Sharanya Misra

I must begin this book review at a very strangely significant place indeed. Strange because this isn’t where I would usually begin a review, although it’s where a book begins. Significant because, and I am sure every book lover would agree with me, this is the first (albeit not the most important) factor in a book that draws one in. Yes, I talk of the cover. Can I confess that I fell in love with the book the moment I saw it in a Waterstone display? That I longed to hold the book in my hand and run my fingers on that glossy cover and declare my ownership of it. Well, I did. So there, if there was any book that I could forsake the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” for, it would be this one for sure.

Becoming is a fantastically inspiring read in many, many ways, the foremost of which for me were its transparency and relatability. Reading Becoming doesn’t feel like perusing a memoir, a story of some other. It feels like the projection of one’s own story – our innermost fears and insecurities – and brings with it the reassurance of a good life beyond them, because in the pages ahead, better days are to come.

The book, very aptly, speaks of Michelle’s life in three distinct phases. Becoming Me talks of her life before becoming an Obama. Becoming Us is all about her journey into marriage and parenthood, her struggle to find her true calling and to establish an identity independent of her husband. And finally Becoming More is a glimpse into the larger-than-life existence they led in the White House, and the pressures and duties of a life lived in full public view.

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Becoming Me talks of Michelle’s growing up years as a young black girl in America. This was my favourite section of the book, not only because of its sincere honesty and childish innocence, but more so because for me it was a learning experience to read a first-hand account of the history, lifestyle and challenges of Blacks in the USA. Some of her experiences shake you up, awakening you to a still existent jarring reality often conveniently forgotten – the reality of always being different. She talks of growing up with grandparents who found it difficult to trust the system due to their own and their ancestors’ pasts of slavery. She talks of the sacrifices and efforts her parents invested in bringing up their children to give them every opportunity to build a life that they themselves could only dream of. She talks of her confusion in her own identity when friends and cousins said she didn’t speak like ‘other’ Black people. Even in an Ivy League Institute like Harvard, she talks of her constant struggle to feel like she belonged.

“I’d never stood out in a crowd or a classroom because of the color of my skin. It was jarring and uncomfortable, at least at first, like being dropped into a strange new terrarium, a habitat that hadn’t been built for me…..it was impossible to be a black kid at a mostly white school and not feel the shadow of affirmative action. You could almost read the scrutiny in the gaze of certain students and even some professors, as if they wanted to say, ‘I know why you’re here.’ These moments could be demoralizing, even if I’m sure I was just imagining some of it. It planted a seed of doubt. Was I here merely as part of a social experiment?”

Indeed, the difference she talks of often is so deep rooted and the feeling of wanting to belong so acute that later in the book she even mentions her disappointment when landing in Africa for the first time. The incident touched my heart deeply because it reminded me of a vulnerability that all of us global humans nestle in our hearts – the need to trace the roots of our identities to the cultures of our pasts. Having grown up in multiple places and cultures in this diverse country India, where often people are hell-bent on proving the uniqueness of their own state, language, culture, faiths etc. her words hit home. This feeling of not knowing where you really fit is something that I have been familiar with all my life.

“It’s a curious thing to realize, the in-betweenness one feels being African American in Africa. It gave me a hard-to-explain feeling of sadness, a sense of being unrooted in both lands.I hadn’t been expecting to fit right in, obviously, but I think I arrived there naively believing I’d feel some visceral connection to the continent I’d grown up thinking of as a sort of mythic motherland, as if going there would bestow on me some feeling of completeness. But Africa, of course, owed us nothing.“

What I truly love about Becoming Me is the way it resonates with me. The book was a winner from the moment I began reading it because in that little child I could see me – my desires, simple learnings, self-doubts, quirks….her childhood was miraculously, mine too. Be it the way she spoke of the loving, fun moments she shared with her brother, in the back of their father’s car or in their shared room, or the way she came back from school to pour all her worries onto her mother or even her constant need to achieve, I saw myself in her.

“Lying in bed that night…I thought only of ‘white’…chastising myself for my own stupidity. The embarrassment felt like a weight, like something I’d never shake off…I just wanted to achieve. Or maybe I didn’t want to be dismissed as incapable of achieving. I was sure my teacher had now pegged me as someone who couldn’t read or, worse, didn’t try……..”

I realised that Michelle too, like me, was a stickler, always doing things the right way and always worrying about not doing it ALL. There were the constant doubts plaguing her self-worth, the constant need for validation of her efforts from those around her.

“My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. One proving ground only opened onto the next. Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough?….I was a box checker—marching to the resolute beat of effort/result, effort/result—a devoted follower of the established path.”

But the best take-away from this section of the book for me are these two lines that are so simple, yet so true and will always remain with me, reminding me to feel positive against all odds in life.

“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.”

Never in the book does Michelle Obama shy away from exposing her vulnerable side and in fact time and again only proves that it is ok to be bogged down with life. As someone who moved multiple schools as a child, some of her experiences were like a blast from my own past. Like when she moved into Harvard, only to realise that everything there was new, down to the very lingo they used.

“What was a precept? What was a reading period?…. I’d been raised on the bedrock of football, basketball, and baseball, but it turned out that East Coast prep schoolers did more. Lacrosse was a thing. Field hockey was a thing. Squash, even, was a thing. For a kid from the South Side, it could be a little dizzying. “You row crew?” What does that even mean?”

She constantly talks of how different the world can be for people of different races, and the unfairness of it all, especially for a young mind.

“The burden of assimilation is put largely on the shoulders of minority students. In my experience, it’s a lot to ask. Your world shifts, but you’re asked to adjust and overcome, to play your music the same as everyone else.”

And as if being Black in a White world isn’t challenging enough, she also shares her battle of fighting off stereotypes associated with her gender.

“I tried not to feel intimidated when classroom conversation was dominated by male students, which it often was. Hearing them, I realized that they weren’t at all smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.”

Becoming Me is undoubtedly a spectacular read. It is bold in narration, unflinchingly honest and extremely real.

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With Becoming Us, Michelle takes us on a ride of self-realisation and her journey of discovering her self-worth. She questions herself time and again, always wanting to do more, to be more, and to constantly try to be her real self. As a part of a generation that is increasingly questioning its purpose in life and trying to set goals that allow it to find happiness alongside the mundane in life, these lines ring true:

“This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path—the my-isn’t-that-impressive path—and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly. Your passion stays low, yet under no circumstance will you underperform. You live, as you always have, by the code of effort/result, and with it you keep achieving until you think you know the answers to all the questions—including the most important one. Am I good enough? Yes, in fact I am.”

But Becoming Us is also in many ways the story of Barack Obama. It left me looking up to him as never before. As someone who hasn’t really been very aware of the political scenario in the USA, Barack to me was earlier just that – a politician. But looking at him through the lens of the book gave me a completely new perspective. The man is an extremely well-read genius with a genuine intent to do good in the society.

“..because grassroots organizing had shown him that meaningful societal change required not just the work of the people on the ground but stronger policies and governmental action as well.I knew that he consumed volumes of political philosophy as if it were beach reading, that he spent all his spare change on books. It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place, I realized. It was another thing entirely to try and get the place itself unstuck.”

But in the same breath, Becoming Us is also about Michelle’s new challenges, about newer outlooks, changed perspectives and changing roles. She talks about grappling with her own aspirations in life especially when partnered with an over achiever like Barack.

“All this inborn confidence was admirable, of course, but honestly, try living with it. For me, coexisting with Barack’s strong sense of purpose—sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it—was something to which I had to adjust, not because he flaunted it, exactly, but because it was so alive. In the presence of his certainty, his notion that he could make some sort of difference in the world, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit lost by comparison. His sense of purpose seemed like an unwitting challenge to my own.”

She talks about the life alterations that pregnancy and motherhood brings to a woman’s life, much more than a man. As a new mother, I couldn’t have agreed more.

“I sensed already that the sacrifices would be more mine than his. In the weeks to come, he’d go about his regular business while I went in for daily ultrasounds to monitor my eggs. He wouldn’t have his blood drawn. He wouldn’t have to cancel any meetings to have a cervix inspection. He was doting and invested, my husband, doing what he could do. He read all the IVF literature and would talk to me all night about it, but his only actual duty was to show up at the doctor’s office and provide some sperm. And then, if he chose, he could go have a martini afterward. None of this was his fault, but it wasn’t equal, either, and for any woman who lives by the mantra that equality is important, this can be a little confusing.”

She talks about the dilemma that every feminist woman faces while trying to balance her family life with her independence and career. Her words hit so close home I kept wondering how she was reading my mind!

“..wanted to live with the hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest of Mary Tyler Moore, and at the same time I gravitated toward the stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland normalcy of being a wife and mother. I wanted to have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other. I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing like her at all. It was an odd and confounding thing to ponder. Could I have everything? Would I have everything? I had no idea.”

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And finally, the third and last section of the book is key to its essence because it talks about Becoming More. It talks about the Obamas’ hopes, dreams and aspirations – for the nation and for their two growing daughters. It talks about their lives in the White House and their constant attempt to do their bit and make a mark in the history of the nation. It talks about the challenges of living a life completely visible to the public. As Michelle says,

“Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.”

It is fantastic reading what goes on behind the screens in the lives of some of THE most powerful people in the world. Their duties, obligations, fears, nerve-biting moments behind their smiling screen faces. This part of the book serves as a mini tour guide to the White House, a compilation of all the work the Obamas did in their time there and a reminder of the heights reached from the small South Shore neighbourhood of Chicago.

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Needless to say, in my opinion the book is not only worth a read, it is worth going back to, again and again. It is the story of a woman fighting her fears that instils confidence in you. It is the story of her fighting barriers and stereotypes, that gives you the courage to break yours. It is the story of her finding herself that makes you revisit your own goals in life. It is the story of her rising above and beyond that makes you believe and have faith.

It is her story. But it is also yours. And that’s where its beauty lies.

**Image source – Unsplash, courtesy Alex Nemo Hanse.

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