[Editor's note: Meet Laila Lalami at Powell's City of Books on Tuesday, April 28 at 7:30 pm.]
People will be talking about Secret Son — on college campuses, in book groups, online, in the US and abroad. Upon finishing the novel, I couldn't pin down what about it struck me as so distinctive. It took a second read to realize: Laila Lalami has written a timeless story that's, paradoxically, very much of our time.
When Lalami published Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits in 2005, the debut earned praise far and wide, from acclaimed literary authors such as Junot Díaz and even popular weeklies including People magazine. Four years later, the former Portland resident, a native of Morocco, has returned with a remarkable novel of contemporary Casablanca that's sure to expand her avid readership even further.
In a starred review, Library Journal calls Secret Son "a brilliant story of alienation and desperation that easily transports readers to hot, dusty Casablanca." American Book Award winner Joe Sacco agrees, declaring, "Laila Lalami's tale of a young Moroccan man who must navigate between a bleak background and a bright possibility is magnificently told and wrenched my heart."
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Dave: In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, you immediately call attention to the proximity of Spain to Morocco, across the strait. Fourteen miles separate these characters from their dreams. Similarly, in Secret Son, a short bus ride takes Youssef from the high life in Casablanca to the slums of Hay An Najat. Were you conscious of that parallel as you were writing?
Laila Lalami: I never made the connection in the way that you put it. I was just writing things the way I saw them.
In Casablanca, in some ways, class differences are actually even more sharply contrasted than in Secret Son, so that it's impossible not to see the disparity between rich and poor. In describing Youssef's world, I was consciously taking note of the things that would stand out for him. I hadn't made the connection between the two books, but I guess it makes sense.
Dave: A movie comes to town every week, and Youssef sees them all. Movies are his window onto the rest of the world. Obviously, you grew up in very different circumstances, but when you were young in Morocco did movies play a similar role for you?
Lalami: Books and movies. I grew up in a family where everybody read, but we also watched a lot of movies. American movies, Egyptian movies, Indian movies... so all of that was very familiar to me.
In Morocco in the seventies, there was a thriving movie-going culture. But since the appearance of DVDs, so much pirating has been going on — you can get a movie on DVD even before you can see it in a theater — that a lot of theaters have gone out of business. Nowadays you have fewer theaters, in fewer neighborhoods. Having Youssef go to one of the still-remaining theaters was a good starting point for me.
Dave: Youssef often imagines himself as an actor, as if his life were a dramatization. Unfortunately, he doesn't realize who's directing or writing the screenplay.
Did the book end up resembling the vision of it that you had when you started?
Lalami: No. My initial idea was very different. When I started working on the book — I think it was in 2003 — I had this image of a young man going home in the rain to the shack that he shares with his mother, after seeing a movie. I was interested in the contrast between the perfect life that we have in movies, that stylized way of looking at life, and going home to reality. And I always thought his mother was hiding something; I didn't quite know what.
I thought that it would also be the story of his half-sister, who also appears in the book — it was going to be an intergenerational story about these two families. Youssef and his half-sister would be the main characters, the two points-of-view.
But over the course of working on the book, my focus kept narrowing. I dropped the intergenerational storyline — after a while, I guess I wasn't as interested in writing about the earlier generation. Eventually, I focused on the main character and his dilemmas, but from that process I had a lot more insights into who he was.
Dave: Secret Son is filled with secrets — it's right there in the title. The characters construct stories to protect those secrets; and the stories take on lives of their own.
Lalami: We all like to think we have some sort of control over our lives, but of course so much is predetermined by the circumstances of our birth. I wanted to show how the external world affects what we think of our choices. Those choices are conditioned by our perceptions of the outside world, which isn't necessarily reality. I wanted to show the other perspectives, since I already had them, and show how those characters influence Youssef without his realizing it.
Dave: That's a common process. Often a fiction writer goes through the equivalent of a research phase, generating material that may not make it into the book but very much informs the story.