Isamu Noguchi (whose paper lantern lampshades I have coveted ever since living in Tokyo) was able to infuse mid-century modern design with Japanese minimalism, to stunning effect.
And Barack Obama was able to infuse community organizing in Chicago with the Asian art of consensus seeking, which he'd learned during his formative years in Indonesia.
But then something funny happened. After a long period of shunning sightseeing, I decided to play tourist again. First, I took an outing with a friend to the Noguchi Museum in Queens. Second, finding myself in the role of trailing spouse in Jakarta, Indonesia, I made a little pilgrimage, as it were, to the Beseki School, which President Obama attended between the ages of 8 and 10.
These two expeditions diverted my attention away from these two supremely talented men and toward their mothers: respectively, the journalist and educator Léonie Gilmour, and the anthropologist and Indonesia specialist Stanley Ann ("Ann") Dunham :
Gilmour was born in 1873 in New York City and attended the exclusive women's college of Bryn Mawr. Dunham was born in 1942 in Wichita, Kansas, and pursued education in Hawaii.
But while they lived in different eras and parts of the country, their biographies show some extraordinary parallels.
Both women predated the era of widespread international travel, when "global" was not yet a buzz word.
But were they world travelers? For sure.
Were they globally minded? Most assuredly.
And did they see elephants? And how!
Consider, for instance, these three similarities:
Our story is set in New York City in 1901. The dashing young Japanese poet Yone Noguchi has just gotten off the boat from London. He places a classified ad for an editorial assistant, and an earnest Bryn Mawr graduate by the name of Léonie Gilmour answers it. The two instantly hit it off and together resume work on his book, The American Diary of a Japanese Girl — soon to become the first English novel to be published in the U.S. by a person of Japanese ancestry.OUT OF AFRICA AND INTO BLUE HAWAII
As their professional collaboration flourishes, they fall madly in love. Noguchi writes a declaration that Leonie is his lawful wife. But then, just as Léonie discovers she is carrying his child, the relationship flounders. She goes home to her mother in Los Angeles to give birth, while Yone returns to Japan.
After the baby is born in November 1904, Yone puts pressure on Léonie to join him. She repeatedly refuses but finally relents, arriving in Japan in March 1907. As she disembarks the steamship in Yokohama, Yone greets her and confers on the child the Japanese name of Isamu. After this reunion, he confesses he has taken a Japanese wife and they've started a family.
Spurning the idea of being his wife #2, Léonie breaks from Yone — the cad! — once and for all. She makes her own way around Japan and ends up in the picturesque seaside town of Chigasaki, where she has her young son supervise the construction of a house facing out on the Pacific.
Ensconced in this rustic cottage, which she likes to call her "pine nest," Léonie produces another child, a girl named Ailes Gilmour, who will someday dance for the Martha Graham company in New York. Ailes' father, who is Japanese, is rumored to be one of Léonie's English students. Yone calls Léonie a "slut," but her lips are sealed. She carries the secret of her daughter's father's identity to the grave...
Our story is set on the palm tree-studded campus of the University of Hawaii in 1960. A 23-year-old African man, Barack Obama Sr, is winning hearts and minds wherever he goes by dint of his charismatic personality and novelty value: most students have never seen an African before. His admirers include the 18-year-old Ann Dunham (she has shed her first name of "Stanley," which her father gave her because he wanted a boy), who is in his Russian class.Here, by the way, are our two main male protagonists:
Ann is immediately smitten: Barack reminds her of the blacks she saw in the film Black Orpheus when she was 16, the first time she'd ever seen a foreign film. Surely no man could be as warm, sensual, and exotic as he is? Barack appreciates being the object of her upward adoring gaze. Within a few months of their first meeting, she is carrying his child, a boy who will someday be America's 44th president.
The pair get married, but the relationship falls apart soon afterwards, when Obama Sr reveals he already has a wife and children in his native Kenya. His Kenyan wife has agreed that Ann can become wife #2, but Ann wants none of that.
Not long after divorcing her son's father, she encounters another attractive foreign scholar, this time a free-spirited Indonesian. They marry, and Ann makes her first-ever trip to a foreign country. The relationship is fruitful, and they have a daughter...
Gilmour arrived in Japan in 1907 with a young child, no husband or job, and no training in the Japanese language. What was she thinking? On the other hand, she was a Bryn Mawr grad ... and it was not long before she picked up work teaching English at a school in Yokohama. She also did some private tutoring, including for the children of the late Lafcadio Hearn and his Japanese wife, Setsu Koizumi.
When Ann Dunham boarded a plane for Jakarta, Indonesia, with her son Barack in 1967, she had never left the United States before and knew almost nothing about the place she would soon be living in. Maybe it's as well. Her new husband's house, on the outskirts of Jakarta, had no electricity. The streets were unpaved. The nation was transitioning to the rule of General Suharto, which meant rampant inflation and widespread food shortages. A bit of a culture shock after Honolulu!
Still, Dunham appears to have been unfazed. Like Gilmour, she soon got herself a job teaching English (in her case, at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta). She also volunteered at the National Museum in Jakarta, and worked for a U.S. government-subsidized institute dedicated to Indonesia-America friendship.
This is not to say they weren't ambitious for their children, particularly their sons. Each woman underwent a period of separation from her son for the sake of his education, and took enormous pride in his achievements.
But both women also lived for themselves, and tried to leverage their time abroad into careers.
Gilmour worked in the writing field throughout her life, first as an editor, later as an educator and journalist. Her most successful written works were short autobiographical essays for newspapers and magazines chronicling her misfortunes with a self-deprecating wit. One of them, written for the New York Times, was a wryly humorous account of being burglarized in Japan.
When, towards the end of her life, Gilmour was faced with eking out a living in Depression-era New York City, she started up a business importing Japanese knickknacks, not unlike what many expat entrepreneurs do today. Think Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, albeit on a much smaller scale. (As the New York Times put it in its article last year about Gilbert's New Jersey store full of curios from Southeast Asia: "Love, Travel, Sell.")
It did not take Dunham long to develop a deep affinity for Indonesia, which not for nothing has been called an anthropologist's paradise, with its 17,500 islands and more than three hundred languages. (Notably, her attachment to the country outlasted her attachment to her husband: they divorced in 1980.)
Dunham enrolled in the University of Hawaii to train as an anthropologist, doing the kind of research that foreigners are always doing on Indonesia: documenting the nation's traditional customs before they succumb to the forces of modernization. Dunham wrote a thesis about the blacksmithing industry found in Indonesian villages. She obtained her doctoral degree in 1992, just three years before her untimely death from cancer at the age of 52.
But Dunham wasn't just an academic. She also developed a professional career working on behalf of women's employment in Indonesia. Her most lasting legacy was to help build Indonesia's microfinance program, giving tiny loans to credit-poor entrepreneurs — who are mostly women.
Neither Gilmour nor Dunham wrote their memoirs. Perhaps they were too busy? (Dunham apparently started hers but produced just two pages.) Their stories, however, haven't been forgotten because of their famous sons.
Not at all surprisingly, given the colorful lives these women led, the film world has taken an interest. The feature-length film Léonie was released last year, directed by Hisako Matsui, with Emily Mortimer in the title role:
Ann Dunham: A Most Generous Spirit, a documentary depicting Dunham's life, went into production last year. I just hope the tone isn't so hagiographic that it fails to capture Dunham's elephant-seeking spirit. To get some sense of that, the biopic Little Obama, about President Obama's years in Indonesia, may be worth a look. (Dunham is played by South African actress Cara Lachelle.)
But for my money, the film to see is the one where Gilmour and Dunham appear together, icons of the kind of fearless American woman who isn't afraid to see elephants — husbands, children, social norms be damned. (And, btw, they still managed to turn out some terrific kids.) It's a film that probably won't be made, but if it ever is, look for me at the front of the ticket queue!
Questions: What do you make of the similarities between Gilmour and Dunham? Can you think of other 20th-century women who led (or are still leading) the life of lady-errant, in the United States or elsewhere?