Michelle Obama. ISBN: 978-1524763138. Crown Publishing Group, 2018
Do not judge a book by its cover; notwithstanding the glamorous becoming photo profile that graces this book. Do judge a book by its title. A more appropriate book title is hard to conceive of. Becoming in a single word summarises the passage of the extra-ordinary life of a fifty-four year old American woman who goes by the name of Michelle Obama. Her story is that “I’m an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey.” Many a reader of this endearing and enduring expression of a woman’s life’s journey would assess Michelle’s being and becoming, as that of an extra-ordinary woman who reaches an extra-ordinary destination - First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS). This is not an account of a life that begins and ends with a residency of eight years at the White House, one of the most known addresses in the world. Buckingham Palace being the other. Her life experience resonates with the reader. Its highs and lows remain relatable. Therein lies the strength of her narrative. The gist of Becoming is about the process; the tests, trials and tribulations that are part and parcel of existence - of living. In a balanced life, there is no finality but constant change and growth. All of which the author expresses and brings forth with allure, charm, dignity, empathy, enthusiasm and remarkable frankness.
Becoming is simply and aptly structured into three chapters. Chapter One: Becoming Me. Chapter Two: Becoming Us and the final chapter: Becoming More. That is it. “Less is More.” In a single word, the author conveys a partial lifetime of being. Methodical in structure, a reflection of the individual herself; the contents remain infinitely absorbing and detailed. “Becoming Me” traces her childhood growing up in the Southside neighbourhood of Chicago. Her tight-knit family composed of her attentive and supportive parents and loving elder brother Craig. Michelle’s childhood recollection of racism as a ten year old black girl is succinctly expressed when, a cousin asks: “How come you talk like a white girl?” Michelle credits her parents for “Any time we had a question about a word, or a concept, or some piece of history, they directed us towards those books (a full Encyclopedia Britannica set, which lived on a shelf in the stairwell to our apartment, its titles etched in gold [...] The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it. They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness - to inhabit it with pride - and this filtered down to how we spoke.” This outspoken stand obliterates the notion of negativity and promises positivity and hope.
A seminal moment in her young life. How can one forget the following lines spoken by a high school college counsellor who dismissed Michelle’s aspirations? “I’m not sure,” she said, giving me a perfunctory, patronizing smile, “that you’re Princeton material.” Michelle with immense insight and truth writes: “[...] failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result, [...] a suggestion of failure long before I’d even tried to succeed.” The high school student went on to reach the steps of Princeton and beyond. This is why Becoming is a definitive inspirational autobiography. In her words, “You Matter.”
Her debut memoir is a runaway success, an instant classic. According to the CEO of the company that owns Penguin Random House, “We believe this could become the most successful memoir ever.” A glib marketing spiel it maybe, successfully spurring further purchases; yet sale figures and feedback by readers could very well justify the boast. The best-selling autobiography of the former FLOTUS has broken sale records globally. Her book presentations have sold out everywhere. The book launchings becoming one of the most successful national and international book tours ever. Released in November 2018, Becoming sold 725,000 copies on the first day, a major sales milestone. The literary voyage has gone on to become the best-selling book of the year. Since then some 10 million copies sold world-wide and sales continue to sky-rocket.
Punctuated by innocuous humorous incidents, the reader connects with the author, the professional, the woman, the wife, the mother. As a first year lawyer at Sidley & Austin, a “high-end law firm” in Chicago, she takes on the role of a mentor for an “incoming summer associate [...] some hotshot law student who’s busy climbing his own ladder. Like you, he’s black and from Harvard. Other than that, you know nothing - just the name, and it’s an odd one...Barack Obama was late on day one” for the first meeting. Gradually, Michelle moves us on to Chapter Two: “Becoming Us.”
As we read into chapter three, “Becoming More,” the intensity and pace quickens. The massive shift from a private person into a public figure. From a career-focused, familial environment with two daughters in tow, the Obama presence is becoming palpably public while living in a glass bubble; with the omnipotent role of operative optics at every step. For someone who was “taught that self-sufficiency was everything,” in the White House; everything was co-opted. Secret Service agents addressed her as “Ma’am.” The First Lady writes: “Who’s Ma’am? I’d wanted to ask at first. Ma’am sounded to me like an older woman with a proper purse, good posture, and sensible shoes who was maybe sitting somewhere nearby...But I was Ma’am. Ma’am was me. It was part of this larger shift, this crazy transition we were in.” What was it like to live in the White House? “I sometimes say that it’s a bit like what I imagine living in a fancy hotel might be like, only the fancy hotel has no other guests in it - just you and your family.” And Michelle Obama has once again taken us through a process, a becoming - with humour and humility.
This woman of substance defines her role of being “Ma’am” incisively. “A First Lady’s power is a curious thing - as soft and undefined as the role itself. And yet I was learning to harness it. [...] If reporters and television cameras wanted to follow me, then I was going to take them places.” And that she did; to homes and hospitals for war veterans, promoting education for girls, engaging their aspirations, homestead gardening, healthy living; via contacts with mega food conglomerates as well as talk shows including Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres; thereby reaching her audience of “an enormous and dialed-in audience of women.”
In the final chapter, Becoming More; a poignant and introspective scenario presents itself. As Barack Obama’s second term of office comes to a close; both parents realise that their elder daughter Malia is ready to spread her wings out of the parental home of eight years - ie. fly the roost to her next stage in life; enrollment at Harvard - just when he will be having time on his hands. Yet Time waits for no one; not even the POTUS. Here is an example of Life’s unforeseen timings. Such immensely real case situation brings forth the sensitivity and consciousness of domestic dynamics prevalent in any family. Yet uniquely, these two daughters grew up with the eyes of the nation on them.
The scrutiny of public and popular individuals in today’s instant and intrusive social media world remains relentless. The author truthfully is able to remark: “And we’d managed two terms in office without a major scandal. We had held ourselves and the people who worked with us to the highest standards of ethics and decency, and we’d made it all the way through.” The Epilogue meaningfully brings the final days at the White House and the coming days together. In short, “Barack and I were determined to make the transition with grace and dignity, to finish our eight years with both our ideals and our composure intact. We were down to the final hour.” And that they did then and continue to do today.
Tumultuous times follow. Barely out of the White House doors in January 2017, a rigorous policy of reversal by the next POTUS goes into effect. Embracing unity and diversity flies out the window. Openness turns inwards. Critical issues of climate change, gun-control, health care, immigration top the Twitter screen one morning and disappear into the distant horizon by the close of the day. Most diplomatically, in her own under-stated manner, Michelle Obama writes: “I sometimes wonder where the bottom might be.” So do we.
Timothy Egan, a New York Times Contributing Opinion Writer in his defining piece “The Comeback of the Century: Why the Book Endures in an Wra of Disposable Digital Culture” brings together in an insightful homage - the very format of the written word between two covers and the beauty and strength of the English language in his address to the topical author. Egan masterfully captures a mood, a time, a place. He writes: “So even with a president who is ahistoric, borderline literate and would fail a sixth-grade reading comprehensive test, something wonderful and unexpected is happening in the language of arts. When the dominant culture goes low, the saviours of our senses go high...Which brings us to Michelle Obama...” Incorporating contextually two key words launched by the FLOTUS, Egan plaudits his review.
As for Michelle Obama; we look forward to her becoming more and more. Here is a book to chew on. Shelf it; like her parents did with other books. Her tribute to her husband? “Barack who always promised me an interesting journey.” The man kept his word.
Raana Haider now looks forward to Barack Obama’s autobiography scheduled for publication in 2020.