Laila Lalami

An email conversation with Cameron Martin

Born and raised in Morocco, Laila Lalami moved to Los Angeles in 1992 to do graduate work in Linguistics at the University of Southern California. Her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was described by Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz as “a dream of a debut, by turns troubling and glorious, angry and wise.” Less a novel than a collection of overlapping short stories, Hope follows the fortunes of a small group of modern-day Moroccans who abandon the depressing certainty of their current lives — an oppressive regime, unemployment, class warfare and a tenuous respect for free speech — to sail across the Mediterranean in hopes of carving out better futures as illegal immigrants in Spain. Her new novel, Secret Son, addresses some of these same issues while further expanding Lalami’s explorations into the question of identity. Namely, who is Youssef El Mekki? Is he the star-crossed son of an impoverished widow? Is he the fortunate offspring of a wealthy aristocrat? Can he be both? Our e-mail conversation with Lalami took place in three installments in April and was conducted for the Review by Cameron Martin.

BN Review: You grew up in Morocco, where French, Arabic and English are all commonly spoken. You’ve said that when you first started writing, it was in French. Would you share with us the various reading and writing influences you encountered at an early age, in Arabic, French and English, respectively?

Laila Lalami: I grew up speaking both Arabic and French, but my earliest exposure to books came through French because I received, to my long-lasting despair, a semi-colonial education. In addition, most of the children’s books that were available in my hometown in the 1970s were in French. As a child, I read Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas and Georges Bayard, and so naturally when I started writing, it was in French. While I could read and write Arabic competently enough, I found it very hard to write fictional narrative in Arabic. It wasn’t until I became a teenager that I really became exposed to the work of Moroccan and Arab writers. My favorites were Leila Abouzeid, Mohammed Choukri, Naguib Mahfouz, and later Tayeb Salih and Alifa Rifaat.

I started learning English at the age of 15, in high school, and later I majored in English in college. Being immersed in a new language gave me a new vantage point from which to observe the bilingualism with which I had grown up. It struck me that French and Arabic did not have a harmonious relationship in Morocco; they were always in competition and in conflict for space. For example, one’s fluency in French was used as a major determinant of social class. I started to feel really uncomfortable with the idea of writing fiction in French and in fact I stopped writing for a while. When I moved to Los Angeles to go to graduate school, I decided to try my hand at writing fiction in English. I always find it hard to pinpoint specific literary influences, but the English-language writers I have always admired include J.M. Coetzee, Joseph Conrad, Margaret Atwood, Chinua Achebe, Vladimir Nabokov, among many others.

BNR: I’m interested in the genesis of your blog, Moorish Girl, which premiered less than one month after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Early entries reflect on the attacks and their aftermath, but not exclusively, as you wrote in one instance about your decision to spend a day reading and writing rather than watching CNN’s coverage of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. How has writing the blog influenced your other writing, be it fiction, essays or book reviews? Are there other literary blogs you particularly enjoy?

LL: In the fall of 2001, I was working as a linguist for a tech company in Los Angeles. I had been thinking of trying this new medium of blogging, but it wasn’t until after the terrorist attacks that I felt I had to do it. I wanted to have a space in which to record my thoughts about politics, literature, and culture. The blog was anonymous during the first year, but as I became more comfortable with it (and after I left my job) I used my name on posts and eventually changed the name of the blog to

Blogging has introduced me to many more writers than I would normally have found on my own. For instance, I stumbled on the work of Marlon James, Andrew Sean Greer, Tayari Jones, Alison Bechdel, and many others through recommendations on other blogs or websites. The sense of a large, continuing conversation about books and literature is what I like about the medium. The blogs I read include Literary Saloon, Maud Newton, Amitava Kumar, Neil Gaiman, and The Elegant Variation, among others.

BNR: In your collection of stories, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Murad, a male character, questions his choice of a college major. “Maybe he shouldn’t have bothered going to college to study English, spending his time learning a language and its literature. No one cared about these things.” What was the reaction to your decision to study English literature? Did you ever question your career path? Did anyone in your family think it was wasteful? Has their attitude changed over the years?

LL: I was supposed to go to the Faculty of Medicine, but I somehow managed to miss the application deadline. I think my parents were expecting me to study biology — my older sister is a scientist — so when I announced I was doing English instead, they were worried about my future job prospects. By the time I started graduate school, I think they made themselves believe that linguistics was still the “sensible” way to go, so you can imagine their horror when I said I was quitting my job to write full-time. Of course, once they realized I wasn’t going to change my mind, they became completely supportive.

BNR: Why the “long-lasting despair” about receiving a semi-colonial education?

LL: I think that when a child’s first exposure to books is through a foreign language it creates a sort of separation between her and her imagination. When I was little, my imaginative world was exclusively populated by people who looked differently than me, spoke a language other than mine, had a culture different than mine. Then, as a teenager, once I began to read the work of Moroccan authors, I had a keen feeling of recognition, of revelation.

BNR: In a 2005 essay, you wrote, “Poverty has receded from the list of popular themes of the American novel. No longer do we have a John Steinbeck, a Richard Wright, a Theodore Dreiser, or a Zora Neale Hurston writing about the working poor…Poverty has curiously disappeared from the literary conversation. Now, after Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the time has come to engage it again.” Has your opinion on this matter changed in the last four years?

LL: I wrote that piece right after Hurricane Katrina, and I was very angry. But I think my basic point still holds. There are various reasons why we don’t see the working poor in fiction nowadays — mostly because the working poor are too busy trying to make ends meet to find time to write fiction. I think the economic meltdown is bringing all these issues to the forefront again, so perhaps we will see more works concerned with class.

BNR: Your new novel, Secret Son, largely focuses on Youssef, a poor teenager who discovers that his father, whom he’d thought was dead, is in fact alive and wealthy. Reading the novel, however, it’s difficult not to draw parallels between yourself and the character of Amal, Youssef’s half-sister, who was born in Morocco but now attends UCLA. Within the spectrum of rich and poor described in this novel, where did your own experience in Morocco fall? How did your upbringing affect your understanding of the class tensions described in Secret Son?

LL: While Amal and I are both women who came to study in the U.S., the similarities really stop there. In reality, I have a lot more in common with my protagonist Youssef. Like him, I studied English in Morocco. Like him, I speak French fluently but don’t feel any connection to the French-educated elite. And my mother was an orphan, like his. Originally, the book was supposed to be told, alternately, in Amal’s and Youssef’s points of view, but I think my interest in Youssef grew into a very personal one.

My family was middle class, but that didn’t shield me from noticing class tensions everywhere. For example, I went to a public high school, but several of my classmates were the children of government ministers and were chauffeured to and from school. At the same time, I had other classmates who couldn’t afford to buy textbooks or a winter coat. I suppose being somewhere in the middle was what made me so aware of the differences and tensions.

BNR: Secret Son was supposed to be told, alternately, in Amal’s and Youssef’s points of view, yet your interest in Youssef became very personal, you said. Beyond the most famous example — Gustave Flaubert writing in the person of Madame Bovary — what other works of fiction stand out for you as memorable examples of an author describing a protagonist of the opposite sex? Did particular works come to mind as you were developing Secret Son?

LL: I can think of a few: Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, Hardy and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, George Eliot and Daniel Deronda. Among contemporary writers, the one who stands out to me is J.M. Coetzee and his character Elizabeth Costello, who appears both in the novel that bears her name and in Slow Man. In fact, many of Coetzee’s novels are told from the point of view of a woman character: Foe, In the Heart of the Country, and one strand of his three-pronged novel Diary of a Bad Year. I wasn’t consciously thinking of any of these books as I was working on Secret Son.

BNR: You teach several literature courses at UC Riverside, and you mentioned in your blog that you felt both anxious and excited about an introduction to creative writing class (180 students). How has the class been? And how has teaching this class (and other classes) affected your understanding of reading and writing fiction?

LL: The class has been great so far. It’s certainly a different experience than the typical workshop or seminar, which has fewer than 15 students, all of whom are creative writing majors. In this introductory class, I have students who major in physics or math or music and I find that the mix is really wonderful. The students each bring a different perspective to bear on the works we discuss. What I like about teaching is that it forces me to articulate my critical reactions to a piece of work clearly. I find that this helps me with my nonfiction, but I am not sure if it helps me with my fiction. That’s perhaps for readers to judge.

BNR: In Secret Son, you describe one character as being “like so many other people in (Morocco), completely disabused of the notion that there was much use fighting against injustice.” Would you please elaborate on this sentiment? In this novel, as well as in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, there’s a sense of sadness, a feeling that things in Morocco will never change with regard to class warfare, free expression, and the country’s attitude towards women. Do you think you’ll ever return there to live?

LL: The line appears when Youssef experiences a cruel and unendurable rejection, so it comes from the depths of his despair. It’s a sentiment that is driven by this immediate experience and so it can’t describe the totality of his experience.

Nor, of course, does my character’s pessimism necessarily apply to my own political positions. I think history teaches us that no social or political situation lasts forever, so while one might not see tangible changes in the very short run, things do in fact change in the longer term.

I have in fact returned to live in Morocco (I was there for a year to work on this book) and I go back as often as I can, although being married to an American and having a child who just started school makes long-term travel a little more complicated.

BNR: Now that you’ve lived in the United States for some time, have you entertained the possibility of writing fiction that addresses issues in American life? Or will you continue to write fiction centered in Morocco? Who, among contemporary American writers, consistently impresses you with their work? What is it about their writing that draws your interest?

LL: I’ve been writing down some notes for my new book, but I haven’t started writing it yet, so it’s hard to say where and when it will be set. As for contemporary American writers, I like the work of Edward P. Jones, Ha Jin, Andrea Barrett, Cormac McCarthy, Gary Shteyngart, Colum McCann, Antonya Nelson, and many, many others. My taste is for fiction that displays great imaginative empathy and also opens up the psychological and emotional intricacies of characters.

BNR: In your experience, does knowing the sex of an author influence your reading of a particular text? If so, how much? In teaching, do you encounter many students who are reluctant to read works by authors of the opposite sex?

LL: In the vast majority of cases, we do know some basic facts about an author — approximate age, race, and sex — so it’s hard to compare these experiences with the very rare cases in which we don’t know anything about an author. I would say, though, that I am always willing to be guided by a writer into the world he or she is creating, and I only feel thrown out of the narrative when some detail feels forced, or affected, or unconvincing somehow. I do find, in general, that my male students are less likely to want to read works by women writers or works about women characters, while my female students are, in general, willing to read either. Why that might be, I’m not sure, but I do of course stress how important it is — especially for budding writers — to read from a wide variety of perspectives, as it helps develop greater imaginative empathy.

BNR: What was the first English-language novel that really bowled you over, and why? Under what circumstances did you read it?

LL: I think the first English-language novel I read was John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, but the first book that impressed me was Jane Austen’s Emma. It was assigned in my British literature course when I was a sophomore at Mohammed V University and I remember being excited about going to class because I’d get to discuss the book with my classmates and teacher. I loved how Austen makes the reader care about Emma, despite — or perhaps because of — all her faults; and the language was so beautiful and so witty.

BNR: You recently contributed a chapter to a serial novel in the Los Angeles Times. Had you ever written anything in serial form before? What were the particular concerns and considerations that went into your contribution? After your chapter was posted, did you read subsequent chapters by other authors?

LL: I had never written anything in serial form or in collaboration with anyone else, so this was a whole new experience for me. The biggest concern for me was to see where the story was headed until my turn came up and then try to give it a specific direction. The characters had already been introduced and it was time to move the plot forward, so to speak, so I tried to do that in my installment. And yes, of course, I read the subsequent postings by the other writers — many of whom are friends, so I’d have read their work whether or not we were doing this project together.

BNR: Do you still experiment with writing fiction in Arabic and French? And do you still read much fiction in those languages, or is your relationship with fiction predominantly English-based? You were the first Moroccan author to have her works published by a major press in the United States. What other Moroccan writers would you like to see reach a wider audience? And why them?

LL: No, I haven’t written anything in Arabic or French in many, many years, but I still do read in both of these languages. Usually what happens is I’ll hear about some book that sounds interesting and rather than wait for the translation, I read it in the original Arabic or French. But really the vast majority of what I read everyday is in English. I would love to see other Moroccan writers reach a greater American audience; Tahar Ben Jelloun and Leila Abouzeid and Mohammed Choukri have all been translated into English but mostly with small presses. Translations of the late, great Driss Chraibi have fallen out of print, I believe, which is a shame. Among the younger writers, I’m surprised that Fouad Laroui has never been translated into English, but I do hear that Abdellah Taia will have a book coming out with MIT Press this year. In an ideal world, I’d have my own imprint and get all of these people translated and published here in the States.

BNR: What do you think reaction will be to Secret Son in Morocco? Do you anticipate criticism from particular quarters?

LL: Ever since I predicted that George W. Bush would lose the 2004 elections, I’ve stopped trying to prophesize what would happen anywhere! So I really don’t know what the reaction will be to Secret Son, either here in the States or in Morocco. I do, however, hope that readers, wherever they may be, will connect with the characters in some way.