Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ladder to the Moon -- An Interview with Maya Soetoro-Ng

President Obama's sister shares the inspiration behind her new picture book 

I'm delighted to feature my interview with Maya Soetoro-Ng, President Obama's sister, on the launch date of her debut picture book, Ladder to the Moon (illustrated by Yuyi Morales, Candlewick Press). 

I'll be giving away a copy of Ladder to the Moon. Find out how you can enter to win, below.

Ann Dunham, mother of Maya Soetoro-Ng and President Obama, died almost ten years before Maya's daughter Suhalia was born. In Ladder to the Moon, Maya has found an imaginative way to unite Suhaila with her Grandma Annie, sending them off together on a magical dreamlike journey of love and healing. 

This lyrical story brings together imagery and influences from Maya's own childhood. When Maya was a young girl, her mother gave her a postcard of the 1958 Georgia O'Keeffe painting, Ladder to the Moon. Maya kept the postcard, and the image of the golden ladder climbing up the sky to the moon stayed with her.  

Ladder to the Moon - Georgia O'Keeffe
As a child, I understand you were enchanted by the Georgia O'Keeffe painting, Ladder to the Moon, on a postcard your mother gave you. Your picture book, Ladder to the Moon, combines a similar thread of magical realism with other themes -- such as hope, a love that transcends generations, and the idea of reaching out to comfort and empower others.

Besides the O'Keeffe painting, can you tell us about some of the other influences from art and literature that may have contributed to your writing this book? Are you a magical realism aficionado? What favorite childhood books/authors/poets have continued to resonate with you as an adult and as a mother?

Maya Soetoro-Ng
M S-N: Yes, magic realism is definitely my preferred genre. When I was a child, Mom took me to a lot of places with rich history and art, places where people believed in magic and where one could see poverty and suffering transformed into something kinder through poetry, music, and art. In Jogyakarta, we watched the interplay of shadow and substance during all night shadow puppet theater or wayang.  On Gedung Songo in E. Java, we heard villagers play ethereal music to bring back the sun during a total eclipse.  We listened to chants while wading our feet in the Indus River along the Karakoram.  

As a teenager, then, it was natural that I fall in love with Isabelle Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison; I adore them still. I love how densely populated their worlds were. I love the power of their language to create wonder. I also really enjoyed the mystery and lyricism of parts of Mahfouz' the Cairo Trilogy and river stories like VS Naipaul's, A Bend in the River and Ursula Hegi's, Stones from a River.

Beautifully realized in the illustrations by Yuyi Morales, Ladder to the Moon is an elegant dreamlike text. I understand your mother told you stories beneath the moon. Can you discuss the evolution of using the moon as a metaphor to describe Grandma Annie? I found it lovely that you described the moon - and thereby Grandma Annie - as, "Full, soft, and curious." Can you elaborate a little on the connotations of those words?

M S-N: Yes, I think I have always associated the moon with our mother.  She would wake me in the middle of the night to gaze at it from rooftops in Jakarta, lanais in Honolulu, fire escapes in New York, and Himalayan peaks too. I would tease her and call her a 'luna-tic'  for waking me up in the middle of the night, but it was no secret to her that I loved those times. The moon conjures her physical presence but also her spiritual presence. Moonlight is soft but strong. The moon governs the tides and I think of the rhythm of waves as one of the most soothing things on earth.  When deciding on the place where she wanted her ashes to be scattered, she chose the ocean so that the tides would carry her to everyone and every place that she loved.  

I think of her like the moonlight, filling up a space with her voice and heart; this was her fullness. She was soft with the ones she loved but unyielding in her convictions.  And her greatest gift to us was curiosity. Together we would look under rocks and use a telescope to gaze up at the sky. She gave us science, philosophy, and travel and in doing so made our worlds big and wide and deep.

After each phase of Suhaila's journey with Grandma Annie, there is a recurring refrain, "Suhaila... knew more than she had known before." Part of the point of this story is the idea of gaining knowledge. Can you briefly address this idea?

M S-N: One of the central messages of Ladder to the Moon is that knowledge can be accessed in many ways: sight, sound, taste, feeling, texture etc. In teaching our children I would like us to break down perceived boundaries between people, religions, and cultures but also between our intellectual, spiritual, physical, and emotional selves.  Knowledge is not simply information after all; it is the wisdom of our elders, it is emotional intelligence in communication, it is problem solving during times of great challenge. When Suhaila reaches down and lifts up and works to help others in service, she has finally understood her own power to impact the world, and this is the best sort of knowledge.

You and your brother, Barack, have both published picture books recently, in which the essence stems from a message to your daughters. Do you think this is more than a coincidence? If so, can you expand on this notion a little?

M S-N: I think that our daughters are our greatest inspiration right now. I know that our daughters make us simultaneously soft and strong; they make us tender but brave.  Pretty much everything we do is for them even if they'll feel the impact indirectly. Our daughters remind us that the world is precious and that what we do, say, and work towards all matter.

Your mother, Ann Dunham, was clearly a profound influence on your sensibilities and your world view. Did she encourage you and Barack to write when you were growing up?

MS-N: She encouraged us to read. And she valued literature and poetry a great deal. She taught us that stories are valuable and can be used for pragmatic as well as aesthetic purposes. She was a pretty good writer herself, being quite detail oriented. She often chuckled with delight when reading a good mystery and sighed with pleasure when reading a beautiful book of poetry.  She loved the world and human creations, and she definitely wasn't ready to leave the world at so young an age, but she had enough time here to teach us how to love the world as much as she did.

Thank you so much, Maya, for taking the time to share the fascinating background behind your enchanting story. 

To enter the Ladder to the Moon book giveaway, all you have to do is be a follower and make a comment. U.S. and Canadian residents only please.

I previewed Ladder to the Moon in digital format on Net Galley. To view sample pages of the book, visit:  http://www.candlewick.com/ladderpreview


Unknown said...

Hi Megan,
What a great interview you did with Maya Soetoro-Ng. I especially like the response to the question on the main idea of gaining knowledge in her story. Thanks for sharing with us.

rilla jaggia said...

Beautiful book, great interview! Thanks Megan :)

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

I don't suppose you can pass a love note to Maya Soetoro-Ng? Just wondering.

Ann Dunham. What a woman!
Registered Voter

Farida Mirza said...

The interview is so focussed and the questions and answers so illuminating, that I wish to know everything about the book, the author and the interviewer. Thanks.

Julie Musil said...

What a great interview! The books sounds lovely.

Mary Ann Fraser said...

I always enjoy hearing where people find their stories and inspiration. Thanks for sharing this wonderful interview.

Laura said...

What a beautiful interview! I loved this "I know that our daughters make us simultaneously soft and strong; they make us tender but brave." This is my experience with my two daughters as well. Thank you so much for introducing us to Maya Soetoro-Ng...her book looks enchanting!

ps...my word veri word is "fables"...how cool is that???

Unknown said...

just the artwork alone inspires the reader with love ahd the closeness of family...the knowledge expressed in the story can only enrich those lives fortunate enough to read this illuminating story...and again the picture on the cover expresses the love between mother and child as 'one'...every moment shared becomes an eternity...bravo

Anonymous said...

What a lovely, well thought through interview, Megan! Maya Soetoro-Ng must have been pleased to have questions that penetrated so deeply into her work and into her own inspirations. Anyone reading your interview will simply have to read "Ladder to the Moon"!

Rosi Lovdal

Corey Schwartz said...

Wow! How did you get the opportunity to interview her?

Unknown said...

Wonderful interview, Megan. Thoughtful questions and lyrical answers. I can't wait to read the book. What a wonderful way to connect her daughter to her mother.

Suzy Engelman Block said...

I love this interview!
In-depth questions and beautifully
expressed answers...like poetry!
Thanks Megan! This is a delight!

Dolores J said...

Wonderful interview, Megan. Sounds like a fantastic book! I can't wait to read it.

Terry Lim Diefenbach said...

Wonderful to connect generations so poetically. It must have been a loving and healing process for the author - and it is giving us a great read. Thank you for sharing.

Rita said...

Gorgeous interview, with lovely, full answers. Truly a wonderful intro to the book.

Thank you both.

Diane Browning said...

Megan, I always enjoy your intelligent and well-articulated questions. I think you have helped us to get a glimpse of this fascinating woman and her love for her mother. The book sounds lovely...

Jill Kemerer said...

I learned something new today! What a beautiful book (the colors and art of the pictures soothe me), and interesting interview. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Now I want to head out to the art museum... :)

Megan Frances Abrahams said...

Thank you so much for your comments, everyone. I'm delighted I had the opportunity to Maya Soetoro-Ng.

I'm happy to announce a winner for the book giveaway. I'll be sending a copy of Ladder to the Moon to Jennifer as soon as she sends me her address. Congratulations, Jennifer!