Fear, Hope, and Everything In Between

November 22nd, 2015

This has been an exceedingly bloody and difficult week. In order to make sense of it, I did what I always do: I wrote. First was an op-ed in The Nation magazine. Here’s how it begins:

What happened in Paris on November 13 has happened before, in a shopping district of Beirut on November 12, in the skies over Egypt on October 31, at a cultural center in Turkey on July 20, a beach resort in Tunisia on June 26—and nearly every day in Syria for the last four years.

The scenario is by now familiar to all of us. News of the killings will appear on television and radio. There will be cries of horror and sorrow, a few hashtags on Twitter, perhaps even a change of avatars on Facebook. Our leaders will make staunch promises to bring the terrorists to justice, while also claiming greater power of surveillance over their citizens. And then life will resume exactly as before.

Except for the victims’ families. For them, time will split into a Before and After.

The piece was reprinted in Internazionale in Italy, and in The Age in Australia. Thank you to all who have written me or shared this piece online. I also wrote a personal essay for The New York Times Magazine, this time about ISIS’s goal of eliminating “the gray zone” of coexistence. Here’s an excerpt:

As part of its efforts to spread its message outside the territory it controls, ISIS puts out an English-language magazine, Dabiq, which can be found online. In February, Dabiq featured a 12-page article, complete with high-resolution photos and multiple footnotes, cheering the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and claiming that they made manifest for the world two camps: the camp of Islam under the caliphate and the camp of the West under the crusaders. The article ran under the title “The Extinction of the Grayzone.” The gray zone is the space inhabited by any Muslim who has not joined the ranks of either ISIS or the crusaders. Throughout the article, these Muslims are called “the grayish,” “the hypocrites” and, for variety, “the grayish hypocrites.”

You can read the essay in full here. I’m thrilled to see it find so many readers.

Lastly, I should mention that I’m one of the signatories of this open letter to Congress on the refugee crisis: Do Not Cede to Fear. Please share. Please sign.

Hurston/Wright Award

November 3rd, 2015

HWF

I’m thrilled to report that The Moor’s Account has won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in fiction. I was not expecting the novel to take the prize—there were so many great books in consideration—but it was a special treat to see it being recognized at the Washington, DC gala. The other two finalists were Tiphanie Yanique (picture above, left) and Roxane Gay.

In other news, I had a new essay on the theme of ‘unforgettable meals’ in The New York Times Magazine this week. Here’s how it starts:

Moha, who wanted to be our guide, said it was an easy hike to the Bridge of God. But he looked about 15 and spoke in a timid voice that made me doubt how easy it would really be. We were at the trailhead in Akchour, a small village nestled in the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco. ‘‘How long will it take?’’ my daughter asked.

I translated her question into Arabic for Moha. ‘‘It depends how fast we walk,’’ he replied. ‘‘With small children, three or four hours.’’ The adults in our party were eager to do the hike; the children, not so much. Something is always lost in translation, but as Salman Rushdie once put it, something can also be gained. ‘‘Only a couple of hours,’’ I said in English.

You can read the rest here.

I’ll be closing my fall tour with an event in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I’ll be in conversation with the novelist Aminatta Forna for the Lannan Foundation. Tickets for the event are available here.

(Photo credit: Don Baker / Hurston Wright Foundation.)

Three Ts.

October 20th, 2015

What a busy couple of weeks! I’ve been traveling, talking, and teaching almost nonstop. I’m enjoying it tremendously, but I do long for the end of the year, when things will quiet down a bit. In the meantime, I wanted to share my review of a new graphic memoir by Riad Sattouf, a former cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo. Here’s how it closes:

Already a success in France, “The Arab of the Future” will do little to complicate most people’s perceptions of Libya or Syria. Life in both countries seems like a living hell, with no moments of relief or pleasure. But this book also has occasional flashes of beauty. When Abdel-Razak comes across a mulberry tree in Tripoli, the taste of its fruit, like that of Proust’s fabled madeleine, takes him back to the carefree days of his childhood, days when the future was still full of possibility.

You can read the full review in the New York Times Book Review. Let’s see, what else? I will be on the fiction faculty at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, next August. Register early! I am judging the PEN/Bellwether Prize, with Kathy Pories and Brando Skyhorse. Rules and eligibility are posted here. And I found out that I’ve been included in a list of the world’s 500 Most influential Muslims. I’ll raise a glass to that!

Photo credit: From The Arab of the Future via The New York Times.

Leaving Tangier

October 2nd, 2015

kittyinmorocco

My review of Mathias Énard’s novel Street of Thieves appeared in The Guardian last week. Here’s how it opens:

Tangier, Mathias Énard writes in Street of Thieves, is famous “chiefly for the people who leave it”. Take, for example, the explorer Ibn Battutah. He left Tangier in 1325 and travelled through much of Africa, the Middle East, eastern Europe and Asia. When he finally returned home, 30 years later, he wrote Rihla, an account of his adventures and one of the most important narratives we have of life in the 14th century.

Lakhdar, this novel’s 18-year-old narrator, will also leave home and write about it. Though his journeys are limited to Morocco, Tunisia and Spain, they provide a glimpse into the tremors of the Arab spring, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, and the indignados movement in Spain. These subjects may seem ripped from the headlines, but they are not unusual for Énard, a French novelist whose work often focuses on war and political conflict.

You can read the rest here. Last week, I also spoke to NPR’s Colin Dwyer about book blurbs and why they persist. Take a look.

Photo: Bruno d’Amicis for The Guardian.

Back to School

September 4th, 2015

Back Home

I spent a month at Yaddo Colony, in upstate New York, working on my new novel. The grounds were beautiful, but also filled with mosquitoes and ticks. Most of the time, I forgot to wear insect repellent. I swam in the pool that John Cheever built. I didn’t have to make a meal, scrub a sink, pick up the mail, or take out the trash. I walked alone. I missed my husband. I missed him so much I cried. I watched several news cycles from afar. (The Confederate flag came down. The Iran nuclear deal was signed. The Saudi government continued bombing Yemen, to almost universal indifference. The Syrian refugee crisis worsened. There was another mass shooting. Another case of police abuse. A clown decided to run for president.) I found that the world got by without my taking note of every piece of news, much less my commenting on it. I read a lot. I wrote a lot.

In July, I found out that The Moor’s Account had won the American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award, and that it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Reviews in the UK began to appear, including in The Guardian, The Independent, and The Financial Times.

This summer, I also published a personal essay about my grandmother’s good luck charm in The New York Times Magazine. In August, my review of Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, the final volume in his Ibis trilogy, appeared in The New York Times Book Review. I also took part in a Room for Debate forum on diversity in core humanities courses.

But all this was mostly white noise, as I spent the majority of my time working on my book. I’m trying to get as much done as I can before I have to resume teaching later this month. I will also be on the road in the fall, and you can find out more about my upcoming events here.

Gone Writing

June 30th, 2015

IMG_0803

Summer is here. I am spending it working on my new novel, so things are likely to be very quiet on this blog and on my social media accounts for a while. But I did want to mention that my review of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, an inventive retelling of Albert Camus’ The Stranger from the point of view of the victim’s brother, appeared on the cover of the New York Times Book Review earlier this month.

Also, The Moor’s Account will come out in paperback in the U.S. on August 18 and in the U.K. on August 27. I will be going on book tour again in the fall. Check the events page for details.

Pulitzer Prize Finalist

April 21st, 2015

mytalentedstudents

I was teaching an undergraduate fiction workshop yesterday when I received a text from my friend Mark congratulating me. “On what?” I asked. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then I found out that The Moor’s Account was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, along with Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You and Joyce Carol Oates’s Lovely, Dark, Deep. The winner was Anthony Doerr for All The Light We Cannot See. In shock, I blurted out the news to my students, who erupted in applause and cheers.

I’m thrilled and grateful for this recognition, and I am especially honored to be included in such fine company. When I came across the story of Mustafa/Estebanico six years ago, I immediately knew it had to be told in the form of a novel, but I worried that I did not have the talent to do it and that, even if I did somehow pull it off, no one would care about it. But this character simply wouldn’t let go of me, so I took a leap. I wrote the book I wanted to write, with no expectation of it ever finding a readership or garnering any attention. But, oh, it’s so nice when that happens! My heartfelt thanks to the Pulitzer Prize fiction judges.

Last week, The Moor’s Account was also named a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in fiction, a national prize for published writers of African descent. The other nominees are Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas, Ishmael Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow, Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, Nadifa Mohamed’s The Orchard of Lost Souls, and Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning. The winner will be announced at a ceremony in Washington, DC, in October.

Spring Events

March 23rd, 2015

dew

I’m popping back on the blog for a couple of announcements. The audio book of The Moor’s Account, read by Neil Shah, was released by Audible last month. UK rights to the book have sold to Mitchell Albert at Garnet, with publication scheduled for August 2015, which will coincide with the paperback release of the book with Vintage, here in the U.S. And I am back on the road again! I will be doing two events at the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans. Details below:

March 27, 2015
10:30 AM
Deceptive Histories, Truthful Fictions
Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival
The Historic New Orleans Collection
New Orleans, Louisiana

March 28, 2015
11:30 AM
Panel: The Transnationalists – American Writers on Border Crossings
Molly Crabapple, Phil Klay, Laila Lalami, moderated by Pamela Paul
Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival
Hotel Monteleone, Queen Anne Ballroom

Then, in April, I will be doing a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

April 19, 2015
12:30 PM
Fiction: Untold Stories
Ryan Gattis, Laila Lalami, Atticus Lish, Nina Revoyr, moderated by Michelle Franke
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
University of Southern California

Do come by and say hi!

Photo: Morning dew on a recent hike in Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica.

On Charlie Hebdo

January 20th, 2015

My essay on the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks appears in the February 2nd issue of The Nation magazine. Here is an excerpt:

Two men in balaclavas burst into Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris and opened fire on the editorial staff, killing five cartoonists, a columnist, a maintenance worker, an economist, a visitor, a copy-editor and two police officers.

To make sense of the senseless, we tell ourselves stories. The story is that this is the latest salvo in an ongoing clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. The story is that the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was the last bastion of free thought in a cowed press, a press that has bowed to political correctness and is now too afraid to criticize Islam. The story is that Muslim leaders remain silent about this atrocity. The story is that France has failed to integrate its Muslim citizens, descendants of immigrants from its former colonies. The story is that France has sent troops to fight in Muslim countries. The story is that there are double standards.

None of these stories will do, at least not for me. I find myself reading them in different guises in the national press, hoping they will enlighten or satisfy me, but something is always missing.

You can read the rest of the essay here. Thank you to all who shared it on Facebook and Twitter, emailed me about it, or commented on it.

And Then We Came To the End

December 7th, 2014

I was so happy to return home this morning that when I stepped off the jetway at LAX, I wanted to fall on my knees and kiss the ground. The book tour was great fun, but after seventeen cities I was starting to show signs of wear. There were days when a cab driver would ask me where I had flown from and it would take me a minute to remember where I had been or even where I was going. Now I’m looking forward to spending the next few months at home and getting back to my writing routine.

Before I disappear into my writing cave again, I wanted to mention that The Moor’s Account was included in several year-end lists: the New York Times Notable Books of 2014, NPR’s Best Books of 2014, and the Los Angeles Times Holiday Book Recommendations. Thank you to all who read the novel, reviewed it, and recommended it. I am grateful.

Update! The Moor’s Account is also one of the Wall Street Journal‘s Ten Best Books of the year.

(Illustration credit: Jon McNaught, New York Times)


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