He looks like the President, talks like the President and shares a name with the President. But he isn’t the president.

Mark Obama Ndesandjo is Barack Obama’s younger half-brother. The two didn’t meet until 1988 when they were both in their 20s, and they’ve led very different lives.

In his memoir, “An Obama’s Journey,” Ndesandjo describes his turbulent relationship with his father, and during a visit to our studios this week, he told Emily Rooney about his family’s ties to Boston.

Read the preface below, courtesy of Globe Pequot Press:

Sometimes, in the darkness of memory, or at time’s amorphous boundaries, the faces of kin merge with my own. It is easy to become confused, figuring out where one ends and the other begins.

My mother and I both have big noses. My brother, President Barack Obama, has big ears. My father had large hands. My family tends toward these eye-catching extremities, just short of being ugly but large enough to be noticed.

My wife and I had just arrived at the St. Regis Beijing when Barack arrived to greet us. We had passed through security and were stand- ing in a small reception room somewhere on an upper floor. It was decorated with pink paisley wallpaper and faux-antique French furniture upholstered in green and scarlet. Above a white marble fireplace hung a modernistic acrylic painting like an out-of-focus photograph. Plush sofas and hard-backed chairs were arranged randomly, giving it a hybrid office/living-room feel. The ambiguous nature of this closely protected meeting place was enhanced by the dim lighting from the table lamps and consulate staff passing in and out inconspicuously like mute specters.

Hearing a sound behind me, I turned to see someone standing in the doorway, cast into shadow by the bright light from the corridor outside. I recognized the outline of those big, mouse-like ears that always seem to stick out. He stepped into the light, and I saw his calm, serious face. The lines on it seemed to have deepened since the last time we had met, during his inauguration week. Even though he is only an inch or two taller, he nevertheless managed to tower over me, just as he had in 1988 when we met for the first time. I felt suddenly overwhelmed to see my brother Barack Obama, president of the United States.

He had made me a promise during his inauguration week: “I will meet you and your wife in China.”

Until I met Barack in Beijing, I had never viewed him as the president. Instead, I just saw him as my brother—a little taller and older than me, true, but still just a brother. When he walked through the door and saw me, he instinctively held out his hand. Feeling momentarily insulted, I hugged him instead. Soundlessly, he hugged me back. I detected a faint smell of cigarette smoke and knew that, in spite of his and Michelle’s best efforts, today he had been playing truant. At the moment we embraced, he could have asked for anything and I would gladly have given it to him. This, finally, was the moment of closeness we should have shared decades ago. There had been something cold and accusatory about our encounter in the summer of 1988 in Kenya, characterized by his lawyerly reasoning and almost anthropological inquiry into our common history—and our father, Barack Obama Sr.

“What I’m wondering is what’s going on in Barack’s mind right now,” a friend had commented to me after I had published my novel, Nairobi to Shenzhen.

I had already alienated my sister, Auma, who was furious I had publicly spoken of our dysfunctional father, whom she had idolized for so long. Upon meeting Barack Jr., she had likely told him little of the domestic violence within our family.

At best, I thought, Barack would ignore the ruckus. At worst he would give me the cold shoulder.

What indeed was my brother thinking?

“How are you doing, Mark?” he said. I examined his face more closely. His skin had a yellowish, leathery tinge, as though the fire within had burnt out. His eyes looked somewhat weary but also resigned, like one who sees burdens for what they are—ineluctable, requiring his constant vigilance and duty, always there.

“Great threads, man,” I said, not knowing how else to reply. He wore a beautiful silver-shaded navy-blue suit with crisp tailoring. I was seeing everything about him with acute clarity: every stitch visible, every crease thrown into relief. There was a bald strip on the left side of his head where he had been accidentally nicked by an electric trimmer. He wore a flag lapel pin neatly aligned with the knot in his brilliant blue-and-white-speckled tie.

The words rang again in my mind: I will meet you and your wife in China, just not in Shenzhen. They won’t let me have dinner with you.

My brother had kept his promise.

But his mind was elsewhere, or perhaps it was too fully engaged in the moment, like the man who has consumed a cup of tea greedily, then drunk another and another, the pleasure diminishing further with each fresh cup. I was perhaps his hundredth cup of tea, after a year packed with more than he had ever expected to drink.

During our meeting Barack smiled just twice.

The first time was when he saw a picture of my mother. For the recent publication of my novel, I’d produced dummy copies of the book, which featured its jacket but had blank pages within.

“Let’s get some photos of your family and paste them inside for Barack,” my wife had suggested before we flew to Beijing.

I loved the idea. Eagerly, we selected photos of my father; my late brother, David; my mother; and myself—ones Barack had probably never seen before—and pasted them in. Beside each one, I wrote in longhand a short paragraph of explanation and reflection.

“How is your mother?” he asked.
“She’s fine.”
“Please send her my regards.”
It was a slight smile, just the barest upturn of the lips and an almost

imperceptible fluttering of the eyelashes, as if he felt too abashed to say anything more. This is Barack’s real smile, the reflection of his personality when it is free from theatrics and politicking, arising from his own some- what stern and somber character. Our respective mothers and grand- mothers were powerful and unforgettable influences over both our lives, that smile said.

The second time he smiled was when we came to a picture of our father sitting at a desk studying.

In this photo, taken during his student days at the University of Hawaii, Barack Obama Sr. looks serious and fully absorbed in his work. A faint curve of pigment, perhaps an old flame’s lipstick, is faintly impressed on the top part of it. This photo showed the side of my father that I had grown to admire late in life. In it I saw all the industry and focus on his studies that had pulled him ahead of so many.

My brother looked at this photo and smiled again—but only half a smile this time, tinged with implicit refusal to engage with me further on this subject. I had forgotten that in private, away from the public oratory, my brother could be a black Heathcliff, his presence a monosyllabic and sullen wind that roared across the moor, cold and isolate. He didn’t say anything, but I knew at that moment he could not forgive me.

At one of our previous meetings, in Austin during the campaign, I had given him a carefully chosen piece of Chinese calligraphy:


So close yet so far So far, yet so near

My brother was so close to me in this Beijing room, and yet still so far away. I had hoped we would talk of Obama Sr., perhaps reach an understanding of how two sons of the same father could have followed such widely divergent paths.

Yet could I honestly have expected that some old photographs, or even the novel I had written, would get my brother to open up to me for the first time? How could the beliefs he had clung to for decades, the entrenched admiration of an adult for his father, be in any way altered by the views of a brother he barely knew?

How naive I had been.

It was a good question my friend had asked. But in the end there was no answer to it.

Whatever Barack thought of my novel and what it said, he would never tell me. Or at least not of his own volition. I was not courageous enough to press him for his opinion, for I was close enough to see what he thought—and at that moment my brother scared me. With the change that had overtaken his life, he was like a huge steel ball that could roll free and crush anything or anyone that stood in his path.

Sometimes by chance,
A look or a glance,
May one’s fortune advance

That moment of withholding told me so much about his reluctance to like me, let alone love me as his brother.

Years earlier, when I was writing a particularly difficult passage about our father, I had burst into tears. My wife stared in astonishment at the sight of a grown man overcome with emotion.

“My family will hate me for this book, baby,” I explained.

She hugged me and assured me they would not, while no doubt sensing I was right.

Later that day in Beijing, my brother replied to an interviewer’s question about our meeting: “I don’t know him very well. I met him for the first time only two years ago.”

Hearing myself referred to in the third person like that felt surreal. Maybe I should have made allowances for the bluntness of the inter- viewer’s question, but the pain in my heart disregarded any such logic or excuse. After all, I had met him a number of times before.

He had become not my brother, but the president of the United States. This was the politicking Barack, in the media spotlight where politicians perform every day. Perhaps I’d thought there might be something about our family tie that would override the carefully bland, ready response, but the dismissive words were spoken.

For me the rest of our meeting went by in something of a daze. Before I knew it, he was off to see the president of China, and my wife and I were flying back to Shenzhen.

Later, after I had returned home and had time to think things over, I wrote Barack a letter.

Dear Brother,
It was great meeting you in Beijing! I hope you find some time to read this, for I know of the great challenges that daily demand your time . . .

Many years ago, you tried to start a discussion with me about life in general, and our father in particular. At that time I closed myself to you. Over a year ago our sister Auma told me, “There is a time for everything.” I have been thinking about these two things a lot recently: our broken conversation and how “untimely” things sometimes are. Your election was untimely for me, but it started me thinking about what we had talked about long ago. I started to think of my home in Alego, a home which you briefly knew, but which I was immersed in for years. You were seeking our father’s ghost. I was running away from it. I had tried very hard to forget my past, but failed miserably. By failing to understand myself I made terrible mistakes . . .

For a long time I could not accept our name. It was part of such sad memories. You changed that. You made me very proud and inspired me to go back . . .

Barack, I want to reconnect with all our family and you are a lynchpin. Without your support I can do it but it will be hard . . .

I wanted to say so much to you, Barack, but our time was so limited. I truly hope we can continue what we started long ago as I try to reconnect with my history and my memories . . .

Mark Okoth

He did not reply. I have never asked him if he read the letter. Never- theless, despite the bittersweet atmosphere of our meeting, I still treasure the memory of that hug from my brother, that first smile, the feeling of being among family, warm and protected from the bitter Beijing winter.

But for both of us the beginning lay in Africa, where our differences, and our two remarkable journeys, first took shape.