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Hope and Other Writerly Pursuits: The Interview with Laila Lalami

[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.

Laila LalamiWhen 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.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.

Lalami: Absolutely.

Dave: Not long after I first read Secret Son, over the winter, we spoke, and I fumbled to describe what I found distinctive about the book. I wound up saying, "You write like dead people." Fortunately, for some reason, you appreciated that.

Lalami: Let me tell you how I interpreted what you meant. I took it to mean that the concerns of this novel were the traditional concerns of, say, the nineteenth century novel. For example, the secret identity: this young man journeys to find his father and all of that.

At the same time, this book is rooted in the modern age. Youssef's concerns are very much of our time. So when you said "dead writers," I interpreted that to mean the journey of the character, finding his father, coming of age, class — those are timeless concerns of the novel. I wasn't insulted. It was interesting. You're the only one who had said that.

Dave: There's a timelessness, right, despite the fact that the events are very much grounded in a particular contemporary time and place. I've found that what's best about Secret Son is hard to explain succinctly without oversimplifying.

Lalami: I'm really concerned with the temptations this character faces. They interest me in my life as well.

I do worry that when people read this they'll feel that it's so — for lack of a better word, topical — that it will stop being relevant in about five minutes. That's not at all how I see it, though. There's a larger sense of how this young man is negotiating identities and negotiating where he belongs in his society. So it seemed apt when you described it that way.

Dave: How long did you spend in Morocco when you went on the Fulbright scholarship?

Lalami: A bit less than a year. But here's the weird part: By the time I went, I had a very clear idea of the novel. I knew the story from A to Z. I was revising and revising, but I only made small changes after that point — a lot of small changes.

Being there was very eerie because so much of what I was writing about was taking place around me. For example, there were cases of journalists being harassed by different people and factions.

Dave: You'd grown up in Morocco, and you'd been back since moving to the United States. Going back again with your family while constructing this novel, did anything take you by surprise?

Lalami: It's hard to say. I was not just born and raised there; I didn't even leave Morocco until I was twenty-two, so it's very much a part of me. Even though I live here, mostly I go back to Morocco fairly often, so I do feel like I'm staying in touch. I wouldn't say that any change surprises me; it's the little things.

For example, the penetration of technology. Cell phones are everywhere. It's a little bizarre. You're going down to the market to buy apples, and the guy selling them to you is yapping on his phone. And they're not used in the same way as here. It's a cash economy. You don't pay for your cell phone with a credit card; you can either buy a subscription or you can buy a used phone and get a card that goes in it, and then you buy minutes, cash as you go.

There's this whole practice of beeping someone, which means you call someone and immediately hang up, and then the other person calls you and they use their minutes to find out what you wanted. Lots and lots of little things like that. The same technology, but used in different ways.

And then the other thing, too, is how much satellite television has changed the way we view our society. When I was growing up, we had one state channel, and after a while we had two state channels. That was it. Nobody really paid attention to what was going on in the news since so much of it was official releases and so on. You read or you went to the movies or you talked to friends. All of that changed in the nineties, with the advent of satellite TV. Suddenly we had all these channels, all that information and entertainment and so on. Even in slums where people don't have running water they will have a TV with satellite. Basically, you see how modernization is happening too fast. All sorts of things like that stand out when you visit.

Dave: Growing up, what languages were spoken in your house?

Lalami: In our everyday life, we spoke Moroccan Arabic, but when I was very little, I went to a French school run by nuns. We did use some French in the home. I started getting instruction in French when I was five and later I went to public school, which is also bilingual. I don't remember a time when I wasn't bilingual.

English came later. In Morocco, you take a third language in the tenth grade. That's when I started taking English.

Dave: Something I learned this week on Wikipedia: You're the first Moroccan novelist to write a novel in English and have it be published a major American publisher?

Lalami: Yes, I think so.

Dave: That blows my mind. The first?!

Lalami: For fiction, yes. Plenty of Moroccan-American academics have published books, though. But I guess this is the first Moroccan novel originally written in English to appear with a major publisher.

Over the centuries, most Moroccan literature was written in Arabic. In the twentieth century, a fairly large percentage was written in French. People expect Moroccan novels to be written in one or the other. But what's happened, over the last fifteen years or so, is that the Moroccan Diaspora, three or four million people living all over the world, in the States but also Western Europe and the Gulf Arab states and Israel, pretty much everywhere — that generation has begun writing in the languages of their adopted countries.

My situation is slightly different, but I do write in English. I've been told that I was the first, which does seem a little hard to believe.

Dave: Something else I saw on Wikipedia — I must have known this and forgotten, but I didn't realize that you have a Ph.D. in linguistics.

Lalami: And you've never called me doctor!

Dave: Belated congratulations. I'll send a gift. But I bring this up because of the second epigraph in Secret Son, from Gustavo Pérez Firmat:

The fact that I

am writing to you

in English

already falsifies what I

wanted to tell you.

How might Secret Son be different if you'd written it in Arabic or French?

Lalami: The other epigraph is from the Algerian writer, Tahar Djaout, who was among the writers gunned down by Islamists during the Algerian civil war. He came up with this famous phrase: "If you speak you die. If you are silent you die. So, speak and die." It's obviously something that matters to me.

It's so important to me to write; I can't do anything else but write. And at the same time, I do it in a language that is not my own. English is not my native language. For various reasons, I don't feel comfortable writing in French, the language I was essentially trained in, and since I received a semi-colonial education I was never really able to write in literary Arabic.

When you're writing in a non-native language about your native country, your readers tend to look at you as an authority about that country, which is something that makes me slightly uncomfortable. I don't want to be in that position of authority — that's why the second quote, by Firmat.

A distance in the novel is inevitable. If it were written in Arabic, it would be one step closer to the language in which the characters think and speak. But it's not; it's written in English. That's something I've been conscious of.

One thing that's been great is that English allows me to show how the two languages these characters speak aren't always in harmony. There's a conflict between them. French is used as a social indicator, an indicator of class. That's something you can show when you're writing in English, with that distance.

Dave: Dialogue would seem to be the greatest challenge because, at its core, what you're writing is already falsified: These aren't the actual words the characters are saying.

Lalami: That's right. It's a rendering of what the characters are saying. The characters are speaking in their native language or in French, and it's being rendered for you through the magic of writing.

I have to work hard to make sure that I don't use idiomatic expressions because they're so culturally bound. Those, I have to excise from the text. I listen to the dialogue in my ear in whatever language it happens, French or, usually, Arabic, and then I try to render it in English. It's one more layer.

Dave: I saw on Facebook the other day that you were planning to discuss a section of Lolita with your class. What section?

Lalami: The opening. This is an Intro to Creative Writing class. It's one of those general education courses where you have biologists and writers and mathematicians. Everyone's in the same room. It's been a lot of fun.

For this particular lecture, which was about how writers manipulate words, who else but Nabokov? We did the first four or five sections of Lolita. It was a lot of fun.

Dave: What did your class think of it?

Lalami: They liked it. We went through it line by line, they could appreciate the artistry of it. That opening is so unbelievably good. It's incredible. I think they did enjoy it.

Dave: What did you learn about Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits after it was published? It reached a lot of people. I'm curious how your perception of it changed.

Lalami: Several readers pointed out that the characters who managed to reach their goal and actually immigrate to Europe and make a life over there were worse off than the people who went back home. And these readers were asking, "Is this some sort of statement?"

I hadn't planned that. I hadn't thought of it, but it's true. Once I looked at it, I thought, Yes. The endings to those storylines are more melancholy and more mitigated than for those who went back home. That surprised me.

Dave: As readers are just now getting a look at Secret Son, are you hearing any particular comments and questions repeatedly?

Lalami: Why am I writing about a male character? I've heard that question a lot. To me, though, it seems like I'm writing about myself. There's so much of me in this character.

I didn't really think at the beginning, Oh, I'm writing about a man. I was thinking of him just as a character, like any other. Sure, there were challenges in writing from a different gender, but I felt like I did know exactly who this one guy was, and he was so similar to me in some ways. That made it easier.

Dave: You mentioned earlier that Youssef's half-sister was originally more of an equal within the story — two points-of-view. But you decided to focus on Youssef.

Lalami: They were the two main characters, but his story was the one that I found more compelling. Such a dramatic life change.

Dave: What are you working on now? Any longer material?

Lalami: Nothing longer right now. When I was in Morocco, so much happened. There was so much that I thought I had to write about. I have a whole bunch of half-written essays. I'm going back to those and trying to finish them.

This book was so much more personal to me than the first one, it took so much out of me. I need a break before I go into the next one.

Laila Lalami spoke from her home in southern California on April 10, 2009.

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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Secret Son
    Used Hardcover $6.50
  2. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  3. Lolita
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  4. Lolita Used Hardcover $14.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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