In Conversation: Laila Lalami
Welcome to Hay An Najat, Casablanca. This is where Youssef El-Mmekki lives with his mother. No, it is not the tourist idyll sold to the world by travel agents. It is a slum. A place he desperately wants to escape from due to the stench off poverty that hits you as soon as you enter the first chapter of the Secret Son by Laila Lalami, a Moroccan born writer. In her own words, Laila Lalami and why she explores the issues of inequality, power and religious radicalism and extremism within society through her work of fiction.
Belinda: What’s the inspiration behind Secret Son?
Laila Lalami: I started out with just an image—that of a boy walking home under the rain to the shack he shares with his mother outside Casablanca—and expanded it into a scene, which turned into a chapter, which turned into the novel. Along the way, I explored many different directions for the story, and, through the long process of revision, ended up with the book as it is today. It tells the story of Youssef El Mekki, a university student and movie lover, who discovers that he, is the illegitimate son of a wealthy Casablanca businessman, Nabil Amrani. Youssef sets out to find Nabil, setting off a chain of events with disastrous consequences.
Belinda: The story of Youssef serves as a lens for readers to see some daily aspect of life in Morocco, what story about Morocco and your background were you keen to get across to your reader or anyone who picks up your book?
Laila Lalami: I don’t think I had a specific agenda in mind about Morocco. My ambition was to tell the most engaging story I could about this particular character: the life he has, the emotions he experiences, the choices he faces. Because the story is set in contemporary urban Morocco, it may come across to some readers as being a portrait of the country at this particular time in its history, but I think this is incidental, in the same way that readers learn about South Africa by reading J.M. Coetzee or Zakes Mda, or about Egypt by reading Ahdaf Soueif and Naguib Mahfouz.
Belinda: You explore different themes in the book, from poverty to corruption and one thing that stands in an unusual way is the relationship between the powerful and powerless in society. Is that an element of the Moroccan society and the world at large that you wanted to question, the huge social and economical divides that exist?
Laila Lalami: I think I’ve always had an interest in questions of power and you’re quite right that this interest is apparent in the novel. Obviously these are questions that are at once extremely specific to my character Youssef El-Mekki, but also visible on a grander scale everywhere in the world.
Belinda: How would you describe your writing style and voice?
Laila Lalami: It’s hard for me to describe my own writing style, but perhaps I can talk about my writing process. I write at a glacial pace, and revise constantly, almost obsessively. I tend to pay very close attention to language because, although I am writing in English, my characters interact with one another in Arabic or French, and sometimes both at the same time, so I try to keep the nuances that come with speaking in each language.
Belinda: The story pulls at you emotionally when reading, at least it was that way for me, especially as things begin to fall apart for Youssef, and there is something that extremely painful about the reality that hits him. How important is it for you as a writer to bring these kinds of emotional facets into your work?
Laila Lalami: I am pleased to hear that you were emotionally engaged with the novel. I think the best thing I can hope for as a writer is that you are so immersed in the story that you are willing to follow the character in a journey that is not always pleasant. That level of engagement is wonderful.
Belinda: You have lived in the US for a number of years; how challenging was it to write about Morocco and how deep did you have to dig into your memory bank for stories and images of Morocco that you carry with you daily?
Laila Lalami: Although I don’t live in Morocco, I think that Morocco still lives in me. And I do spend time there regularly—I actually lived in Casablanca for a year while working on Secret Son. When I write, I rely of course on my memories, or on conversations with my family, or on novels and stories, or even on research, but I think the most important driving force is emotion and imagination.
Belinda: Were you more objective when writing because you have been away for some time and only now travel back?
Laila Lalami: I try not to rely on nostalgia when I write about the place, because I think that it can be misleading and false. I try to tell the story as truthfully as I can.
Belinda: How enormous is the responsibility of being given the task of doing for North African fiction, what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did for West African fiction?
Laila Lalami: I don’t think a single writer can or should be given the responsibility to represent an entire literature. This sort of labeling reminds me of the reference to Chinua Achebe as the father of modern African literature, a label he himself rejected. African literature is far too diverse to have a single father or mother, and I think the same is true of West African or North African literature.
Belinda: The Secret Son moves away from the idyllic scenes of Morocco and Casablanca that some of us in the Western World might be accustomed to. Instead, it shows a disconnection between the daily life of young Casablanca’s and the lives they see on television and the internet, of wealth among other things. Why was it important for you to create that imagery and not the one of camels and arranged marriages?
Laila Lalami: In Secret Son, I tried to create complex characters and to write the most truthful story I could for then. Of course, truth is subjective, and it’s based on one’s perceptions and experiences. My own perceptions and experiences, growing up in Morocco, did not include camels, or deserts, or arranged marriages, so none of those things really had a place in my book.
Belinda: It also details elements of extremism which starts building up with people’s dissatisfaction about the divides in society and the way their lives have turned out due to continuous failure of the government. Why did you want to explore that angle of extremism and radicalism and the subtle nature with which it creeps into society and people’s hearts/minds?
Laila Lalami: I think this probably has to do with experience. As I was growing up, I witnessed quite a few changes in Moroccan society, not the least of which was the growth of religious conservatism and, more recently, radicalism. This was something that interested me and I suppose I wanted to explore the subject in the realm of fiction.
Belinda: And of course, the subject of being a single mother, which is still considered a taboo in different societies and the mother feels like she is being punished either by the system or local community due to traditions and beliefs is also a heavy subject in Secret Son. Was it a conscious decision to highlight this issue in society either Moroccan or the general society?
Laila Lalami: I don’t think it was simply a matter of wanting to highlight a societal issue—it was really a question of trying to intensify the conflict in the novel. My character Youssef is an outsider. He is naturally attracted to whomever or whatever gives him a sense of belonging somewhere. Being the child of a single mother exacerbates those feelings of being an exile in his own society.
Belinda: There is the stark difference between how the absent fathers goes free from his actions while the mother carries the shame and burden her whole life; a trend many would argue is peculiar to many societies. As a woman and as a writer, what do you find disturbing about this trend and why did you want to bring some elements of that into the book?
Laila Lalami: What is disturbing about this trend is the injustice of it. Why should there be two sets of rules in society—some for men, and some for women. Why should women be held responsible, but not men? In the book, I felt it was important not to sugar-coat what happens to Youssef’s mother.
Belinda: When Youssef decides to go and live with his father, his mother feels betrayed to a certain degree and we later discover she is the one who fashioned his downfall and return to her. I cannot claim to know much about Moroccan society but I can understand the pain a mother feels about losing her son, what are the intricacies of the mother/son relationship that you wanted to explore through her actions to get her son back?
Laila Lalami: Would you not feel betrayed if you had been left to care for a child on your own for eighteen years and then he goes to live with a father he has never known? Of course Rachida feels betrayed. Her desire to try to get her son back is, it seems to me, completely natural. The problem is that she can’t think of any way to do that, since he seems so enamoured with his new life, so she has to resort to other means.
Belinda: The issue of being in exile is also prevalent in the novel; Youssef’s mother is away from her family. And of course, Youssef also goes into his own imposed exile when he leaves his mother for his father’s house. Many of us live in exile either by omission or commission, but how difficult was it to write about a woman in exile within the very fabric of the society that she was born in and belongs to?
Laila Lalami: I suppose that comes from feelings I have myself had. Although I was sent to a French school as a child, and speak French fluently, I’ve never felt at home with the French-educated elite in Morocco. So perhaps the inspiration comes from that.
Belinda: You also touch on the new generation of young women and their openness and free mindset with Youssef’s sister and the young lady he dates at school though the relationship did not progress. How important is it that tightly controlled societies realise and accept that generations are changing and was that something you wanted to highlight with these two female characters?
Laila Lalami: It’s really up to each society to work these issues out, but I think women’s rights are indistinguishable from any other human rights. My hope is that, through internal change, we will see some real progress in terms of women’s rights.
Belinda: Why is it important that we begin to get a variation of stories about Morocco and North Africa and move away from the usual arranged/forced marriage storylines?
Laila Lalami: There are many books written by Moroccans that showcase a variety of stories. For example, the works of Leila Abouzeid, Mohamed Choukri, Dris Chraibi, Tahar Ben Jelloun, and Mohamed Mrabet tell stories ranging from the struggle for independence to life in streets of Tangier. The problem is that, because these works are translated into English (rather than originally written in English), they are not as widely read in the English-speaking world.
Belinda: What other storylines about the society you have written about in Secret Son would you like to read more of?
Laila Lalami: Secret Son is really about one character—Youssef El Mekki—rather than about a whole society. As far as my own taste in books, I like to read stories about complex characters, stories that play with language, stories that show me a new way of looking at the world.
Belinda: Secret Son is part of a vast story about Moroccan society and life in North Africa, are you happy with the representation of literature and stories of the people of the region of Africa on the mainstream literary scene?
Laila Lalami: I think that there are many African writers producing exciting works of fiction today.
Belinda: Some might argue that you epitomise the modern success story of a woman from the Arab world who is successful, has a voice to speak out through her writing and ask questions that many in the Arab world might not be able to. Do you then feel a responsibility telling those stories and asking those questions through your work like inequality which is prevalent in Secret Son between Youssef’s father and his mother?
Laila Lalami: The only responsibility I feel I have is to tell the most engaging, the most complex, and the most truthful story I can. So my hope is that readers are engaged and immersed in the story, and that they see a truth, however small it may seem, about the human heart.
Belinda: You write in English for a big audience in the Western world, where you are based, has your book been published in morocco and if yes, how was it received?
Laila Lalami: My first book was published in Morocco, in French with Le Fennec and in English with the Moroccan Cultural Centre Press. My second book hasn’t yet been published there.
Belinda: What do you think about the calibre of writers and stories coming out of Africa or about Africa in recent times, a good example, being that of your friend, Maaza Mengiste and her book, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze?
Laila Lalami: There are quite a few talented writers coming out of Africa and the African diaspora at the moment. Maaza Mengiste is a great example! I would also add Hisham Matar, Yvonne Owuor, Binyavanga Wainana, and Leila Aboulela, among many others.
Belinda: In what ways do you think Western Publishing houses and the publishing outfits in Africa can continue to encourage and sustain African writers both at home and in the diaspaora?
Laila Lalami: Publish more books!
Belinda: How crucial is it that we continue to see stories from Africa and its Arab population in the mainstream literary world?
Laila Lalami: There is a great deal that is written about Africa and the Arab world. It’s vital that we are not just written about, but that we write our own stories.
Belinda: What do you want readers to take away from the book after reading?
Laila Lalami: As a novelist, I try to tell the most engaging, the most complex, and the most truthful story I can. So my hope is that audiences are engaged and immersed in the story, and that they see a truth, however small it may seem, about the human heart.
About Author: Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She has a PhD in Linguistics and studied at Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, University College London, and the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, the New York Times and the Washington Post. A recipient of a British Council Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship, Lalami was short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2006 and for the National Book Critics’ Circle Nona Balakian Award in 2009. Her debut collection of short stories, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was published 2005 and has been translated into six languages. Her debut novel, Secret Son, was published in the spring of 2009 and her work has been described as doing for North African fiction, what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did for West African fiction. Lalami is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside.
To find out more about Laila Lalami, visit: Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami/Penguin UK