Sunday 23 July 2017

Review: Ladder To The Moon by Maya Walker

Ng Walker Books, €13.50, Paperback

Barack Obama may not be the only bestselling writer in the family. His sister Maya has written a children's book which was published last week, a dream-like story woven around their charismatic mother Ann who died from cancer in 1995 at the age of just 52 and who was the link to their Irish roots.

It may not be quite as successful as the President's multi-million selling Dreams from My Father. But Maya, a teacher, is a born storyteller and her book Ladder to the Moon shows she has the same way with words that her brother does.

Maya Soetoro-Ng is President Obama's half-sister -- they have the same mother but different fathers. Her lyrical book relays the loving wisdom of their late mother to a young granddaughter she never met, Maya's daughter Suhaila.

Maya was born in Indonesia where her older brother Barack also lived as a boy from 1967 to 1971 with their mother. Ann had married a man from Indonesia who she had met at university in Hawaii (where she had also met Barack's Kenyan father who she had married and divorced).

It was this openness and willingness to engage with people from other cultures which made Ann, who eventually gained a PhD in anthropology, such an unusual woman. And that was the inspiration for Maya's book.

In the story, little Suhaila wishes she had known her grandma, who Maya tells her would have wrapped her arms round the whole world if she could. One night Suhaila gets her wish when a golden ladder appears at her window and Grandma Annie, arms outstretched, invites the girl to come on a journey through the skies. They travel around the world meeting children from different cultures and the message is that we are really all the same.

"When I was nine, living on the island of Java (in Indonesia), my mother gave me a postcard of the Georgia O'Keeffe painting Ladder to the Moon," Maya says. "I loved it. A ladder hung suspended over the desert, and above it was a soft half-moon. The moon wasn't the focus. The real focus of the painting was the ladder. The journey was what mattered -- life's wondrous journey of discovery."

Maya never forgot the painting . . . and it became the starting point for her book in tribute to the mother she and Barack still miss so much.

"My mother was a remarkable woman. She would get down on the floor and really play with my brother and me. She built us a kiln for making pottery, and she made toys with us. But above all, my mother was a storyteller. She loved listening to stories and reading to us. She would share the stories of faraway people while sitting in a hammock and looking up towards the clouds.

"These stories about heroic journeys and love are a large part of what made me decide to become a teacher. When I was a teenager, Mum would wake me up at night to gaze at the moon. Though I failed to fully appreciate the beauty of those midnight moon-gazings then, now I hunger to have them back."

Sadly, Ann died of ovarian cancer 10 years before Maya had her daughter Suhaila. "Becoming a parent made me think of my own mother with both intense grief and profound gratitude," Maya says. "More than anything, I wished that my mother and my daughter could have known and loved each other."

She wrote the book as a way of bridging that painful gap. "I hoped that I could teach Suhaila some of the many things I learned as I grew up witnessing my mother's extraordinary compassion and empathy. I decided to unite grandmother and grandchild through a story in which my mother could meet her granddaughter and share the moon with her.

"They could become part of the moon's light, and as Suhaila climbed the ladder, she would climb towards a more expansive vista and learn the meaning of service. She would watch her grandmother heal and shelter those who had suffered through tragedies, and eventually become the one to reach down, help up and heal."

When Barack was 10, Ann sent him back to Hawaii to live with her parents and go to school there. Ann and little Maya also went back to Hawaii a year later and she began graduate study at university there, working on the cultural anthropology of Indonesian peoples. A few years later she returned to Indonesia to do doctoral fieldwork but Barack, who was then 14, stayed with his grandparents.

Over the following years Ann and her daughter Maya moved to Pakistan, New York, and back to Hawaii. In 1994 Ann collapsed with stomach pain during a dinner party in Jakarta. She was later diagnosed with cancer and died in 1995, just short of her 53rd birthday.

President Obama's connection to Ireland is through his mother Ann. Fulmouth Kearney from Moneygall, Co Offaly, emigrated to America in 1850 to join some of his uncles and his father Joseph who had gone the year before. Fulmouth, who was then 18 or 19 (the unusual Christian name came from his family) worked as a farm labourer in Ohio and in 1865 he, like many others, pushed further into the wilderness in search of cheap land, settling in Indiana. By then he had married and one of his daughters was Mary Ann Kearney, who was born in 1869.

Mary Ann eventually married a man called Jacob Dunham. Barack Obama's mother Ann was a Dunham. Jacob Dunham was her great grandfather and his wife Mary Ann Kearney, who lived until 1936, was her great grandmother.

Maya, who is 40 and a mother of two, says that, like her brother, she is proud of the Irish blood in her family. Now a lecturer at the University of Hawaii, she is hoping to accompany the President on his trip to Ireland next month.

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