Morocco-born Laila Lalami got internationally known because of her blogging that combined the literary with the societal concerns, and then rose in prominence thanks to her acclaimed short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Los Angeles-based Lalami, who was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing, teaches creative writing at the University of California. In her sweeping novel Secret Son, released recently in India, Lalami looks at the world through the eyes of 19-year-old Youssef, who grows up in Casablanca’s stinking alleys and sees some hope for life in the films he watches at the local cinema. His life turns upside down in true cinematic style when he finds out that he is actually the son of a high-profile businessman. Lalami talks with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on the book and the philosophy in her writing:
Your book is about search of an individual’s identity. Are individual identities getting lost more and more in a globalised world?
I think this dilemma exists in many countries, including the US, where I live. I am not sure I can prognosticate, since there are so many geo-political factors at play here.
Your book also deals with corruption and Islamic fundamentalism. How much these issues are debated in the Moroccan society, and how much do they concern you?
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 as well as corruption. This was something that interested me and I suppose I wanted to explore the subject in the realm of fiction. Of course, these issues are debated in Morocco today, whether in conversations, in the press, or in the arts.
As the first major Moroccan author to write in English, how responsible do you feel towards your country and society?
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.
Do you feel obligated to write about Moroccan society because you are from Morocco, or do you use it as a backdrop to speak about larger societal issues which can be true for any part of the world?
I write about Moroccan society because that’s the society I’m most familiar with. I think about Morocco every day and so I naturally set most of my stories there. But 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.
As a teacher of creative writing, how much theoretical aspects of writing do you follow while doing your own writing?
When I write, I try to think mostly of the story and the characters and not anything else outside of that, least of all any theory. But when I edit my writing, I do consider a range of concerns, including theoretical ones.
The contrasting worlds of the rich and the poor have been used by many writers to create an image of the society. Was this also the reason for you to use the same motifs?
The principal reason for me to show the contrasting worlds of the rich and the poor was to show the most complex view of Morocco that I could. These worlds collide and interact on a daily basis in Casablanca. So I can’t imagine not including them in a story set in Casablanca.
Has the book been released in Morocco? In how many countries has it been released till now?
My first book was published in Morocco, in French and English. Secret Son hasn’t yet been published there, but it has been published or will soon be published in Dutch, Bosnian and Chinese.
Being based in another country, does it help you to take a more objective look at your own country’s society?
I certainly don’t claim to have a more objective look at Morocco than someone who lives inside the country. But I feel that my own outlook has changed and become more nuanced now that I have lived and traveled extensively outside of Morocco.
How much aware are you about Indian literary traditions?
I am not as familiar with Indian literary traditions as I would like to be. However, I quite liked Kiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss. I also enjoyed Pankaj Mishra’s Temptations of the West. Arundhati Roy always has interesting political commentary. I also just read a novel by Amitava Kumar, titled Nobody Does the Right Thing.