The Absent Presence and the Art of Autobiography in Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father

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Book Chapter

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Södertörns Högskola


On the back cover of Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Charlayne Hunter-Gault praises the autobiography as "One of the most powerful books of self-discovery I've ever read ... It is also beautifully written, skillfully layered, and paced like a novel." Two words particularly caught my attention: "self-discovery" and "novel." The former virtually acknowledges the book to be a memoir whereas the latter compares it to a fictitious prose narrative. It is interesting to note that while an autobiography bases itself on facts (or truth), a novel easily embraces fiction (or lies). Even the title of the book seemed to straddle both zones: the dreams were from Obama's father, a father he almost never met, and according to the back cover, "a figure he knows more as a myth than as a man" while the subtitle promises a story grounded in the lived realities of race and inheritance. And yet a reading that attempts to segregate the concepts of myth and lived reality may be misdirected. One needs to keep in mind that the two are not exclusive; in fact, a blurring of fact and fiction leads to a fluidity of identity that, by Barack Obama's own admission, becomes a mainstay for the self-created narrative ( vii).1 The primary trigger of this self-creation is the haunting lack or void left by an absent father figure.

Filling this vacuum is a paternal presence that oscillates between the "real" father who had abandoned the son so early in life and a "mythical" father, resurrected through stories, whose dreams seem to act as milestones for the son's successful journey through life, an example as G. Thomas Couser argues of "patriography ... life writing about fathers by their sons....inherently relational and inter-subjective" (259). In the first half of the narrative, the "absent" father figure haunts the life writing of the son as the latter struggles to measure up to the mythical personality of the former until, in the second half, the son understands the flawed human being his father was. Obama's initial reference to his father as "something unknown ... and vaguely threatening" (Obama 63) possibly creates a "metaphor for the way in which [the] son imagined Africa" (Smithers 494). In this second half, however, Michael Janis observes that "a political recognition of the significance of the African diaspora as a cultural entity and as a repository of intellectual history" is established (154). And Obama's father, I feel, given his intellectual brilliance, stands as a representational figure paving the way for the son to move from the postcolonial "periphery" to the twenty-first century "centre" (Baillie 317). Despite interesting critical appraisals of the father figure, no particular discussion, apart from Josephine Metcalf's, has taken its cue from the role structuralism plays in Obama's memoir. Whereas Metcalf makes just a passing comment on Stuart Hall's semiotic readings of texts, this paper argues that Obama's narrative can be read through a critical lens of cross-fertilization provided by Roland Barthes: from the absent father figure, a virtual semiotic signifier that communicates meaning within the text,' the narrative proceeds-with the help of photographs, storytelling, and dreams-to seek a sense of human connectedness in its final cathartic closure. The ending recalls Barthes' Camera Lucida, his emotional dependency on his mother, and at her death-' the kindling of his desire to recover a lost relationship through nostalgia, sympathy, and filial devotion.

Chapter of

Writing the Self: Essays on autobiography and autofiction


Kerstin W, Shands
Giulia Grillo Mikrut
Dipti R. Pattanaik
Karen Ferreira-Meyers