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If you only read one thing this year... make it Becoming by Michelle Obama


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 Michelle Obama’s Instagram bio describes her as a “girl from the South Side and former First Lady.” These seemingly juxtaposed identities transpose incredibly well into memoir format in her bestselling book, Becoming.

Michelle waits as Barack Obama signs a guestbook in Prague.

Image: Michelle Obama waiting for her husband Barack. Credit Pete Souza.

She writes, “There’s an age-old maxim in the black community: You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far. As the first African American family in the White House, we were being viewed as representatives of our race. Any error or lapse in judgment, we knew, would be magnified, read as something more than what it was.”

Michelle is more than twice as good, but she’s somehow still real. She relies upon family networks; her mother Marian Robinson is a stalwart of the entire memoir. When the Obamas were still living in Chicago and navigating the early days of a politics/life balance, Marian would come over at 4:45 am (despite working full-time) so that Michelle could go to the gym and return in time to do the school run.

Michelle has been telling these stories for years, but without the twinge of political ambition, they gather another layer of meaning. In Becoming, she doesn’t just write about motherhood, she writes about IVF and miscarriages. She doesn’t just write about being married to a president, she writes about couples’ counselling and being demonised by the press. She writes about her own work, but also about a sense of debt she owed to her working parents, and later, her inner struggles in justifying the time spent away from her family furthering her career. Elemental in Becoming are Michelle’s coexisting identities of worker, daughter and mother, but powerhouse and phenomenal woman prevail too. She is the epitome of a modern woman trying to have it all, and then some.

The book is divided into three sections; ‘Becoming Me,’ ‘Becoming Us,’ and ‘Becoming More,’ featuring Michelle’s upbringing, her early law career, her relationship with Barack and navigating their double life of family and politics. Each section is moving, but Michelle’s discussion of her childhood in Chicago with her mother, brother and disabled father, is a real insight into a woman who is so much larger than life. Stories of learning to play the piano, of teachers shutting her down, of fiercely working harder to get where she wanted to be, underlie the entire book. She’s grateful for opportunities and proud of the efforts she made against the odds in equal measure. She doesn’t shy away from the truth, but this is not a ‘Michelle bares all’ book. It is a working black mother articulating her unique experiences.

Becoming topped charts and broke records from its release in November 2018 onwards; it held the longest period at number one on Amazon Charts since Fifty Shades of Grey and is still hitting the top spot most days. It sold more than 1.4 million copies in its first week. All this is to say, Becoming is hot stuff.

But celebration of Michelle as an excellent writer, albeit one with a privileged platform, is nonetheless needed. Critics have purported narratives that Michelle only receives attention because of Barack, or as a palatable black woman, or as an educated and wealthy woman. But Michelle is an excellent writer and storyteller; funny, witty, poignant, and dramatic. She is able to generate suspense around the stories she relates, despite the fact that readers already know the outcome. Her book is timely - these are the grassroots stories of politics which provide hope - but it is more than that. Michelle’s stories of black womanhood and motherhood are what make Becoming what it is - essential reading.

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