President Barack Obama’s bookishness is the worst-kept, most endearing non-secret in Washington, D.C. As we, and many other outlets, have previously written, he has long been a voracious reader of everything from contemporary literary fiction to classic writings by American statesmen. His collegiate stabs at poetry were well-circulated during his first presidential run, and his two books of nonfiction have been bestsellers. But fiction?
In a thoughtful new interview with The New York Times’ book critic Michiko Kakutani, Obama discussed the short stories he wrote as a young man, giving rare insight into his artistic side. As a community organizer recently out of college, he told Kakutani, he wanted to hold onto his love for writing and storytelling despite his choice of a policy-driven career path. Like many aspiring writers, he said, “I would come home from work, and I would write in my journal or write a story or two.”
This isn’t a brand-new revelation; rumblings of Obama’s past life as a story writer have surfaced before. In 2012, writer Michael Lewis profiled the president for Vanity Fair and later told CNN that the two discussed Obama’s youthful forays into the world of fiction. “He tried to submit short stories to literary magazines, and they’re very literary short stories,” Lewis said.
In Kakutani’s interview, we get some fascinating details about Obama’s work. Writing short fiction, he told The New York Times, allowed him to sort through the sometimes disparate strands of his identity and arrive at a healthy sense of self:
For me, particularly at that time, writing was the way I sorted through a lot of crosscurrents in my life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.
People now remark on this notion of me being very cool, or composed. And what is true is that I generally have a pretty good sense of place and who I am, and what’s important to me. And I trace a lot of that back to that process of writing.
What kind of fiction would a young Barack Obama write? Apparently exactly the kind you’d expect:
It’s interesting, when I read them, a lot of them had to do with older people.
I think part of the reason was because I was working in communities with people who were significantly older than me. We were going into churches, and probably the average age of these folks was 55, 60. A lot of them had scratched and clawed their way into the middle class, but just barely. They were seeing the communities in which they had invested their hopes and dreams and raised their kids starting to decay — steel mills had closed, and there had been a lot of racial turnover in these communities. And so there was also this sense of loss and disappointment. [...]
So when I think back on what’s interesting to me, there is not a lot of Jack Kerouac, open-road, young kid on the make discovering stuff. It’s more melancholy and reflective.
Melancholy and reflective? Sounds an awful lot like a certain speech he recently addressed to the nation.
He even revealed some tantalizing details about specific stories he wrote, which we’re now dying to read:
One story is about an old black pastor who seems to be about to lose his church, his lease is running out and he’s got this loyal woman deacon who is trying to buck him up. Another is about an elderly couple — a white couple in L.A., — and he’s like in advertising, wrote jingles. And he’s just retired and has gotten cranky. And his wife is trying to convince him that his life is not over.
We may never read these short stories, but let’s remember a few key facts:
1. Obama has said he plans to write a book after leaving office.
2. Which is happening in a matter of days.
3. After leaving the presidency, George W. Bush graced our eyeballs with the fruits of a foray into painting that pleasantly shocked the nation.
4. Anything is possible.
For more on Pres. Obama’s short fiction and other literary insights, read the full New York Times interview here.