At first glance, the resemblance is unmistakable — the diction, gestures, cadences of the deep voice of author Mark Obama Ndesandjo seem uncannily similar to his brother, President Barack Obama. In fact, with his shaved head, Ndesandjo looks like a younger, hipper, more smiling version of the President. But as he shows in his just-published compelling memoir, “An Obama’s Journey: My Odyssey of Self-Revelation Across Three Cultures” (Lyons Press), he’s very much his own person, exploring issues of identity, race and family, along with his Jewishness. The two men share a father, Barack Obama, Sr., but they were born to different mothers; the president is the son of the second wife and Ndesandjo is the son of the third, a Jewish woman named Ruth Beatrice Baker. (Ndesandjo’s parents divorced when he was 7, and he later took on the name of his stepfather, only to reclaim the Obama name in recent years.)
This week, Ndesandjo, 48, was here at the outset of his American and African book tour. A man of high energy, he has lived in Shenzhen, China, for the past 12 years, where he is an accomplished jazz and classical pianist, businessman, artist and writer, and does hands-on work in a local orphanage, visiting and teaching music. At a reception in his honor in an Upper West Side townhouse following a reading at Barnes & Noble, he played piano, autographed books and showed guests an example of his Chinese brush calligraphy. Earlier in the day, he spoke with The Jewish Week. This is an edited transcript.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: I wrote it to tell my story — not to have other people tell it for me. Being a mixed-race kid is a bumpy road. I wanted other children in our increasingly global world to read my stories of identity and finding identity when you’re part of two cultures. I wanted to tell about my family — many people misunderstand the Obama family — our family tree goes back to the 1700s. Third, I wanted to show the importance of following your dreams. [He adds a sentence in Chinese and then translates] “Follow your own path. Let others say what they may.”
You speak of being part of three cultures: Kenyan, Chinese and American. Where does your Jewish heritage fit in?
Being Jewish is something which is like my music, an encompassing glue, another dimension, something that is not localized in one place — I can be Jewish in Kenya or China or America; it’s a state of mind, a sense of pride, an openness to expressing yourself. It’s my birthright.
How did you feel when you visited Israel?
I was there for seven days in 2011. What struck me was its intensity and contradictions, the warmth of people and also the sense of vigilance, driven by the security situation. There’s only one other place that has that sense of layers of culture stacked on top of each other, and that’s China. I also learned a lot about the concept of tzedekah from my host [a New Yorker he declined to name].
In this book and your previous novel, “Nairobi to Shenzhen,” you write about your father’s issues of domestic abuse and drunkenness, and in both books you grapple with forgiveness and atonement. How do you forgive people who have hurt you?
I learned from Judaism that you must not only ask for forgiveness, but you must feel it in your heart, you have to take action and do something about it. I started thinking about my father, Could I forgive him? How do you forgive someone who has done terrible things to you? In a sense, writing is doing a bit of this. The reconciliation comes with recognizing my father in me. If you don’t forgive your father, how can you forgive yourself?
What parts of your father do you see in yourself?
The ability not to trust people. My father had gone through a terrible thing in childhood when his mother left when he was only 6. That experience had a profound influence on him; it made it hard for him to love and trust, to be able to give. For me it was similar. I had difficulties with relationships and I was also cold for a long period of time.
What is your connection to the president?
It’s on and off, pretty intense. Out of respect, I have decided not to comment further about this relationship. In the book, I’m open and candid about our previous experiences, which have been both exhilarating and disappointing.
What was it like when you first met Barack Obama, when he visited Africa?
We met in 1988. Barack came to our home in Kenya unannounced [this is different from the president’s account]. My mother and I were shocked. There had been rumors about a brother in America but I never followed up on it. I saw this person who looked like me, with an even bigger Afro. We greeted each other and it was intense, a little uncomfortable — there were other people in the room and we couldn’t talk much so we arranged to meet on another day.
You say that you were both from broken families, of mixed race, educated at Ivy League universities. Did you feel the commonalities?
We had two different views of culture. He was trying to understand his African roots, and I was fascinated by Western culture, looking forward to going to the West. We rolled our eyes at each other.
The president has positive feeling toward your father. Do you share any of those?
This is a man who would get up at 4 or 5 every day so that he could go to school. First, he tended the goats and cattle. He would then bicycle all the way to school and would study hard. From being a goat herder in the village, he worked his way up to attend Harvard, persuading people to support him.
You write movingly of your maternal grandmother Ida Baker. What sort of influence was she?
I really wanted to pay tribute to her. She was such a wonderful spirit. When I was in college at Brown, she was the warmth and light in my life. Not only a lot of musical abilities come from Ida, but so does my desire to help kids. But my work in orphanages also comes from my father’s side. Barack Obama Sr. had high ideals about Kenya, and he tried to affect changes in political life. And my mother has a kindergarten in Nairobi — she has been teaching for 35 years.
Where is home?
I’m a proud American. I also think that being an American is being able to absorb other cultures, to take the best pieces and fashion our identity. In terms of home, it’s Kenya, the U.S. and China, and it’s also where my family is — my mother, my brothers who live in Nairobi and the U.S., and of course my wife who lives in China.