Author Dinesh Sharma discusses his new book, tracing US President Barack Obama’s early years.
As well as an author, you’re a cultural psychologist. Why does Barack Obama interest you?
Barack Obama is the first black president of the US. Like most people I was fascinated by his multi-cultural background. His mother was white, his father African, but he also grew up in Indonesia and lived in Hawaii for almost 18 years. I felt that there was 'more to the story' than what we’ve been told so I decided to find out for myself.
In the US you’re best known as a television presenter. Where can we catch you?
I have a show called Asian Times TV. It is about Asians in the US. I have interviewed a whole range of people from Pakistani scholars to some ex CIA agents who told me about their operation to catch Osama Bin Laden.
Why was it so important for you to focus on the early years of Obama’s life?
I believe that a person's childhood shapes who they turn in to when they are older. If he had been brought up in the mainland or a city like Chicago he would have picked up different traits. Maybe he wouldn't have even thought of being president!
So how did his childhood affect him?
People who dream big and take risks from a very young age; they are the people who tend to become leaders or whatever else they dreamt of being. Obama dreamt big. When I spoke to his teachers they said that it was no surprise that he became successful. They showed me an essay that he did when he was nine years old and he said 'When I grow up I want to be a President.’ However that was easier said than done. The fight for the title of President of the United States was intense especially as he was up against Hilary Clinton
What was your reaction to finding out he had become a president?
My first reaction when he got elected was that it was a good thing because America needed a cultural leader that would represent the nation’s diversity. I could see he has a desire to improve the society in America as he said in many of his iconic speeches.
Do you think an Asian could lead a western country?
It is highly possible. There are already many Asians in the government and political line of work. In the US Bobby Jindal has parents that are from India and so is his wife. However he converted from Hinduism to Catholicism. He is Governer of Louisiana and has won the votes twice. He could also be a potential president.
What kind of research was involved in writing your book?
It was truly amazing to spend some time in Indonesia and do some background research, including walking around the areas where Obama use to live in. He grew up in what was the poor slum of Indonesia. It was a truly remarkable achievement to go from the 'urban slums of Indonesia to The White House. I also met up with Obama’s half-sister who is part Indonesian. She was very open about her family and background. She told me that despite the fact that her and Barack were from two different fathers they were brought up very closely by their mother.
Obama attended both Catholic and Muslim schools – what religion is he?
Obama's Islamic background is from his father and grandfather. However, Obama clearly states that as he attends church, he is a Christian. There is some controversy as Obama's middle name is Hussein and there are still many rumors that he is a Muslim. Indonesia where he lived for four years is one country with the largest Muslim population which also adds to the argument. He also extended the hand of friendship to Islamic nations when he did one of his most iconic speeches in Egypt, where he declared that ‘America is not at war with Islam’. Since then there has been very high expectations of Obama from the Muslim community. He has plans to withdraw from Afghanistan and ended the Iraq War, but he has been seen as not pushing hard enough for the end of the rest of the Islamic wars such as the Palestinian conflict.
Is there still such a thing as the American Dream?
The American dream is different to different people - ‘Freedom, Equality and Opportunity’ is a phrase that sums it up. However when kids are given too much freedom they tend to be more rebellious. It is thought of as a hard triat for Asian kids to live the American Dream as they are thought of as more shy and nerdy. It is often this misconception that if you are a nerdy bookworm who is really smart then you are not socially popular. One way to live the American dream to its full extent is to be book smart but be socially more engaged, to study hard and be socially popular.
What do Americans think of Obama?
When Obama was elected, there were very high expectations of him. He promised many things such as more jobs, better living etc. However people are now not as happy as they were four years ago. Although, he is still very well-liked, with high social popularity, more than the other candidate running for president. If unemployment in America decreases then there is likely that Obama could get re-elected. He is also very liked in Europe, Africa and Asia, though not so much in the Muslim countries.