During the U.S. Democratic primaries in 2008, Sheila Heti began collecting dreams that people were having about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and posting them on her blog, I Dream of Barack. She talked to Geist in November about how the project came together. Scroll down to read excerpts from the interview.
“In the early months of 2008, when the Democrats were trying to decide whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama should be the candidate for president of the United States, a close friend and collaborator of mine, a painter named Margaux Williamson, told me this Hillary Clinton dream she’d had where she was shopping for Tupperware with Hillary. It was so funny and weird, and I thought, I bet people all over the country are having dreams about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and maybe it’d be interesting to put them all on the web because the web should have everything that could possibly exist on it. So for about six months I continued to get dreams, and I ended up with about eight hundred dreams from people—more dreams about Barack than Hillary by a slight margin, and also the tone of the dreams about Barack was pretty messianic and Barack was like a great basketball player, whereas the Hillary dreams tended to be a bit more like she’s a castrating bitch type of thing, so it was pretty clear from reading the dreams that Barack was going to win that fight.
“People started demanding a website for John McCain because Republicans felt left out of the whole thing. So I put one up, but there weren’t so many McCain dreams, I think because the liberal media covered the website more strongly than the conservative media. I think that’s the only real reason why.
“I edited the dreams a lot because people aren’t good at knowing what’s interesting about their dreams and what’s not, so I would sometimes leave details out or reorder things and put them in my own voice because I wanted them to be easy to read and all somehow sound similar to each other stylistically.”
—From an interview with Sheila Heti in Vancouver, November 2008.
Keanu Reeves was voted in as the next president of the United States. He was giving his acceptance speech, dressed in jeans and a hoodie. He looked good, but we were all shocked. How did he win? Did we even know he was running? I set about urgently painting him a sign, twelve metres long, with a too-dry paintbrush, reminding him of all the things he had to remember: Prioritize education. Provide Medicare. Cap corporate profits. The environment! There were two brief interruptions as we fielded interviewed reactions from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They were equally stumped. They didn’t know he was running, but they were gracious losers.
Barack Obama stopped by with Lorna, a woman I used to work with. They were just standing there, he in a white shirt and dark pants, she stark naked with her long red hair covering her shoulders like she was Lady Godiva. He had brought her to pick up the baby, which was in the other room. He was explaining to me that she would be taking care of it. I was quite surprised because Lorna is an unmarried woman in her late fifties and has no children, and I couldn’t understand why she would be caring for his—her?—infant.
Then they left, explaining they had to be on their way.
Barack made a campaign stop in my hometown. Someone had booked him into a hotel that had a bathroom made entirely of glass, so you could see from the outside what he was doing in there, but it was clouded glass so you couldn’t see anything clearly. Someone made a video of him showering and posted it on the internet. Of course, this caused a hailstorm of controversy and everyone demanded that Obama explain why he would book a hotel with a see-through bathroom. He countered by explaining that it really wasn’t a big deal because it was clouded glass and you couldn’t see everything.
Barack was the new youth minister at my university. As a gesture of welcome, a group of us invited him out for the night for beers. The evening was a success, and we returned with him to his faculty apartment for some late-night meaning-of-life conversation. We were getting comfortable when Barack excused himself to go to the restroom and came out lighting his Speed Stick gel deodorant on fire and huffing the fumes. His adeptness with the deodorant/lighter technique and lack of self-consciousness implied that this was simply his standard nightcap.
Barack and I had plans to drive to the outlet mall that afternoon. As we left my house and walked toward my husband’s Ford Explorer, we laughed like two old friends. He gave me a playful nudge and said, I just love you! This made me ridiculously happy. When we reached the car, he had trouble fitting into the passenger seat because his legs were so long. The back seat was down and needed lifting. I was afraid he would make me lift it by myself, but he helped me. Then we drove to the mall.
I am standing in the front row of a large, packed arena. The crowd is going crazy in anticipation waiting for Barack to come out, the atmosphere more rock concert than political rally. Barack finally emerges, only he has long, bright green dreadlocks and he’s bouncing around on stage in jeans and a white T-shirt, getting the crowd fired up. He passes up the podium and goes straight to the crowd, ripping off his T-shirt along the way, and gives everyone in the crowd a high-five. The crowd is loving it, but I find myself filled with anxiety, thinking, Wow, I’m glad he has finally found his confidence, but I think this is taking it a bit too far.
Barack came to our town to hold a rally in a small room in a wooden house. He stayed a long time and there were many side events. His handlers kept failing to show up to whisk him away, but he took it all with good humour, enjoying his interaction with ordinary folks. At one point we all rushed out to a local furniture store to see the two gold sofas Barack had just purchased. He said he had been looking everywhere for sofas that were really gold-not yellow or orange. We were proud he had found them in our humble town.
I was at Barack’s house preparing a party for him and his supporters. It was a huge atrium-like modern space with thirty-foot ceilings and a balcony running along the sides. Instead of setting up, my friend and I decided to look inside the closets and drawers at all of Michelle’s legendary couture clothing. We pulled out all these Gucci, Prada and Valentino dresses. One drawer was entirely filled with beautiful gloves. Unfortunately, people started arriving and we had to stuff all the clothes back into the drawers and closets. All throughout the party I kept worrying because I knew that she would know we had been through her closets and drawers.
I was at a planning meeting with Barack and his handlers. They were talking about a televised town hall program they were going to participate in that night. I decided to fly up to the ceiling to see what Barack’s reaction would be. He kept talking with his handlers and pretty much ignored the fact that I was hovering over him. They grew more animated as they discussed a woman who was going to be in the audience. She had contributed a lot of money to the campaign and Barack wanted to be able to answer her questions during the show, but he needed a way to identify her. Someone suggested they paint her face bright red. I thought that was too obvious and suggested they just paint a red X on her neck. They liked that idea.
Then he is in my bed wearing blue striped boxers. I have a perfect apartment in Harvard Square (not so in real life!). The room has a bohemian look, all earth tones and Indian prints. The afternoon sun is coming through the window above the bed. I remember the intense conversation we shared, and think about how I offered him my bed for a nap. We’re talking less intensely now. I’m reclining on the side of the bed, not touching him, but am very close and the attraction is palpable. We fall silent and our eyes meet. Then we kiss very softly. I can feel his desire to relax, to be himself, to lose himself here. I realize this could never be kept a secret. I know how disastrous it would be for the man about to be our country’s first black president to have an affair with a white woman twenty years his junior. I cannot risk any chance of being the woman who will cost our country his presidency. I put my hand on his chest and say, This is getting really dangerous really fast.
I am rowing in a kayak on a cloudy day. I feel tired, humiliated and discouraged. The other rowers can’t believe how bad I am. In a moment alone, my trainer, Barack Obama, approaches me in his grey-blue track suit, puts one of his sneakers on my kayak and places his hand on my shoulder. He gives me a good pep talk about determination and not backing down. He also says, You shouldn’t even be this tired, and gives me proper rowing techniques. Then I feel better. Even if I am going to lose that day, I at least have the sense that I tried my best.
I was on a bus coming home from university and Barack came and sat beside me. I don't know how I knew it was him, because I don’t follow the election at all. He was wearing a dirty suit and smelled bad. I was reading and he asked me what I was reading. I showed him the book: The Lord of the Rings. I’ve never seen that movie! he exclaimed. Then he gave me his business card from his wallet. It was really cheap, like something printed off a school computer, and Senator was misspelled. He got up to get nachos from the bus concession and I put my backpack on his chair so he wouldn’t sit by me again.