GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama’s half-brother made a rare appearance on Wednesday in southern China, his home for seven years, to launch a novel he says draws on his painful childhood under an abusive father.
Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo — who had the same, late, father as the U.S. President — has kept a low public profile since reports surfaced last year that he was living and working in the southern Chinese capitalist and manufacturing haven of Shenzhen, around an hour’s train ride from Hong Kong.
After repeatedly shunning media attention, Ndesandjo’s first major public appearance to launch his debut novel comes less than two weeks before the U.S. president travels to China for the first time.
While he said his work, "Nairobi to Shenzhen" is a fictional account, it started off nearly 10 years ago as an autobiography and "reflects many experiences in my own life as a child brought up in Kenya" including a troubled relationship with his father.
"My mother used to say of my father, he’s a brilliant man but a social failure," Ndesandjo told reporters at a press conference in Guangzhou, near his adopted city of Shenzhen.
"I remember times in my house when I would hear screams and I would hear my mother’s pain." His American mother Ruth was his father’s third wife.
"My skin had turned hard emotionally for so many years because of what I’d seen my mother go through," said Ndesandjo, who is slim and bears an appearance similar to the president.
Ndesandjo’s book details how the protagonist, David, made an improbable journey to China in 2001 just after the September 11th attacks, inspired by his "growing love for a beautiful Chinese woman and a young orphan", and reflects Ndesandjo’s own marriage to a young Chinese woman and his charitable work for Chinese orphans.
He was less forthright about his relationship with his famous brother, however, saying that they are in touch and an upcoming autobiography, for which he still hasn’t found a publisher, would give a fuller account of their family background and ties.
"We’re family, I love my family," said the crew-cut Ndesandjo, who wore a burgundy bandana and professes a love for the piano, Chinese calligraphy and classic works of Chinese literature.
"I was so proud of my brother Barack," he said of his sibling’s becoming the first African-American U.S. president.
At a news conference in which he would only take five written questions drawn from a box, he avoided any mention of politics or U.S.-China relations but said Americans could learn from China’s culture and deep-rooted family ties.
"China is about family … there is a tremendous, wonderful sense of family here."
Ndesandjo gave a sense of his personality quirks and a latent flamboyant streak during the conference. He sprinkled his answers with references to Tolstoy and the Chinese literary classic "A Dream of the Red Mansion", also speaking of passion for music as a "universal language".
Reporters shown a video of a piano performance by the diamond-earring wearing Ndesandjo, in which he tickled the ivories for a catchy tune "Viper’s Drag" by Fats Waller.
The book, whose cover depicts a dead tree against a red background, will donate 15 percent of its proceeds to charity.
"I wanted to be known as a writer, not for my relationship to the President," said Ndesandjo, who speaks with an American lilt.