Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic for the New York Times, interviewed former President Barack Obama about literature on Jan. 13 at the White House. Here are excerpts from the conversation, which have been edited and condensed.
MICHIKO KAKUTANI: What made you want to become a writer?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I loved reading when I was a kid, partly because I was traveling so much, and there were times where I’d be displaced, I’d be the outsider. When I first moved to Indonesia, I’m this big, dark-skinned kid that kind of stood out. And then when I moved back from Indonesia to Hawaii, I had the manners and habits probably of an Indonesian kid.
And so the idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing to me. And then I became a teenager and wasn’t reading that much other than what was assigned in school, and playing basketball and chasing girls, and imbibing things that weren’t very healthy.
Q: I think all of us did.
A: Yeah. And then I think rediscovered writing and reading and thinking in my first or second year of college and used that as a way to rebuild myself.
Q: What were your short stories like?
A: It’s interesting, when I read them, a lot of them had to do with older people.
I think part of the reason was because I was working in communities with people who were significantly older than me. We were going into churches, and probably the average age of these folks was 55, 60. A lot of them had scratched and clawed their way into the middle class, but just barely. They were seeing the communities in which they had invested their hopes and dreams and raised their kids starting to decay — steel mills had closed, and there had been a lot of racial turnover in these communities. And so there was also this sense of loss and disappointment.
There is not a lot of Jack Kerouac, open-road, young kid on the make discovering stuff. It’s more melancholy and reflective.
Q: Was writing partly a way to figure out your identity?
A: Yes, I think so. For me, writing was the way I sorted through a lot of crosscurrents in my life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.
Q: Have certain books been touchstones for you in these eight years?
A: Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone. Like most teenagers in high school, when we were assigned, I don’t know, “The Tempest” or something, I thought, “My God, this is boring.” And I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play out between human beings.
Q: Is that sort of comforting?
A: It gives me a sense of perspective. Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it’s not just pain, but joy and glory and mystery.