Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits Having read with others at the Book Expo America's Emerging Writers series last June, I heard Laila Lalami read an excerpt from her forthcoming book--link is provided for you to gain additional information--which will be published by Algonquin Books in October 2005. Intrigued by its Moroccan setting, I raced to the back of the room after the reading and helped myself to an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) and decided on a whim to take it with me on my recent book tour to Los Angeles.
Her book, a collection of stories, written in straightforward prose, transports the reader into a mint tea suffused part of the world where many of the citizens work yet still live in what I think of as unmenacing poverty, though some, aspiring to better their lot, are ferociously attracted to the 'greener grass' of Spain. Utilising the framework of a perilious journey to be undergone in a rubber boat across the Straits of Gibraltar--a framework which works because it unites each characters dual stories (a 'before' story in Part One and an 'after' story in Part Two)--Lalami introduces us initially to her 'actors' through the eyes of Murad, a man who has paid much for his passage.
Among his fellow travellers is Faten, a devout Muslim--befriended by the sophisticated and wealthy Noura, a girl who takes up wearing the hijab much to her westernized parents horror--who will make it to Spain and a life of prostitution; Halima, a wife whose drive is to escape and divorce her abusive husband; and Aziz who leaves behind a pragmatic wife and dreams of making enough money in Spain to return and found a viable business in his homeland.
After I'd finished her book, the thought occurred that, while I read pretty extensively, I read the work of British, Irish and North American writers in the main. While Lalami is born and raised in Morocco and her book is not translated, nevertheless, the book's setting prompted me to consider what I'm missing by not actively seeking out literature that has been translated into English. In any event, I consider myself fortunate to have come across this book of colorful stories. On a few occasions, I will say I found myself so intrigued by a major secondary character that I found the story's conclusion a tad abrupt because of my need to know more, but such is the author's prerogative as the creator of her characters. The power of these stories lies in their universality:they show us that humanity has the same needs and problems, no matter whether we are rich or poor, or whether we stem from the sophisticated West or the sunwashed medinas of Morocco, and that the crossing of treacherous straits in pursuit of our dreams does not inevitably meet with success or happiness.
Laila, thanks for taking the time to stop by my blog and
answer a few questions about your first book.
Thanks for having me.
DMN: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits examines the lives of four Moroccans who decide to flee their homeland in search of a better life in Spain. What served as your inspiration for these stories and how did you set about doing research?
LL:I don't think my characters' decision is so much a question of flight as it is a quest to improve their lot. There's something of that in all of us, I think, but few of us have had to contend with the particular circumstances that compel my characters to decide to leave. The first time I heard about the boat trips across the Mediterranean was in the 90s, and I thought it would be interesting to write a story about one such trip. But then I realized that writing about the trip itself was a little like trying to look at a painting with my nose up against it. I had to step back and think about the characters's lives before and after. So that's how the book came about.
DMN: Of the various characters in the book, I found myself most drawn to Faten because of her curious blend of assuredness and desire to please, particularly her
desire to please her flatmate in the final part of her tale. Is there one character in the stories with whom you feel a particular affinity and, if so, could you elucidate?
LL: I'm fond of all my characters, even the boat captain (an earlier version of the book had more back story about him and how he ended up in the business of smuggling people.) But I suppose if I had to pick one, it would be Murad. He was the first character I came up with, and the one who stuck around the longest.
DMN: I found that you seasoned your prose with just the right amount of Moroccan to give the stories great texture and vibrancy without interrupting the 'fictional dream' or pace. As a writer from a foreign country too, I also had the similar task
of conveying to the reader the feel of the native language and culture without bogging down the narrative. Was it difficult for you to decide on how much idiom or Moroccan to include in order to reach a necessary or correct balance?
LL: I tried to follow my instincts, to represent the internal thoughts and dialogue of my characters as best as I could. Sometimes, there were words that simply wouldn't work in translation, so I used Arabic. Other times, I chose to use the vernacular to make a point.
DMN: What do you hope people will take away from your book when they reflect?
LL: First, I would hope that they enjoy reading the book. And of course I hope it engages readers. I've been told that my book is political, which sort of surprised me, as this wasn't my goal at all when I wrote it. I was mostly interested in the characters. But I suppose we live in an age when class is so rarely addressed seriously than when it is, it becomes a political statement. Anyway, I have no illusions about changing anyone's mind about anything. I just hope that people get to see the world through my characters' eyes, for a little while.
DMN: Algonquin Books is the publisher of your first book. How did this come about?
LL: In the most traditional of ways, I suppose. I found a literary agent (Stephanie Abou of Global Literary Management) and she sent out my book to several
publishers, including Algonquin. We had some serious interest from several of them, but Algonquin was the most enthusiastic.
DMN: Is it fair to say Morocco is comprised equal part Christians and Arabs and that the cultures live harmoniously? What is the economic situation in Morocco now? Do people still attempt to cross the Straits illegally?
LL: Ethnically speaking, the vast majority of the Moroccan population is a mix of Arab and Berber. The dominant religion is Islam, with small Jewish and Christian
minorities. As far as illegal crossings, yes, they still happen, despite all the drownings. In fact, the majority of would-be migrants these days are non-Moroccans, who travel hundreds of miles through the desert from sub-Saharan Africa, on foot, in order to get to Tangier. They live in hiding or get odd jobs until they can cross. Until people have something better to live for in their own countries, they will
continue to try their luck elsewhere.
DMN: I read that you attended university in England at one point. Where and what did you study, and how did you find student life in the British Isles?
LL: I studied at University College London, for a degree in Linguistics. I was very bookish and somewhat of a loner, but I enjoyed London tremendously.
DMN: You have now begun work on a novel. What differences or unexpected challenges, if any, have you encountered between writing 'Hope' and your new work?
LL: It's tough, man. I'm working on a very difficult chapter now, so it's been excruciatingly slow. With short stories, I found getting the first draft down
somewhat easier, though I revised fastidiously.
Laila also runs the literary blog Moorish Girl.
[technorati: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Laila Lalami, Morocco, Algonquin books,Moorish Girl]