Ten Questions with Laila Lalami

I really enjoyed Laila Lalami’s new novel Secret Son and so inquired about having her answer some questions via email.  She graciously agreed.

Here is a brief bio for those who may be unfamiliar with her work or background:

Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She earned her B.A. in English from Université Mohammed V in Rabat, her M.A. from University College, London, and her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts grant and a Fulbright Fellowship. She was short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing (the “African Booker”) in 2006. Her debut collection of short stories, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was published in the fall of 2005 and has since been translated into Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Norwegian. Her first novel, Secret Son, will be published in the spring of 2009. She is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside.

My questions and her answers are below.

1) What is the most challenging part about moving from the short story format to a novel and what is the best aspect?

The structure of my short story collection made it possible to take out one story and revise it, or even get rid of it and replace it with another, without having this affect the shape of the entire book. But with the novel, changes to one chapter inevitably meant changes somewhere else in the novel, so the revision process was much more labor-intensive. On the other hand, working on a novel really enabled me to stay with the same story for a long time, to inhabit it, if you will, and to keep adding layers to it.

2) How would you describe your writing style? What authors have influenced your writing?

Perhaps it is up to critics to describe my writing style. I have a hard time looking at my work with a critical eye, since there is no possibility of being completely objective. My favorite authors-and I think these are the people who have influenced me the most, since I go back to them often-are J.M. Coetzee, Chinua Achebe, Ahdaf Soueif, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Leila Abouzeid, Mohammed Choukri, Tayeb Salih, among others.
3) What sparked the idea for the character of Youssef?

I think I started with this image of a young man walking back home to the slum where he lives, having just watched a movie. In some sense, this journey from idealized dreams to stark reality-from lies to truths, if you will-takes place throughout the book. For instance, when Youssef’s mother reveals to him that he is the illegitimate son of a wealthy businessman, she only gives him a small part of the story of his birth, and then she changes that story several times in the book. Or when Hatim promises Youssef that he will publish an article about what happened at the university, the piece that comes out bears only a small resemblance to the events as Youssef experienced them.

4) Fate is a theme in the novel. Does the Middle/Near East have a different concept of fate than the West/America?

I tend to think that people are pretty much the same everywhere, so my instinct is to say no. When people are faced with disastrous events (e.g. a flood, an earthquake, a terrorist attack, etc.), they want to have a reason for why these events took place, which is why the idea of fate is so powerful. The concept of fate can basically be summarized as “shit happens,” except of course it’s said in a prettier way.

5) One reviewer felt the change of perspective was problematic while I felt the last third of the book really kicked it up a notch because of the tension and drama of those different perspectives. What were you seeking to do by bringing in the voices of Alma, Nabil, and Rachida when Youssef had been dominant early in the book?
The book is told from the point of view of Youssef, but I felt compelled to bring in the voices of his father, his half-sister, and his mother because I think they add a huge dimension to the story. In each case, the father, the half-sister, and the mother make decisions that have a huge effect on Youssef’s life, and yet he isn’t even aware of these decisions or the rationale behind them. I don’t think that the three chapters disrupt the flow of the book, and I suppose it’s possible to skip them altogether and still experience all the main events in Youssef’s story without any interruption, but then as a reader you’ll get something very different from the novel. Secret Son asks you to consider the extent to which Youssef’s actions are really entirely under his control. How much choice does he have? Is the choice he faces even possible? Let me give you an example from early on in the book. When Youssef meets his father, he has no idea that his father is in the middle of a huge row with Amal, which is why he is so receptive to Youssef in the first place.
6) It is hard, IMO, to see any of the characters as a true villain – or hero for that matter (all of the characters are complicit in the events that unfold). Was that intentional; to have complexity and grey areas in all of the characters?

Yes, absolutely. Character is primordial for me and I tried to make each one as complex as I could.

7) The ending is something of both a dramatic flourish and a cliffhanger. Was that hard to pull off? Were you tempted to add an epilogue or wrap it up somehow?

I was tempted, but in the end I desisted. I felt that it was more important to get the reader to ponder what is going to happen next rather than to feed her a simple answer. I do think that, as a character, Youssef reaches a point of closure, in the sense that he is clearer about exactly who he is.

8) Do you worry that your writing will be pigeonholed as immigrant, Moroccan, or some other category?

In some ways, I fear it already is. I’ve seen my books described as being “political,” which I find a little startling. After all, the work of other writers-someone like Jonathan Saffran Foer, say-depends on a specific social and political context, too, and yet it’s rarely described in those terms. Perhaps it’s because my fiction is set in Morocco, an unusual setting for American reviewers, which renders visible some things that are less visible with other writers.

9) You were one of the early lit bloggers. What do you think literary blogs add to the discussion of books? What might be their biggest weakness?

I think they provide a greater diversity of perspectives on books and literature, engage in conversation with one another and with readers directly, and cover many books that are left out of the mainstream press. But, just as with any other field, there are varying levels of quality.

10) Things look dire for newspapers, but if you were given control of the local (meaning most prominent paper in your area) newspaper’s book coverage what are three things you would change or implement?

I am not a book editor, so I hesitate to answer that question. I would say that, as a book reviewer, the greatest challenge I see is to match books with the most appropriate critics-those who can provide a larger literary and cultural context for a book.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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