10 questions with ‘A Singular Woman’ author Janny Scott

3. What did Dunham think of America? She spent so much of her life outside of the country, did she do so because she felt disaffected from America? Did she think America was a force of good in the world or more of a force of misery?

My impression is that Ann Dunham spent much of her adult life abroad because she was interested in Indonesia and the world, not because of any disaffection with the United States. She first went to Indonesia in her mid-twenties because she had married an Indonesian; she then fell in love with the country and the people, and became deeply immersed in the work she did there. She never changed her citizenship; she remained an American for her entire life, and returned frequently to Hawaii, a place she also loved. She was an anthropologist, in a line of work that requires a commitment to spending a lot of time in faraway places. She found that her training also enabled her to find work in international development, which became the way she made money to support her family. In the end, she spent slightly more than half of her adult life in Indonesia. She was not uncritical of aspects of Indonesia, including the corruption she encountered. As for the United States, I never encountered anything to suggest Dunham had any misgivings about being an American.

4. What is something you uncovered about Dunham that wasn’t known before and would perhaps surprise readers? Do you know if there is anything in the book that surprised the president?

Many things would surprise readers. Dunham was 17 when she became pregnant with her first child, Barack Obama, and is thought by her friends to have never had a boyfriend before she met Obama’s father. Despite the remarkable courage with which she lived her life — marrying an African at a time when nearly two dozen states had laws against interracial marriage; moving with her six-year-old son to Indonesia in the aftermath of one of the biggest bloodbaths of the twentieth century — Ann Dunham was scared of the New York City subway and never learned to drive. I have not heard the president’s reaction to the book but I’m certain it must contain things he didn’t know. Even adult children only know slivers of their parents’ lives; there are vast areas about which most of us never ask or are too busy to find out.

5. Even though he barely knew his father, President Obama did write a book called “Dreams from My Father.” So my question is who was a greater influence on President Obama – his mother, his father or his grandparents?

President Obama is in a better position to answer that than I am. It seems clear that his mother, who lived with him for 12 of the first 13 years of his life, was the greatest early influence. (His parents parted company within months of his birth, and he saw his father only one other time, for a few weeks when the younger Obama was ten.) President Obama lived with his grandparents during high school, while his mother was working in Indonesia. My guess is that any child’s personality and character are shaped most forcefully in early life. For that reason, I would imagine that, while his grandparents were powerful influences in his life, his mother left the deepest mark. When I interviewed the president about her, he traced his decision to go into public service to her influence and example.