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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What Do Barack Obama and Isamu Noguchi Have in Common? Mothers Who Saw Elephants...

Perhaps it's not surprising given my life-long tendency to think (a little too far) outside the box, but for some time now, I've been fixated on what I see as the close resemblance between Barack Obama and world-famous sculptor and architect Isamu Noguchi. Part of it is their mixed-race, movie-star looks:
Isamu Noguchi and Barack Obama as youths (Noguchi photo by Berenice Abbott).
But the other piece of it is that both men benefited from having parents of different races and cultures. They saw the elephant early in life, which influenced their careers in a positive way.

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.
From left: Noguchi sculpture in front of the Noguchi museum; inscription on statue of Obama at the Beseki School.

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 :
From left: Léonie Gilmour in 1912, courtesy Wikipedia; S. Ann Dunham's yearbook pic, courtesy

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:

1) Both women have an early life-story that reads somewhere between a Mills & Boon romance and a penny dreadful:

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.
       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.
       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...
Here, by the way, are our two main male protagonists:
From left: Yone Noguchi in 1903, courtesy Wikipedia; Barack Obama Sr in 1936, courtesy Appletree.
I don't know about you, but I think they look tailor made for the part of lady killer.

2) Both women displayed a cavalier attitude about picking up stakes and moving to parts of the world they knew nothing about.

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.

3) Both women aspired to be part of the wider world they had risked so much to see, not just live vicariously through their offspring.

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.
From left: Article by Léonie Gilmour (1921), courtesy New York Times archives; a revised version of Ann Dunham's 1992 dissertation on blacksmithing in Indonesia, published as a book in 2009.

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?


HyunSook Yun said...

Many thanks for the wonderful story.

I attended the preview and Q&A of the Leonie at FCCJ. Emily Mortimer as Leoniw is excellent.
The film maker Hisako Matsui herself is a single mother, who has become a leading film producer and film maker in Japan.
According to her, the film was made with donation from 3 thousand people and it took her 6 years to have enough money to start making the Leonie. Many of the people donated money are women and members of a fan-club called "My Leonie." from Asahi shimbun, Nov, 3. 2010

ML Awanohara said...

Thank you, HyunSook, for contributing those details about the making of the film Léonie, which in itself is a fascinating story.

I adore Emily Mortimer, btw. Though I've only seen the trailer, I think she's perfect for the role!

So, do you have any idea of when the film might be coming to the U.S.?

p.s. I'm so jealous that you got to see a preview at the FCCJ. Natsukashii...

Anonymous said...

What a delightful, provocative post! As the mother of a bi-racial child who has joined his dad and me traveling hither and yon, I wonder what effect all this blending of borders and cultures will have on his perspective. Growing up in a very small, homogenous New England town, he is also learning to patiently and magnanimously navigate narrower streams as well.(As when he responds to curious questions about whether he is Chinese, Indian, etc., why he doesn't look like his mom, and why he likes seaweed. ) Reading this blog entry, I can't help but wonder how the boyhood experiences of Obama and Noguchi shaped their perspectives as well. Many thanks! Rhonda

ML Awanohara said...

@ Anon aka Rhonda

Thank you for your lovely comment! I actually think that Isamu Noguchi and Barack Obama reacted to their unusual childhoods rather differently, maybe because one was an artist and the other a politician. (Now, which one does your son want to be?!)

Noguchi had to navigate narrower waters, as you put it, when his mother sent him to a progressive school in Indiana founded by Edward Rumely. It must have been quite a culture shock for this sensitive adolescent suddenly to be plunged into the Midwest. Is it any wonder he took on the American name of Sam Gilmour?

Still, Indiana is said to have influenced the development of his artistic sensibilities, for a start by providing his first exposure to the American Arts and Crafts movement (the schoolboys did their own carpentry).

But once Sam/Isamu got to New York, there was no turning back. He became very cosmopolitan and traveled extensively. (Notably, when he volunteered to help improve the environment of a Japanese American internment camp in Arizona during WWII, he found he had little in common w/ the internees, whom he described as "mostly unintellectual, nonpolitical farmers." The experiment failed.)

In the early years, whenever he felt torn between both sides of the Pacific, his mother would say: "There are no boundaries for artists. There are no borders." It appears that Noguchi took her advice to heart!

Barack Obama, by contrast, reacted to his international life by constructing borders around himself. Unlike artists, politicians need to belong to place and country. (The birthers of course still don't quite buy it. They allege he was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, or that he's an Indonesian citizen.)

Jeffrey said...


I have nothing to contribute other than complimenting you on yet another fine post.

ML Awanohara said...

@ Jeffrey
Thanks for the compliment. It makes all the difference! This blogging can be a rather isolating business...

Kym Hamer said...

ML, I'm going to be a belligerent colonial and not respond to your questions. So there!

However, this post did trigger something partic. in your comment on these ladies' unwillingness to experience life vicariously through others. It is the thing that can get me quite riled up - when being an expat becomes 'a show and tell' for people who talk wistfully about how exciting your life is and/or how brave you are - like 'upping-sticks' is not tough and heartbreaking like anything else that's thrilling in life.

Then I have to take a moment, get over myself and dig around for some empathy! And remind myself of the moments I envy the complacent cosiness of those leading a 'less adventurous' life...

ML Awanohara said...

Hmmmm… Maybe my advanced age makes me skeptical, but I imagine most stay-at-homers, far from wanting to experience the lives of their globetrotting friends vicariously, think we are all a bit dotty. Even as I type this, they are congratulating themselves at having had the good sense to limit their overseas adventures to their honeymoons and/or odd sightseeing trip.

In any event, what I find most interesting about Ann Dunham and Léonie Gilmour is that nothing--failed relationships, kids, social convention-- appears to have come in the way of their wanderlust.

At the very least, you'd think they'd be wracked by guilt for having brought biracial kids into the world and then raising them as single mothers. But they didn't let any of that stop them from doing what they wanted to do: i.e., having international adventures and parlaying those adventures into some kind of career...

What's more, their pursuit of such unconventional lives doesn't appear to have damaged their kids. On the contrary, both raised sons who reached the summit of their careers, and their daughters, too, were a credit to them.

I guess the question to pose to expat parents out there (sorry, I can't stop asking questions--chalk it up, hahaha, to the teacher in me) is whether Ann and Léonie were just flooks? Or can dragging your kids to (and around) foreign lands, because it's something you have always wanted to do, actually be good for them?

Both Ann and Léonie lived before the age of constant parental guilt, so maybe that's not possible any more?

Expat Forever said...

Thank you ML for this excellent post, as usual.
My comment to your post from a TCK's mother point of view is that those children had to face at a very young age what it is to be different i.e TCK and on the top of that being biracial children. I think their strength is there. Their mothers were successfully parenting them because they constantly remind them where they come from, their uniqueness, in a foreign environment. These moms knew also how to take advantage of this latter for themselves but also for their children. And it is not easy on a daily basis especially in the case of Leonie. What a woman !!!
Feeling and facing that you are different at 6 years old and later is hard because the only thing you want is to be like the other ones. And I can tell you, it is hard for a mother to find and say the right words to comfort your child in this situation. But again, these kids will be stronger than other ones who stayed in their home country.

ML Awanohara said...

@ Expat Forever aka Véronique

"Their mothers were successfully parenting them because they constantly reminded them where they come from, their uniqueness, in a foreign environment."

While I think that's true, I also think that both mothers made a smart move (not sure if it was intentional or not) in taking their biracial sons abroad during their formative years — ie, just before puberty.

A half-black and half-white child wouldn't really stand out in a country like Indonesia, which I think must have one of the biggest mixtures of cultures on the planet! When I was in Jakarta in November, I saw several men who were dead ringers for Obama. And did you know that since Obama became president, the Indonesians have been holding Obama look-alike contests? (Here's one example--uncanny, right?)

Obama himself made reference to how comfortable Indonesians made him feel as a youth in the speech he delivered during his visit to Jakarta in early November: "[In Indonesia] we can find the ability to bridge divides of race and region and religion — by the ability to see yourself in other people. As a child of a different race who came here from a distant country, I found this spirit in the greeting that I received upon moving here: Selamat Datang. [Welcome.]"

As for Isamu Noguchi, one of the reasons his mother decided to take him to Japan is that she had to fend off some racist attacks against him in California because of rising anti-Japanese sentiment following Japan's victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. (That was also the reason that Isamu's father, Yone, repatriated in 1904, just before Léonie gave birth to their son.)

By the time Isamu returned to the United States as a teenager, America had moved on to World War I — and a whole different set of concerns.

In any event, from that point on, he seems to have had what it takes to negotiate being biracial in the United States — though perhaps that's easier when you're half Asian than when you're half black?

To sum up, I agree with you that both men appear to have derived tremendous strength from their time abroad under their mothers' wings.

rlysik said...

I just wanted to thank you for this wonderful article. I had read "The Life of Isamu Noguchi : Journey without Borders" by Masayo Dus a while back and had also been struck by the similarity between the lives of Isamu Noguchi and Barack Obama.

After reading a review of "A Singular Woman" on NPR's website today I did a search for "Leonie Gilmour and Stanley Ann Dunham" and found your post. I'm glad I did because now I know of the article that Leonie Gilmour had written for the New York Times as well as the movie that was recently made about her life, which I now hope to see. She was a truly amazing person. Very brave. I know I would likely break out in a cold sweat every night worrying over the future had I been in the same position, and she just seemed to wing it. There is so much of her story that amazes me. When reading about her more than once I had to pause and slowly re-read it. As when I read that she decided to enroll Isamu in Edward Rumely's Interlaken School, sending him alone at age 13 across the Pacific ocean and half a continent, after reading an article about the school in Scientific American. Doesn't that just make you pause and wonder?

Similarly I find what little I had read about Stanley Ann Duham to be fascinating and look forward to reading more about her in this recently released biography.

Thanks again, I'm glad that there is someone else who saw the amazing similarity between the lives of these two exceptional and fearless women.

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