By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009
GUANGZHOU, CHINA -- The mixed-race son of a brilliant but troubled Kenyan academic and a white American woman writes an emotionally wrenching book about his search for identity and self.
But this is not the familiar story of President Obama. It is the tale of his publicity-shy younger half brother, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who has lived in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen for seven years and has just produced a loosely autobiographical work of fiction titled "Nairobi to Shenzhen: A Novel of Love in the East."
Speaking out publicly for the first time Wednesday, Ndesandjo made only a few references to his famous brother, saying: "We are family. I love my family, and we are in touch." He attended Obama's presidential inauguration in January, and he said he plans to see his brother when the president makes an official visit to Beijing this month.
Ndesandjo credits Obama's election last year with allowing him to come to terms with his painful past and motivating him to finish his book.
In the 255-page novel, self-published through Aventine Press, Ndesandjo's character is called David. The author depicts his Kenyan father as an abusive alcoholic who beats David and David's Jewish American mother. He makes no reference to his brother Barack.
Barack Obama Sr. married Mark's mother, Ruth Nidesand, while he was studying at Harvard after divorcing President Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. The elder Obama and Nidesand lived together in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where Mark spent much of his childhood.
How much of the book is true?
"It's a work of fiction, but there's a lot going on in there that parallels my life," Ndesandjo said in a brief interview before a news conference to launch the book, which he said was nearly a decade in the making. While he said that some of the characters are composites, he said many scenes echo his experience as a victim of, and a witness to, domestic violence.
"My father beat me. He beat my mother. And you just don't do that," Ndesandjo said at the news conference. "I shut those thoughts in the back of my mind for many years."
"I remember times in my house when I would hear the screams, and I would hear my mother's pain," he said. "I was a child. . . . I could not protect her."A painful name
Ndesandjo said his memories of his father were so bitter that he stopped using the name Obama and adopted the last name of his stepfather, a man Nidesand married after divorcing Obama Sr. But then, Ndesandjo said, he watched the televised scenes of joy in Chicago's Grant Park on the night a man with that hated last name was elected president of the United States.
"There was this remarkable movement from fear towards hope," Ndesandjo said. "I was so proud of my brother Barack."
The election "peeled away some of that hardness," he said. "I became proud of being an Obama." He added that name back to his and found the drive to complete the book.
Ndesandjo originally began writing a pure autobiography, which he said is finished and will be published soon, adding that it will answer some questions the novel raises.
The novel at one point gives away that Ndesandjo is writing about himself. On Page 81, when David enters a restaurant, a friend says, "Oh, Hi, Mark" -- an author's error that psychologists might call a Freudian slip.
"What's the identification between an author and his subjects?" Ndesandjo said in the interview. "Where does an author end and a character begin?"
He added: "You want to give authenticity to your character. And the character you best know is yourself."
He said he wrote the novel partly to raise awareness of domestic violence. Fifteen percent of any proceeds from the book, he said, will go to assist orphans and other children through the "Help the Kids" project he has organized.Family resemblance
Ndesandjo bears a striking resemblance to his brother. He is what Obama would look like if he shaved his head, wore a bandanna, favored black T-shirts and sported an earring in his left ear.
Ndesandjo, who is a U.S. citizen, has an academic pedigree as lofty as his brother's, with bachelor's degrees in physics and math from Brown University, a master's degree in physics from Stanford and an MBA from Emory. He is also an accomplished pianist, does Chinese calligraphy and has just finished reading the Chinese epic "The Dream of Red Mansions" in Mandarin.
After working in telecommunications and marketing in the United States and then losing his job, he relocated to China after Sept. 11, 2001. In Shenzhen, a booming southern city bordering Hong Kong, he began teaching English, giving piano lessons, learning Chinese and dedicating himself to helping orphans and underprivileged children -- much like the David character of his novel.
Ndesandjo was married in China. In his novel, David falls in love with a beautiful Chinese woman named Spring but must still deal with the lingering pain of the violence he suffered as a child.
Even in China, Obama's ascent to the White House has brought unwelcome attention to the brother who has tried to maintain a low profile and lose himself in his work.
"Since the election, I have been getting a few more phone calls, especially from reporters," Ndesandjo said. "I've tried to keep focused on the important things in my life -- the music, the calligraphy, the writing, of course, and helping the kids learn piano."