For my last interview, I thought I'd turn the tables and ask someone else to interview me. Since he was also in the midst of leaving a position (admittedly one of much vaster scale), I sent my books to the forty-fourth president of the United States, Mr. Barack Obama. I included a note querying if he might do a little chat? I doubted I'd hear anything back; maybe if I was very lucky, I'd be granted a brief telephone call. Imagine my surprise when I received an email stating that the forty-fourth president would be at loose ends after Trump's inauguration. Furthermore, he'd been following my interviews avidly during the course of January, and had plenty of free time after the 20th. Well, I thought, you must have been the only one that read all of my blatherings (not even my friends could manage such a feat), but kept the thoughts to myself.
Mr. Obama had to visit the U. S. consulate in Toronto anyway and offered to grab a quick coffee with me nearby.
How could I say no? After all, I'd been extremely lucky in being granted interviews with some of my most cherished creators for this series (including Alan Moore and Jaime Hernandez) - why not Obama? We sat in a deserted café with no windows, below ground level, on Dundas St., near the U. S. consulate. Mr. Obama was accompanied by one secret service agent, instead of the usual two. They both seemed tired and weary. It was strange to see him in person - more subdued and thoughtful than I might have expected - but he still sported his charismatic smile and spoke employing an amused syncopated rhythm. I sat with my back to the door; he wanted to see who came in and out. The secret service man kept watch the whole time, never interacting with us.
I couldn't address him as Barack to his face, kept calling him Mr. President to hide my nervousness. He accepted the appellation with a wistful, wry chuckle. He called me son, I think partly to annoy me. After all, he's only slightly older than I am, not quite a generation apart. Like most of the interviews I've conducted, this one quickly edged into discussion rather than settling into a series of questions and answers. The CIA insisted on looking over my transcript of the discussion before I uploaded it. Inevitably, some parts were cut and others redacted but I humbly present to you, here, that which is left.
Barack: So... how's your caramel latte?
Koom: wish I'd gotten the hot chocolate, Mr. President.
Barack: I guess in that way, a coffee order is... like an election... can't change your mind and return whatcha' asked for.
Koom: Are we discussing writing or politics? I don't know how you can stand to be part of a country that's turned so inherently racist, that's - doing what it's doing right now. One little crack - the ugly stuff just pours right out, doesn't it?
Barack: Isn't so simple... why'd you order that latte... if you didn't want it?
Koom: It looked so good in the picture - new, frothy, exciting, a little bit bad for you... What's yours?
Barack: Americano. Two creams, one sugar.
Barack: I... knew what I was getting into... give yours away if you don't like it...
Koom: But I paid for it! I'm going to drink every last drop, Mr. President!
Barack: (sighs) [REDACTED]... So... the end of your residency at Open Book. Was it all you hoped it'd be?... You get what you wanted out of it?... Every last drop?
Koom: It gave me a chance to catch up with some people, approach others. Pick their brains -
Barack: But not their noses...
Koom: Never their noses - Geez, I could ask you the same thing - how do you feel now that it's over, Mr. President?
Barack: Relieved... exhausted... When I [REDACTED] and then I thought I was going to [REDACTED]... I want to sleep for a month and grow a beard... but there's no time, you know? Can you believe what's happened in just one week?... One weekend?
Koom: Yeah - I don't know. How does he do it? He told that guy at ABC, David Muir, you left him a very nice letter in the drawer of the desk - in the Oval Office - what'd you say?
Barack: Letter? That fat white [REDACTED]... he'd choke on the truth if it ever came out of his mouth... I didn't leave no letter... he can barely read. Malia left him a card with an image of Homer Simpson giving the finger and saying 'Alright brain, I don't like you and you don't like me... but let's just do this together and I can go back to killing you with beer.'
Koom: Yeah, your daughter was spotted at Standing Rock, I believe.
Barack: The millennials scare me.
Koom: You and me both (we clink coffee mugs). They said in that New York Times article recently that you got through the presidency by reading an hour at night before sleep? I thought that was wonderful, though I don't know how you found the time. I'm sitting on piles of books that I'm behind on.
Barack: As long as you're not sitting on piles!
Koom: You've got an odd sense of humour, Mr. President. Did you - get a chance to read - you know?
Barack: Your books? Sure... I read 'em pretty quick. Not exactly Barbara Kingsolver, but they're okay.
Koom: Just okay? You didn't -
Barack: Let me ask you this... Why'd you write them?... Or the interviews... what'd you hope to get?
Koom: Just trying to avoid the hard work of writing the blog posts, I guess. The ol' Tom Sawyer trick: where he convinces everybody that it's great fun to whitewash the fence - and then tricks 'em into doing his work? Guess blog posts and fence posts are similar that way...
Koom: No. It was a lot of work. But enjoyable, meaningful work. Like writing a post and doing an interview, almost every single day. Overbooked the interviews because I wanted to be safe, have enough of them. But very few people actually reneged or didn't come through. Never underestimate a writer's need for self promotion... oh, that was a nasty thing to say, wasn't it? I don't know why I said it.
Barack: You said it to sound clever.
Koom: You know me, Mr. President. I sometimes see humanity and life in abject terms. Like you said, look at [REDACTED] - That stuff's always been there. Never really goes away. Just waits for opportune times to raise its ugly scaly head. I defy all the pollyannas and positive-ites who say you have to exude positive vibes all the time. I want to express the truth which I see, hear, and feel till the day I die. Not look away. I mean, I know you wrote The Audacity of Hope and all that [REDACTED]. I'm an immigrant, I was once a refugee.
At some point in the past, maybe unconsciously, I picked writing as my path forward. I thought that being a writer was the smartest, most aware thing I could be. That makes me want to learn as much about humanity, know as much about the human mind as I can, embrace who we are and why we act. Whether I realize it or not, that means I cherish life, Mr. President. The trick is to hold that vision - the true vision of who we are - while at the same time expanding ourselves as writers. Compassion, dignity. With understanding, not candy flavoured lies.
I think I tried to get that out in the interviews. There were very few duds. I had to edit some of it but I didn't change or make anything up.
Barack: Ahem! (clears throat)
Koom: ...can we move on please?
Barack: You were saying?
Koom: Yes - I started out just wanting to pick other people's brains and ended up writing about myself. A lot. Montreal's a more significant part of my life than I thought. And comics feature in my life, maybe even more than the books and movies.
Barack: We live in a postmodernist age, son.
Koom: What does that mean?
Barack: Science... we no longer think of ourselves as performing experiments separated... from their outcomes. Heisenberg... If you're going to conduct an experiment, son... the way you conduct measurements influences their results. Nietzche... the abyss gazes back. So... when you sit down to write, what you bring to the table, what you put out there... is going to influence things one way or another.
Koom: What am I supposed to do with that, Mr. President?
Barack: All I'm saying is that... I know what the world's like... I've spent my waking moments trying to leave it better... than the way they gave it to me... But when I'm going to sit down and write my memoirs...
Koom: Have you started? How's it going?
Barack: Horrible... I just want to check emails... watch YouTube all day... gotta get in the right space. But when I write those memoirs... I won't just be thinking backwards to what happened... I'll be thinking forward as well... what's going to happen... Even if just one person... just one... reads them, those words will have an effect. It'll stop their day, maybe, just for a few minutes... and feel... there'll be an interaction... You know?... I read King and Mandela's accounts to get me... through my problems.
Barack: You're part of a whole sea, a whole continent, a world of voices... When you choose to write... however you do it... no matter how isolated and pained and alone you are... just by writing... you're reaching... Just like when I [REDACTED]...
Think about all the conversations you've had this past month, doing the interviews... and outside of them... bet you didn't realize you knew that many writers?
Barack: The magical thing about writing is... it exists outside of time. We read and write in time but... writing has conversations with other writing, backwards and forwards, through time... It ripples... those comic books and fantasies and all that stuff you like about other dimensions?... Writing and thought are like that... existing in another dimension... maybe many dimensions... they're all real, son. They exist.... they have very real influence on our three dimensional, practical little world. In fact... most change has to go through that other dimension first.
Koom: Yes, you've nailed it! I guess that's why I like writing so much. It bypasses the coarse obfuscation of the material world. A quicker, purer access to those hidden universes. But look at what's happening in your country. It's a lack of reading, a lack of communication. A lack of understanding.
Barack: It's happening in your country too. That mosque yesterday in Quebec...
Koom: I know. I know, Mr. President! Sometimes I just don't think writing's enough - isn't it self-indulgent?
Barack: What you write... matters. But you also have to follow through. The word and the action, the thought and deed, are part of... the same thing... Like your mind and body... they're both you.
Koom: Don't you just want to withdraw? You could write your ticket, retire somewhere peaceful.
Barack: Where would I go? Where would that be?
Koom: Your own country - it's just filled with so much hate. And problems. And lies.
Barack: It's mine. I've always felt [REDACTED]
Koom: Then we're probably going to be on opposite sides of the writing fence on some of these things.
Barack: I welcome it... I welcome it! That's what writing's all about, son... you haven't touched your caramel latte.
Koom: I know. I don't want it. Life's too short to ingest what you don't really like.
Barack: Are we discussing coffee or writing?
Koom: Touché, Mr. President. You tell me - where do we go from here?
Barack: That door behind you... it's been open the whole time
Barack: the door's always been open
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Koom Kankesan was born in Sri Lanka. While his family lived abroad, the civil war in Sri Lanka broke out and this caused them to seek a new home. They eventually settled in Canada and have lived here since the late eighties. He has a background in English Literature and Film Studies. Koom contributed arts journalism to various publications before becoming a high school teacher in the Toronto District School Board. Since working as a teacher, he has taken semesters off now and again to work on his fiction. The Tamil Dream, his new book, is his most ambitious to date. It looks at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka and how it affected Tamils here in Canada. Besides literature and film, Koom has deep interests in history and science, and an enduring love for comic books.
You can write to Koom throughout January at firstname.lastname@example.org.