Wednesday: 7:00 PM – March 9, 2016, Cultural Arts Center
Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco, a place whose past and present permeate her writing. A novelist, short story writer, and essayist, Lalami is a unique and confident voice in the conversations about race and immigration that increasingly occupy our national attention. Originally building a strong following through her widely-read literary blog “MoorishGirl,” Lalami is a regular contributor to publications including The Nation, Newsweek, and The Los Angeles Times, weighing in on contemporary issues in the Arab world and North Africa. With “spare elegant prose”(Junot Díaz) and “carefully-wrought characters” (Paul Yamazaki), Lalami’s fiction confronts the same questions of race, displacement, and national identity that she addresses so eloquently in her essays and criticism.
Her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was inspired by a brief article buried deep within a French newspaper’s website. It mentioned, in just a few lines, that fifteen Moroccan would-be-immigrants had drowned crossing the Straits of Gibraltar trying to get to Spain, and to the promise of opportunity. Intrigued, Lalami began to learn more about the wave of illegal immigration that was leading increasing numbers of Moroccans to attempt the same trip – and was reminded of the people she knew back home who were unemployed, frustrated, depressed.
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is a collection of short stories about one such group of immigrants attempting to escape Morocco for a better life in Europe. Lalami explores the intriguing, sometimes uncomfortable closeness between her own experiences and the lives of these fictional immigrants, while offering up a lens through which to view our own immigration issues. “Lalami skillfully limns the dark recesses of the Muslim world and creates true-to-life characters,” says People. “With subtlety and grace [she] explores the emotional complexities of the culture they’re trying to escape—one that bears more resemblance to ours than we may imagine.”
Her debut novel Secret Son revisited questions of identity and class. The main character is Youssef El Mekki, a shy, bookish young man living in a slum in Casablanca who discovers that his father is a wealthy businessman. When Youssef’s father welcomes him into a sophisticated, highly corrupt world, Youssef must renegotiate complex issues of family, ideology, and society. Her depiction of contemporary Moroccan life, “illuminating the social, political, religious and poverty issues facing its citizens—especially its still-hopeful young—is both sensitive and startling” (Los Angeles Times). The book was long-listed for the Orange Prize.
Lalami’s latest book, The Moor’s Account, was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It imagines the life of the first black explorer of America: a Moroccan slave whose voice is missing from the history books. In 1527, a Spanish expedition to Florida met with disaster. Four survivors—three Spanish noblemen and a Moroccan slave—lived with Native American tribes for six years before escaping and wandering through what is now Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Years later, the Spaniards wrote and spoke about their ordeal, but the slave—Mustafa al-Zamori, always called Estebanico—was never asked to share his story. Despite serving as a scout and interpreter, Mustafa/Estebanico was considered an unreliable or unworthy voice in this most extraordinary of narratives. Finally, Lalami gives him a voice in The Moor’s Account, which Salman Rushdie called, “an absorbing story of…a frightening, brutal, and much-falsified history.”
Laila Lalami’s writing has been published in Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, The Guardian, and The New York Times. Her prose has been translated into ten languages. A graduate of Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, she also attended University College in London and the University of Southern California, where she earned a PhD in linguistics. Lalami has received a Fulbright Fellowship, a British Council Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship. She teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.
Lalami speaks on immigration, the Middle East and North Africa, Islam, Muslim women, and Arab uprisings. She also discusses race in America, especially forgotten histories, exploration, and cross-cultural encounters.