President Obama’s half-sister on love, parenting, and the mom they both shared

By Gabrielle Nomura
Northwest Asian Weekly

Maya Soetoro-Ng at the Wing Luke museum with her book, Ladder to the Moon. (Photo by Zachariah Bryan/NWAW)

It was Maya Soetoro-Ng’s mother who made her realize how lucky she was to be of mixed race. Being both Indonesian and white, Soetoro-Ng belonged to more than one world.

“So often, mixed people see themselves as neither here nor there, but betwixt and between. Mom is the one who helped me feel fortunate, to embrace and allow for all my layers,” said Soetoro-Ng, an accomplished educator and author.

The experience was different for Soetoro-Ng’s half-brother, Barack Obama.

“He walked the world and very often was looked at as African American.”

Their late mother, cultural anthropologist Stanley Ann Dunham, empowered her children in many ways, to name themselves with their own racial identity, to choose their own religion, to explore many cultures.

The only non-negotiables, Soetoro-Ng said, were kindness, courtesy, and compassion.

In 1995, Dunham passed away from ovarian cancer. She was only 52. To come to terms with her grief of knowing her children would never meet their grandmother, Soetoro-Ng authored “Ladder to the Moon,” in 2011, a children’s book with her daughter Suhaila as the heroine. In
Soetoro-Ng’s story, Suhaila goes on a magical journey to the moon to meet Grandma Annie, “who would wrap her arms around the whole wide world if she could.”

Soetoro-Ng grieves regularly for all that her mother has missed.

“It would have been wonderful if she had been there to hold my brother when he became president,” she said. “She would have cried, the way you do at weddings.”

But she still finds many ways to keep her mother’s memory alive as she raises her children Suhaila, 8, and Savita, 4.

The Northwest Asian Weekly had a chance to ask Soetoro-Ng a few questions after her recent visit to Seattle.

Maya Soetoro-Ng at a book signing at the Wing Luke on April 20. (Photo by Zachariah Bryan/NWAW)

NWAW: How did your mother influence your parenting style?
Soetoro-Ng: There was never arrogance or one right answer with Mom. I try to do the same with our children. They are so different from one another, even when you raise them the same. One is softer. One is more competitive. You realize you can’t force your own identity on them.

NWAW: You lived in Indonesia with your mother until your early teens. What are some of your memories of that time?
Soetoro-Ng:  Mom fostered a healthy sense of curiosity in us. We spent plenty of time riding around in jeeps, looking through microscopes, telescopes, under rocks, and up into the night sky. But she also encouraged philosophical exploration. She loved “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell, and offered us comparative philosophies and religions from around the world, including folktales. We enjoyed thinking about how these stories intercepted and overlapped.

NWAW: You often talk about how much your mother loved to look at the moon.
Soetoro-Ng:  It’s a connecting force. No matter where you live, it looks the same on any given day. That’s not true of the constellations or the weather, but it is true of the moon. My mother saw how the moon also governs the tides, and the ocean connects us all.

When she was first thinking about what we would do with her remains, she considered being buried underneath a beautiful tree on a hill. But then she realized she wanted to be scattered in the ocean because, ‘How else will I travel to all the places that I love?’ So, there, on the south shore of Oahu, on a very dramatic, beautiful lava rock, we scattered her ashes against the crashing waves.

NWAW: You have described your mom as an agnostic who exposed you to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. How has that affected the way you teach your children about spirituality?
Soetoro-Ng:  I give my children choice. One of my daughters says she is a Christian and Buddhist because she likes Christ, as well as Buddha. This is very reminiscent of my childhood. Mom felt each faith had something beautiful and powerful to contribute.

NWAW: In the foreword to Kip Fulbeck’s book, “Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids,” you talk about growing up mixed-race and the hope for “additional options beyond the either/or” for your daughters.
Soetoro-Ng:  I was empowered to name myself, which was important, as there was no strong Indonesian community in the United States. There were no assumptions made, and if they were, the assumption was that I was Latina. I want our daughters to be able to name themselves, considering all the cultures in our family, me with an Indonesian dad, a Scots-Irish/English mom who married a Kenyan. I married a Chinese Canadian just to mix it up even more.

NWAW: On that note, do you identify with the term hapa?
Soetoro-Ng:  It depends. There is a risk we take when we call ourselves that. One might suggest that this is a term we call ourselves as a matter of convenience, without having to explain identities that are far more complex. I think it’s appropriate to emphasize or de-emphasize certain parts of your heritage at certain times. In all circumstances, I feel like an American woman.

NWAW: In what other ways have you kept your mother’s memory alive with your daughters?
Soetoro-Ng:  During my recent visit to Seattle, I got to meet many of her friends (Editor’s note: Dunham attended Mercer Island High School) and some of them started forming relationships with my girls. Many people in Hawaii were also close with my mother. My daughters have many surrogate aunties and uncles, and there’s a broad sense of ohana (family).

NWAW: How else has your mother inspired you as a parent?
Soetoro-Ng:  She was brave about seeing new places and people. Newness wasn’t something that intimidated her. The kids always have to try something once. (end)

Gabrielle Nomura can be reached at

No related content found.

Leave a Reply


Community Calendar

Subscribe to our e-news