined him in Jakarta with her son, where Maya was born.

Ms. Dunham died before any of her grandchildren were born, before she knew that her son would become President. However, Ms. Soetoro-Ng believes she died knowing her children were destined for great things.

"She certainly knew more about my brother because he was in his 30s and you could begin to get a sense of his extraordinary talent. … She knew that he would be extraordinary. He always was," she said.

But in many ways, she says, her mother was the most extraordinary of all because her life played out in such an unexpected way.

"In a more abstract way, she was extraordinary because she was someone who did not do anything expected with the script she had been handed. There is no way anyone could have predicted the contours of her years by looking at the raw material she had been given. That, in the end, is what she taught us," Ms. Soetoro-Ng says.

"That is the legacy of her life, and it's pretty cool, I think."

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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