Home Page African Writing Online Home Page [many literatures, one voice]  
HomeAbout UsNewsinterviewsSubscribeFictionPoetryThe Call to ActionArtReviews

  A. A. Waberi
  A. Garriga-Lopez
  Alex Smith
  Arja Salafranca

  Bashir A. Adan
  Belinda Otas
  Chika Unigwe
  Chinua Achebe
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Damilola Ajayi
  Diana Evans
  Don Mattera
  Farouk O. Sesay
  Laila Lalami
  Lola Shoneyin
  Maxim Uzoatu
  Memory Chirere
  Mukoma wa Ngugi
  Mwila A. Zaza
  N Brew-Hammond
  Ovo Adagha
  Peter W. Vakunta
  Rose Francis
  Sarah Manyika
  T Mushakavanhu
  Tola Ositelu
  V Ehikhamenor
  Zainabu Jallo
  Zoe Norridge

Submission Guidelines

African Writing Archives




Laila Lalami


Laila Lalami

Lalami is the Moroccan-born author of Secret Son. She is also the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing and recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts grant and Fulbright Fellowship, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. She lives in California.



  A Conversation with Lalami  

: Now, first of all, great book. I finished it at 11pm yesternight. You were a little cruel to your characters, but hey, writer's privilege?

Laila Lalami: Thank you, I'm glad it kept you reading late into the night. I am not sure if "cruel" is the word I would use to describe how I write my characters! I have deep affection for all of them. In this book, I've tried to write complex characters, and sometimes that means showing them doing things that are slightly unsavory.

: The characters were sympathetically drawn, but... I thought you could at least have given Amal and her brother Youssef a meeting… that is probably just a Hollywood sentiment?

Laila Lalami: Yes, I'm afraid so. I didn't stage a scene with the two of them because I didn't feel that it would be truthful to the story. In this book, there are a lot of missed connections between people, as there are in life, I suppose.

: Speaking of complex characters, Rachida is probably the most complex. By the final page, her son has still not peeled off all her onion skins. Was she the most difficult to create?

Laila Lalami: She certainly was difficult to draw.  I didn’t want her to be the cliché of the struggling single mother, who is simply a victim of circumstance in a conservative society.  I wanted to give her more texture than that, which is why you keep discovering new things about her as the book progresses.

: She certainly surprised.
Shall we back-track a little to Rachida's creator. A little about yourself: where do you live? What do you do when you are not writing fiction?

Laila Lalami: I live in Los Angeles, California, which is also the place I moved to years ago when I decided to go to graduate school. And I also teach at the University of California at Riverside, in the creative writing department.

: Do you have family in L.A.? In Morocco?

Laila Lalami: I have some family in the United States and some in Morocco.  My parents still live in my hometown of Rabat, and I go back there as much as I can.  I spent 6 weeks in Morocco last summer, and a whole year there between 2006 and 2007.

: So you still have a finger on the pulse of Morocco... how long have you lived in the States? Do you hold her citizenship?

Laila Lalami: I've lived in the United States, on and off, for more than fifteen years.  It's gradually become a second home for me, although I think that belonging to a place is a somewhat complicated issue for me.  Sometimes I feel as though I am in this place, but not of it.  And conversely, when I am in Morocco, I feel I am of this place, but not in it.

: What languages do you speak?

Laila Lalami: I speak Arabic, French, English and a little bit of Spanish.

: Mother tongue?

Laila Lalami: My mother tongue is Moroccan Arabic--it is the first language I learned and the language we spoke at home.  But when I was about to start kindergarten, my parents put me in a French school, so that I learned French at a very young age.  In fact, French was the language in which I was first exposed to literature, beginning with children's comics like Tintin and Asterix, through young adult novels like those of Alexandre Dumas, all the way to classics like those of Victor Hugo.  That early dissonance between the world of the imagination and the world of reality is one that has marked me, I think. It wasn't until I was a teenager, and in public school, that I finally came across Moroccan novels, written by Moroccan authors, and featuring Moroccan characters.  And it was the discovery of these works that enabled me to finally become the kind of writer that I am today.

: What language do you 'think' in, today?

Laila Lalami: I've been speaking English for so long that I now think in it as well.

: What is your answer to the Ngugi question: Would you have prefered to write in Moroccan Arabic?

Laila Lalami: Of course I would have preferred to write in my native language, but most Moroccan novels are actually written in Modern Standard Arabic, a form that is learned in school, not at home.  And because I went to a French school, I was never really trained to write properly in it, so that it wasn't a possibility for me.

: If I wanted to read five writers to get a measure of Moroccan literature, who would you recommend? And why?

Laila Lalami: I would recommend Mohamed Choukri, for his searing honesty about his characters' lives; Tahar Ben Jelloun, for his playful language; Leila Abouzeid, for her keen eye on for the little hypocrisies in people; Fatema Mernissi, for her humor; and Abdellatif Laabi, for his intelligence.

: Do you write any poetry yourself?

Laila Lalami: No, not at all!

: Could I possibly persuade you to write a verse for African Writing? That should make this issue a collectors' item...

Laila Lalami: I'm afraid that neither you nor your readers would enjoy the result!! I can't write poetry at all.

: Okay, that's a firm no, then. How healthy is Moroccan literature? What language is most of it written in?

Laila Lalami: Traditionally, Moroccan literature was written firmly in Standard Arabic, but after colonization and independence, a number of writers and poets began to use the French language as a medium of expression.  And now, because of Morocco's large diaspora in Europe and America, we are beginning to see writers appear in new languages, such as English or Dutch or Italian.

: Did you have a sense, writing Secret Son, that you were writing for your American readers rather than your Moroccan?

Laila Lalami: To be honest, I was writing for the reader who is interested in my characters and in the world I have created for them.  I think I write the kind of book that I would enjoy reading. I have American readers of many different backgrounds, including Moroccan--they are some of my most faithful readers.

: Your novel turns out to be quite the Political Novel. Did you plan this? Or did it creep up on you?

Laila Lalami: You know, when my first book came out, a friend of mine read it and said, “it’s a political book.”  I remember being surprised by this, because I hadn’t set out to write about politics at all.  I had wanted to tell the story of four characters, who happen to be illegal immigrants.  I think when writers are interested in themes like immigration or poverty or identity, oftentimes the work is labeled “political” but it seems to me that there are plenty of other books that are not called political, but that could easily qualify as such—for example, books about suburban angst.  In any case, I didn’t really plan on writing the Great Political Novel; my goal was to write a novel that keeps readers engaged, a story that touches their souls.

: In a sense, Secret Son is a biography of the Post Colony: Nabil and Hatim are sometime liberators. Nabil is turned away from his cause by lucre, Hatim by his determination to protect the totem of his honour... Morocco marked its 50th year of independence in 2006. This year, more African countries will mark that anniversary than any other year. Has 'hope' become a less dangerous aspiration for Moroccans and Africans? Or is that still in the realms of improbable fiction?

Laila Lalami: Of course there is always hope; hope is what keeps everyone going.  But I also think that the promises that were made after independence by our political leaders—at least in Morocco, though this may be true of many other African countries—haven’t been fulfilled.  Yes, the country has made some strides, but it is still dealing with basic problems such as illiteracy, for example.  There is so much to be done yet to guarantee a life of dignity for every Moroccan.

: Will a writer resident in Morocco have to practise some kind of self-censorship to keep his liberty, do you think?

Laila Lalami: Over the last few years in Morocco, a number of journalists and bloggers have been arrested because of something they published.  Usually, it is because they cross one of three well-known taboos: writing critically about Islam, territorial integrity, or the king.  So I think it’s probably true that there are some writers or journalists who practice some sort of self-censorship in order to have careers.

: Your character, Youssef, is an avid film buff. Is this a love you share with him?

Laila Lalami: Absolutely.  I grew up in a home where the only things we seemed to be doing on a consistent basis was read books and watch movies.  So I love both.

: Honour is a recurrent theme in Secret Son. Evicted from his penthouse, Youssef does not leave his mother's hovel for shame. Nabil will bear his daughter's 'promiscuity' if it remains secret, so he does not lose face. And Rachida: she becomes an 'orphan' to save her father's face... Is honour this big a deal in contemporary Morocco?

Laila Lalami: I don’t think the issue is so much “honor” as it is social taboos—the same kinds of taboos that existed in Western countries up until the 1950s, particularly when it comes to women’s “reputations.”  Youssef is embarrassed by his father’s rejection of him, so for a while he can’t seem to leave the house and confront his friends.  As for Nabil and Rachida, they both behave in ways that guarantee that there will be no gossip about sexual propriety.

: After fifteen years, you must have authentic insights about American life. Is an American novel imminent or is your writerly imagination still wedded to the Morocco of your birth for the foreseeable future? Do you feel in any way obliged to write about Morocco?

Laila Lalami: My only obligation to myself as a writer is to tell a good story.  At the moment, I am writing about another Moroccan character, but in the future, who knows?  I just might write about someone else entirely different.

: North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa. Are there really two Africas? What are the popular sentiments, say, on the streets of Casablanca? In Secret Son, the character, Nabil complains about 'the African migrants' who had started to appear all over town, taking away work from Moroccans. In real life, how probable is the equivalent of South Africa's recent xenophobic riots?

Laila Lalami: Because Morocco is only eight miles away from Europe, it has become a favored destination for undocumented immigrants from all over Africa.  Some of these immigrants end up staying, taking small jobs, and facing the kinds of problems immigrants face everywhere—problems like racism, for example.  Right now it is still a small community and with proper action by the authorities it might be possible to facilitate their insertion into public life, but I am not sure if this is a priority for the current government.

Copyright © African Writing Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to permissions@african-writing.com.