Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, talks about her memoir Both/And

The bestselling author opens up about her experience as a Muslim woman in American politics, working with the Clintons and more

author_img Rashmi Rajagopal Published :  17th March 2022 03:00 AM   |   Published :   |  17th March 2022 03:00 AM

Huma Abedin

After a virtual edition last year, the much awaited Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) returned to its offline format albeit with a number of noticeable changes. For starters, for the first time in its history, it was held at a new venue. 

The iconic Diggi Palace, which was synonymous with JLF for 14 years, was replaced by Hotel Clarks Amer, usually the location of the festival’s musical events. And while the on-ground event kicked off on March 10, the festival started with virtual sessions on March 5. The hy-brid format without a doubt is a sign of the times to come. However, festival co-director, William Dalrymple felt that the essence of JLF was still intact. “Of course I miss Diggi Palace, but I think we managed to capture the vibe of the festival despite the change in venue. It doesn’t feel that different,” he shared in an interview post one of his sessions. 

With over 600 speakers, artists and performers being part of this year’s edition, it truly felt like a return to old times. “This year, we had a higher number of Indian speakers because of travel restrictions across the world, but there’s so much talent in India so it wasn’t really a drawback,” William added. From Marc David Baer, whose book The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs is a retelling of the Ottoman rule, to Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, whose collection of short stories, Funeral Nights, throws light on life in Meghalaya, the sessions were engaging, informative and eye-opening. 

Both/And by Huma Abedin
Both/And by Huma Abedin

American political staffer Huma Abedin, one of the speakers at the festival, is the author of Both/And. The memoir chronicles her childhood and her years in the White House, where she worked as deputy chief of staff to Hillary Clinton during the former first lady’s stint as the US Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. She was also vice chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. In her session, she spoke about her Indian heritage, her relationship with Hillary (whom she still works with), and how she started her career. Excerpts from our exclusive interview with the bestselling author:

Why did you decide to write this book after 25 years? 
First of all, I think if things had gone differently in 2016 (referring to Hillary Clinton losing the election to Donald Trump), I probably would not have written the book. For me, I liked being in the background, I liked being the invisible staff person behind the primary person, but I realised that, while everyone else was telling my story, I was staying silent. And I wanted to tell it myself. 

Huma Abedin, author of Both/And
Huma Abedin, author of Both/And

As a woman in this field, what were some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career? 
I was very fortunate and very lucky in my own professional path. I walked into the White House as an intern in 1996 to an administration where I felt that the work that women did was as valued as what men did. I was working for a boss like Hillary Clinton, who constantly encouraged me to push myself and learn new things. I actually think I was my own worst enemy for a long time. I held myself back. Somebody actually interviewed me the other day and said ‘you never asked for anything for yourself. You’re always in service, every job that was given to you was given to you. You didn’t ask to be deputy chief of staff. You didn’t ask to travel. Whatever your superiors wanted you to do, you would say ‘yes’ to.’ I’m 46 now and I think it took me a long time to get to a place where I can say, ‘I want to do this or I want to do that.’ And this book has been a big part of that journey. I’ve put it out into the world and I have to figure out what I do in my life next. But what I want to say, particularly to young women, is ‘sit still when you need to but not for too long.’ It is important to constantly be thinking about what your next step is. 

Do you think being an immigrant influenced or affected the way you handled yourself?

I think my parents raising me to have a tremendous amount of pride for who I was and where I came from, our cultural and religious traditions, really helped me especially on the hard days in politics in America. Because I knew who I was. Our parents always told us we should assimilate but never forget where we came from. I didn’t doubt my identity, and I didn’t have any insecurity. I was very proud of that part of my life. There’s a chapter in the book called Moving Along The Scenes. I was constantly going from one world to another, and I was very comfortable. And for these very fancy White House black-tie dinners, I would wear Indian designed outfits, which was not something commonly done back then or even now but I did it. I give my parents credit for that. 

What are some of the experiences that stand out from your career? 
Meeting and spending time with Nelson Mandela. That was a highlight. It was a great privilege to know him, spend time with him and experience his wisdom and empathy. His life makes you believe that anything is possible. Beyond that, travelling to Israel for the first time and seeing what it was like to be over the Palestinian territory and feeling connected to that part of the world, staying at Buckingham Palace, going to places as far flung as New Zealand, and then to Africa and Asia.

If it weren’t for political administration what career would you have chosen? 
I would have become a journalist. I admired Christiane Amanpour and I wanted to follow in her footsteps.