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Exclusive: YES! Magazine’s Fran Korten on Her Friendship with Barack Obama’s Mother

StoryJanuary 26, 2009
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After I finished my interview with David Korten, I learned that he and his wife Fran Korten had lived in Indonesia, where Fran worked with Barack Obama’s mother Ann Soetoro at the Ford Foundation. We end today’s show looking at the life of Barack Obama’s mother and broadcast an excerpt of Barack Obama reading from his book Dreams from My Father. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


After I finished my interview with David Korten with Juan, I learned that he and his wife, Fran Korten, had lived in Indonesia for years, where Fran worked with Barack Obama’s mother Ann Soetoro at the Ford Foundation. So we’ll end today looking at the life of Barack Obama’s mother.

She was born Stanley Ann Dunham in 1942 in Kansas. At the age of eighteen, she married Barack Obama, a Kenyan student studying here in the US. Their only son was born on August 4, 1961. Within a few years, the couple got a divorce, and by ’67, Ann married another grad student, an Indonesian man named Lolo Soetoro. In 1967, Ann, Lolo and Barack moved to Indonesia. Barack’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro, was born three years later. In ’71, Barack was sent back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents. Ann Dunham Soetoro worked in Indonesia for years. At the age of fifty-two, she died of ovarian cancer.

Barack Obama wrote about his mother in the preface to his first book, Dreams from My Father.

    BARACK OBAMA: Most of the characters in this book were made a part of my life, albeit in varying degrees — a function of work, children, geography and turns of fate.

    The exception is my mother, whom we lost, with a brutal swiftness, to cancer a few months after this book was originally published.

    She had spent the previous ten years doing what she loved. She traveled the world, working in the distant villages of Asia and Africa, helping women buy a sewing machine or a milk cow or an education that might give them a foothold in the world’s economy. She gathered friends from high and low, took long walks, stared at the moon, and foraged through the local markets of Delhi or Marrakech for some trifle, a scarf or stone carving that would make her laugh or please the eye. She wrote reports, read novels, pestered her children, and dreamed of grandchildren.

    We saw each other frequently, our bond unbroken. During the writing of this book, she would read the drafts, correcting stories that I had misunderstood, careful not to comment on my characterizations of her but quick to explain or defend the less flattering aspects of my father’s character. She managed her illness with grace and good humor, and she helped my sister and me push on with our lives, despite our dread, our denials, our sudden constrictions of the heart.

    I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book — less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life. In my daughters I see her every day, her joy, her capacity for wonder. I won’t try to describe how deeply I mourn her passing still. I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.

AMY GOODMAN: Barack Obama reading from his book Dreams from My Father.

Well, last week I had a chance to speak with Fran Korten. She’s the executive director of YES! Magazine. She joined me in the firehouse studio to talk for the first time about her friendship with Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Soetoro. I asked her to describe how she met her.

    FRAN KORTEN: I worked for the Ford Foundation for five years in Indonesia.

    AMY GOODMAN: What years were these?

    FRAN KORTEN: This was 1983 to 1988. And Ann Soetoro worked in the office right next door to mine. And our homes, in fact, were just a block apart. And we rode in the carpool together every day. So, for two years — and then she left the Ford Foundation before I went on. So, for two years we saw each other every single day and were in many meetings together, and —-

    AMY GOODMAN: Describe her for us.

    FRAN KORTEN: You know, when I see Barack Obama’s calmness, I see that is his mother. She was extremely low key, calm, unflappable, clear, and kind of solid in her way of being, rather quiet. I actually didn’t -— I did not know much about her family. When I read Dreams of My Father, I was kicking myself for not having asked her more about her very interesting life and kind of discovered, wow, there was a lot there that I didn’t know, even though I knew her well, as a Ford Foundation colleague, and her work, particularly with women in the villages of Indonesia.

    AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it is that she did. What was her portfolio there?

    FRAN KORTEN: She had a women’s portfolio. The Ford Foundation divides its programs up by different emphases, and her work was to help economic development in villages through women’s organizations. So, that was kind of an unusual way of approaching things in the country, a male-dominated country, although, in Southeast Asia, women often control the money. So, there were many avenues for helping women economically, and that was her work, and she spent a lot of time in villages.

    AMY GOODMAN: Doing exactly what?

    FRAN KORTEN: Well, the truth is, I don’t really know a lot of the details. I know that she later went on to do a lot of this micro-lending work, where women’s groups get small loans in order to, for example, develop a business in sewing clothes or in making some kind of food, like there’s a soybean product called tempeh, and very popular in Indonesia. So, one could imagine that women’s groups were encouraging this kind of entrepreneurship.

    And there was also always a women’s empowerment side to this work. So you’re not only helping them earn a little more money, but you’re helping them think of themselves differently. And I know that that was very much part of Ann’s thinking about her role as a change agent in that country.

    AMY GOODMAN: And did you ever meet Barack, “Barry,” as a little boy?

    FRAN KORTEN: Yeah — I didn’t. He wasn’t a little boy when we were there. He was actually at Occidental College. So, his sister was about —-

    AMY GOODMAN: Maya.

    FRAN KORTEN: —- thirteen or fourteen. His sister Maya, his half-sister, the daughter of his mother and her Indonesian husband. So, Barack, by that time — I‘ve kind of done a little of the math —- I think he was about twenty-one at the time that I knew Ann. And he may have flown back to Indonesia and visited her when I was there, but I never met him. I remember her talking about her son, and I knew she had a son, but it was Maya that was the presence for us. And -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Because she went to school with your daughters?

    FRAN KORTEN: She went to school. Our kids went to the International School, and Maya was there also. And partly because we lived just a block away —-

    AMY GOODMAN: From each other.

    FRAN KORTEN: Yes. Our home was some distance from the office. And so, the kids, you know, they rode the bus home together from school. And so, she was one of their good friends.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, it was the girls that got in trouble together with Maya?

    FRAN KORTEN: Yeah, there was my daughters that got in trouble together with Maya.

    AMY GOODMAN: Very little is really talked about Ann Soetoro, because she died of cancer -—


    AMY GOODMAN: — what, when she was something like fifty-two, remarkably enough, I think they said. When did you realize that the Ann you knew, that you carpooled with, the woman you worked next door with at the Ford Foundation in Jakarta — when did you know that she was the mother of the man who was rising through the ranks in Chicago, really soaring, as he became, now, of course, president?

    FRAN KORTEN: I think it was in about — before Barack ran for president, but after his famous 2004 speech, so when he was on the rise. I got an email from the Jakarta office of the Ford Foundation, and they asked me, “Fran, do you remember an Ann Soetoro? And were you at the office when she was there?” And they said, “We are writing because she is the mother of Barack Obama, and we think that the press may be asking us.” When I read that email, I almost fell off my chair. I had absolutely no idea. I, of course, had followed Barack Obama, but without any awareness that this was the son of my friend and colleague from the Jakarta office of the Ford Foundation.

    AMY GOODMAN: Because, of course, they don’t have the same last name.

    FRAN KORTEN: They don’t have the same last name.

    AMY GOODMAN: And he was Barry at the time.

    FRAN KORTEN: And he was Barry. And, you know, you’re kind of like — I just didn’t know that at all. And what they said was they were interested to know what I could remember of her work, because the Ford Foundation office had been flooded, and all of the papers had been turned to mush. So, they actually did not have the records of the work that she had done. So they were interested to know what I could remember.

    AMY GOODMAN: Did Barack and Ann look alike?

    FRAN KORTEN: Not even a little bit. She is a rather largish woman and not very tall. And, of course, he is thin as a rail and quite tall. And she, of course, is a European, white American, and he is a multicultural man that in America we consider black. So, yeah, there was nothing, no clues for me to make this connection to Ann.

    AMY GOODMAN: Are there any particular stories you remember with Ann?

    FRAN KORTEN: Well, there’s one really striking one for me. I was driving my daughter to school — to a theater rehearsal in the evening. And in the middle of an incredibly chaotic traffic situation, which is typical, as you well know, in Indonesia, and a torrential downpour, my car stalled. And I got some guys to push the car. But when they did it, they pushed it so that one tire was in the canal. And I got out to deal with this chaos, and my daughter went around and locked the doors. So, I now had a stalled car with one tire in the canal with locked doors and the keys inside.

    So I went to a nearby doctor’s clinic that was right by the side of the road, and I made a phone call to Ann Soetoro, Barack Obama’s mother, and I explained the situation of my car. And I remember her response so vividly to this day. She said in Indonesian, she said, “Mana bisa? How can that be?” She was just very calm, gave me some good advice about what to do next. And I often think that when I see Barack Obama’s coolness and his calmness in the face of whatever crises, it harkens back for me to that moment when she responded to my plea for help in the face of a very perplexing situation for me that was so at ease and clear.

    AMY GOODMAN: So now, maybe, it’s only Democracy Now! listeners, viewers and readers who will understand when Barack Obama is confronted with a massive global problem, and he mutters, “Mana bisa?”

    FRAN KORTEN: That’s it. “How can this be?” I’m sure that those thoughts must run through his mind as he looks at the financial meltdown or the mess in Iraq and in Afghanistan: “Mana bisa? How can this be?”

AMY GOODMAN: Fran Korten, executive director of YES! Magazine, worked with Barack Obama’s mother Ann Soetoro at the Ford Foundation in Indonesia for several years.

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