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Duke set to publish Obama’s mother’s “pioneering” book

November 25, 2009

S. Ann Dunham was more than the mother of a future president. She was also an economic anthropologist whose “pioneering” research anticipated today’s emphasis on microfinance in the developing world. Now Duke University Press is about to publish her PhD dissertation as a book.

Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia will have an initial print run of 10,000 copies, reports Publishers Weekly — not Sarah Palin numbers, but far more than the average doctoral dissertation. Dunham intended to prepare the 1,000-page manuscript herself, but she died in 1995, at the age of 52, shortly after receiving her PhD from the University of Hawaii.

Though not intended for a general audience the book is well-written and accessible, says Keith Wissoker, Duke’s editor-in-chief.

“We think people will be moved by her story and will love to have this book,” Wissoker says. “It will also shed light on part of President Obama’s legacy and why his life brings something different to the presidency.”

Wissoker praised Dunham’s scholarly work in Indonesia, where she spent 15 years as an economic anthropologist and developmental consultant.  He calls the book “a forerunner” of much of today’s work on using direct micro-credits and small loans.

“The book is about what small villagers can do entrepreneurially to help themselves. Her message is very accessible: trust people in small villages to be able to do good things if they have resources.”

Dunham with the future POTUS.

Dunham moved to Jakarta, taking 6-year-old Barack with her,  after marrying Lolo Soetoro in 1967. The new version of the book was prepared by Dunham’s academic advisor, Alice G. Dewey and her fellow graduate student, Nancy I. Cooper, at the request of Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama’s sister.

Surviving against the Odds is based on Dunham’s research among the rural metalworkers of Java, the island home to nearly half Indonesia’s population. Along with photographs of Dunham, the book includes  pictures taken by the author. Soetoro-Ng provides a forward, while Rober W. Hefner, president of the Association for Asian Studies, contributes an afterword.

“The greetings that the village women exchanged with Mom conveyed an intimacy that made clear they had fully taken each other’s measure” Soetoro-Ng writes. “This made me proud, I remember, for many of the same reasons my pride swells at the sight of my brother, our president; Mom too moved with such ease through every world, and people opened up at the sight of her smile.”

Work on turning Dunham’s doctoral dissertation into a book began prior to Barack Obama’s 2008 election. While some may read it for insight into the president’s childhood and influences, it stands on its own as the culminating work of a promising academic with a questing mind.

“Dunham knew the arcane world of development very well and her account of it is fascinating and important,” says Donald Brenneis, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 25, 2009 3:44 pm

    I will read it, if it isn’t extremely academic. What do you think, Chauncey Mabe?

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 25, 2009 3:52 pm

    Duke is pitching it as readable book, and it may well be. A number of famous books started out as anthropology dissertations, including Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Somoa and The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda. So, maybe.

  3. November 25, 2009 10:10 pm

    Thanks for this info. How interesting! Had no idea. And now I have to add another book to my already overwhelming list. I need to find a reader’s retreat. Is there such a thing? Probably not. I was reading Byron’s DON JUAN today and giggling like a school girl. Here’s a stanza that might cheer you up:

    I would to heaven that I were so much clay
    As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling–
    Because at least the past were pass’d away–
    And for the future–(but I write this reeling,
    Having got drunk exceedingly today,
    So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
    I say–the future is a serious matter–
    And so–for God’s sake–hock and soda-water!

    Ain’t he funny? Happy Thanksgiving, Chauncey!

    Really love your blog.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 26, 2009 2:48 pm

    Not bad for a Romantic poet who lived and died like a degenerate rock star more than a century before the species evolved….It always impresses me how plainspoken and clear Byron can be, yet how musical…

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