Fictional Grandparents

July 28th, 2013

For the New York Times Magazine, I wrote about my attempts to learn more about my mother’s side of the family. Here is how the essay begins:

My mother was abandoned in a French orphanage in Fez in 1941. That year in Morocco, hundreds of people died in an outbreak of the plague; her parents were among the victims. Actually, no, they died in a horrific car crash on the newly built road from Marrakesh to Fez. No, no, no, my grandmother died in childbirth, and my grandfather, mad with grief, gave the baby away. The truth is: I don’t know how my mother ended up in a French orphanage in 1941. The nuns in black habits never told.

Growing up in Rabat, I felt lopsided, like a seesaw no one ever played with. On my father’s side: a large number of uncles, cousins, second cousins, grandaunts, all claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad. On my mother’s side: nothing. No one. Often I imagined my mother’s parents, the man and woman whose blood pulsed in my veins but whom I had never seen.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

Illustration: “My Grandparents, Parents, and I (Family Tree)” by Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo Museums Trust.

A Cottage of One’s Own

July 20th, 2013

I spent the last two weeks of June at Hedgebrook, a women writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island in Washington. In a happy coincidence, I received my editorial letter just as I arrived in Oak Cottage (pictured above), so I was able to make revisions for my new novel while I was there. I loved being in residency—being alone all day, in silence, in a space where I could spread out my manuscript and all my notes was incredibly beneficial.

Now I’ve returned to my ordinary life, made more hectic by a house move, and I miss the silence.

Quotable: Gabriel García Márquez

June 29th, 2013

From Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, a stunning and mystical novel about an aging tyrant, translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa:

He played endless games of dominoes with my lifetime friend General Rodrigo de Aguilar and my old friend the minister of health who were the only ones who had enough of his confidence to ask him to free a prisoner or pardon someone condemned to death, and the only ones who dared ask him to received in a special audience the beauty queen of the poor, an incredible creature from that miserable wallow we called the dogfight district because all the dogs in the neighborhood had been fighting for many years without a moment’s truce, a lethal redoubt where national guard patrols did not enter because they would be stripped naked and cars were broken up into their smallest parts with a flick of the hand, where poor stray donkeys would enter by one end of the street and come out the other in a bag of bones, they roasted the sons of the rich, general sir, they sold them in the market turned into sausages, just imagine, because Manuela Sanchez of my evil luck had been born there and lived there, a dungheap of marigold whose remarkable beauty was the astonishment of the nation general sir, and he felt so intrigued by the revelation that if all this is as true as you people say I’ll not only receive her in a special audience but I’ll dance the first waltz with her, by God, have them write it up in the newspapers, he ordered, this kind of crap makes a big hit with the poor.

My editor recommended this novel to me a few weeks ago. I am especially taken with the narration, which comes in the form of the general’s voice, but also the voices of his lieutenants and the voices of his people. It is a structure-less and plot-less wonder, one that cannot be broken down, but must be enjoyed whole, like all of Márquez work.

Photo: Miguel Tovar/AP.

New Novel: The Moor’s Account

May 22nd, 2013

How do you get ideas for your novels? This question, or some version of it, comes up at nearly every reading I give. Since the answer this time around is a little unusual, I thought I’d share it with you.

In the fall of 2009, I was working on an essay for The Nation magazine about Christopher Caldwell’s polemic on Muslim immigration, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. As part of my research for the essay, I picked up Anouar Majid’s We Are All Moors, which places recent Muslim immigration in the context of a larger debate around Muslim presence in Europe, a debate that started before the expulsion of Moriscos (Spaniards of Muslim descent) from Spain in 1609.

Halfway through We Are All Moors, I came across a brief mention of a certain Estebanico, a Moroccan slave who was said to be a companion of the explorer Cabeza de Vaca. The story of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca is well known. In 1527, he and several hundred Spaniards landed in Florida as part of the Narváez expedition. The conquistadors were looking for gold, but within a year they became lost in the unfamiliar continent and only four of them survived. Cabeza de Vaca and the other survivors traveled across America, living with Indian tribes for many years. But I had not known about Estebanico, the Moroccan slave.

Why haven’t I heard of him, I wondered. Who was he? What was his real name? How did he end up in this expedition? So I read Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, and was immediately struck by this narrative, by what it emphasized and what it left out. I decided I wanted to write Estebanico’s version of this famed journey. It is now almost four years later, and I am thrilled to report that The Moor’s Account will be published by Pantheon in 2014. I will, of course, have more updates about the book as the publication date draws near.

Image: Alfred Russell, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions Lost on the Shore of the Gulf of Mexico, 1528. The Granger Collection. New York.

Spring Break

March 31st, 2013

A very short break, actually, just three days in Joshua Tree National Park. But, oh, they were glorious.

Quotable: E.L. Doctorow

February 20th, 2013

I had just finished my fiction workshop last week when I learned that Christopher Dorner, the former LAPD officer who was sought in connection with the murder and attempted murder of fellow officers, had been found. In Los Angeles that week, Dorner was the subject of intense debate, especially after the release of his manifesto, in which he alleged that the LAPD used excessive force during arrests and that he’d been fired when he reported it. Although the LAPD denied the use of excessive force, its claim was undermined by the fact that officers opened fire on a mother and daughter who were delivering newspapers, and on one man who was on his way to surf. Dorner was eventually found in a cabin in Big Bear, leading to a stand off during which he took his own life and/or was burned to death, depending on whom you believe.

The Dorner saga made me think about Coalhouse Walker, the pianist in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. After a group of firemen vandalize his car, Walker seeks revenge by bombing fire stations in and around the town of New Rochelle. He sends letters to newspapers that read, “I want the fire chief turned over to my justice.” Like Dorner, Walker is the target of a statewide manhunt and a subject of curiosity and speculation.

It was widely reported when he was achieving his notoriety that Coalhouse Walker had never exhausted the peaceful and legal means of redress before taking the law in his own hands. This is not entirely true. He went to see three different attorneys recommended by Father. In all cases they refused to represent him. He was advised to recover his automobile before it was totally wrecked and to forget the matter. To all three he insisted that he didn’t want to forget the matter but to bring suit against the Fire Chief and men of the Emerald Isle Engine.

It is known too that Coalhouse made a preliminary attempt to see the matter through as his own counsel. He had filed a complaint but did not know how to go about getting a place on the court calendar or what steps had to be taken to assure that it was correct in form in order to be heard. He appeared at City Hall for an interview with the office of the County Clerk. It was suggested that he return another day when there was less pressing business in the office. But he persisted and was then told that his complaint was not on file and that several weeks would be required to trace it. Come back then, the clerk told him. Instead he went to the police station where he had originally filed and wrote out a second complaint. The policemen on duty regarded him with amazement. An older officer took him aside and confided to him that he was probably filing in vain since the volunteer fire companies were not municipal employees and therefore did not come under the jurisdiction of the city. The contemptuousness of this logic did not escape Coalhouse but he chose not to argue with it. He signed his complaint and left and heard laughter behind him as he walked out the door.

All this happened over a period of two to three weeks. Later, when the name Coalhouse Walker came to symbolize murder and arson, these earlier attempts to find redress no longer mattered. Even at this date we can’t condone the mayhem done in his cause but it is important to know the truth insofar as that is possible.

Perhaps Dorner will appear someday as a character in a novel. But, since this is Los Angeles, he’ll probably end up on film first.

Photo credit: Jerry Bauer.

Among the Blasphemers

January 19th, 2013

The latest issue of The Nation magazine includes an essay I wrote about Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, his memoir of life during the years of the fatwa. More generally, this piece is about how society reacts to blasphemy and what those reactions tell us. Here’s how the essay starts:

The name Salman Rushdie and the word fatwa entered my vocabulary on the same February day in 1989. I was standing in the living room of my parents’ house in Morocco; my uncle, a newspaper rolled under one arm, had just arrived for dinner; my grandmother was sitting on the orange divan, her prayer beads wound on her right hand. Then someone pointed to the television screen and we all turned to look. Young men in the small British city of Bradford were burning copies of a book; the footage was interwoven with photographs of a hunched and dour-looking Khomeini. The ayatollah had found something offensive about a novel—wait, what was it called? Satanic something?—and had decreed that Muslims everywhere were duty-bound to kill its author.

Enter: Rushdie, fatwa.

As it happened, my entire family was Muslim. But to the ayatollah’s chagrin, no one rushed out to find the novelist. We ate dinner and talked about inflation and gas prices. I had grown up in a secular family, but as a teenager I had discovered religion and become a practicing Muslim. Of all those seated around our dinner table that night, the two who would have paid the most attention to a supposed insult against Islam were my grandmother and me. But my grandmother was illiterate and had wisely chosen not to form an opinion on something she had not read. And I loved books more than anything; I could not conceive of burning them.

You can read the rest here. And you can subscribe to the Nation magazine here.

(Photo credit: Syrie Moskowitz)

Quotable: Sigrid Nunez

January 15th, 2013

From Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, an exquisite novel about the friendship between two women, Georgette George and Ann Drayton, who meet at Barnard in 1968. This description really doesn’t do justice to the novel, which is about many, many things: class, race, idealisms of the mind and of the heart, identity. I admired, in particular, Nunez’s ability to maintain a consistent voice for the narrator, Georgette (or Georgie, or George, as she is known at different points in her life.) Here is a taste of it:

Where I came from. Upstate: a small town way up north, near the Canadian border. Jack Frost country, winter eight months of the year. Oh, those days before the globe had warmed, what winters we had then, what snows. Drifts halfway up the telephone poles, buried fences, buried cars, roofs caving in under all that weight. Moneyless. A world of failing factories and disappearing farms, where much of the best business went to bars. People drank and drank to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb.
The people. Given the sparseness of the population, you had to ask yourself, Why so many prone to violence? Many were related, true, and a lot more closely than you liked to think. Did inbreeding lead to viciousness? Alcoholism certainly did, and alcoholism was universal. Whole families drank themselves to disgrace, to criminal mischief, to early death. Here was a place where people seemed to be forever falling. And talk about secrets–more skeletons in the closets than in the cemeteries. Statistically not a high-crime area, but a world of everyday brutality: bar brawls, battered wives. And not every misdeed was perpetrated under the influence. I remember acts of violent cruelty even among children. Woe to the weak, the smaller kids, the animals (oh, the animals) that fell in those hands. And I remember blood feuds with roots going way back to before my grandparents’ time, feuds that left at least one in every generation maimed or dead. The savage world of the North Country poor. I do not exaggerate. The boy next door, a teenage giant with a speech defect so severe only his mother could understand him, hanged a litter of kittens from the branches of the Christmas tree.
And yet for all this, as I say, I was homesick when I went away to school.

I met Nunez at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference some years ago, when I was a fellow and she was on the faculty, but I’ve only now read this novel. A treat.

The Year in a Snapshot

January 6th, 2013

The end of the year is traditionally a time of retrospectives and resolutions, a ritual which I tend to resist, but with the end of my sabbatical and my imminent return to teaching, a bit of stock-taking seems inevitable. I was away from the University of California for a little over six months, which sounds like a very long leave of absence, but of course it went by in a blink. I’ve used the time to work on my new book, especially during my Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, and I’m happy to report that I made significant progress. This novel is much longer than I anticipated when I started it three years ago and certainly the most ambitious project I’ve ever undertaken, but also the most pleasurable writing experience I’ve ever had.

This year, I also wrote a few other things here and there: a short piece for the New York Times on Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder; a review for The Nation of Percival Everett’s Assumption; an essay, also for The Nation, on Katherine Boo’s National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers; and contributions to the Guardian about the Arab revolutions; the Daily Beast on the rape of Amina Filali; The Nation on Islamophobia; and Newsweek on Los Angeles and a return to Morocco.

Most of the reading I’ve done in 2012 was related in some way to my novel, but I’ve also used the time to read for leisure: Joan Didion’s Run River, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, and V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street were particular favorites. I read relatively few books published this year, but those that stand out were G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, Zadie Smith’s NW, and Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton (about which I have an essay coming out soon.) I also read and admired Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, which tells the story of Henry James’s best-known work. This is not a traditional biography; instead, it shows us the writer at work on a single book: how he came to write it, how it relates to other books of the period, and how it was revised many years later.

I have no resolutions for 2013, save for the usual: to write, to read and learn, and to get better at what I do.

Bright Lights, Small City

October 28th, 2012

I have been back at home in Santa Monica for a few days now, but I feel as though I’m still under the spell of the magical time I spent in Marfa. I brought back a kind of energy that still surrounds and propels me, and I wonder if it has something to do with the size of the place. All my life, I’ve lived in big cities: Rabat, London, Los Angeles. But Marfa is a small town in west Texas, with a population of 2,100. Although the Lannan Foundation had graciously lent me a car for the duration of my stay, I walked everywhere I needed to go, whether to the post office, the bookstore or the farmer’s market. Everyone waved hello; everyone was friendly; everyone invited me to the Friday night football game; and everyone was a little mystified that writers go on these things called ‘residencies.’

I did attend Marfa High School’s friday night game. There were only six players on each team, instead of eleven, but the stadium lights shone just as bright. Six-man football, I was told, was the only variant that could be played in such a small town. The Marfa Shorthorns did very well that night, beating the Sanderson Eagles with a score of 55-42. But I was no closer to understanding or even really enjoying the game. (Like all Moroccans, I remain a fan of good old football, played with a round black-and-white ball.) What I enjoyed instead was watching an entire community come together to cheer and support its children.

Above is a picture of my desk. This is where I spent the better part of my time last month, working on my novel. I listened to classical music—Brahms and Rachmaninov were favorites—but I did not mind the unusual sounds of an unfamiliar place. Freight trains, which run through the center of Marfa, blew their horns several times during the day. A murder of crows roosting on the tree in the front yard kept me company in the afternoon. There were also neighborhood dogs. None of them were tethered, and I had to overcome my fear of small canines whenever I stepped out. But I loved, especially, the wild and fearless turkey who visited me from time to time. Maybe it was all this unfamiliarity that gave birth to the energy I brought back with me to the metropolis.

Quotable: David Mitchell

September 22nd, 2012

I’ve tried to avoid the trailer of the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. (I mean: the Wachowskis? Tom Hanks? Hugo Weaving as an Asian man? Huh?) But last week I gave in and watched it and now I’m curious to see it. The novel has six interweaving story lines, although ‘interweaving’ isn’t quite the right word to describe what Mitchell does: multiple voices, multiple styles, multiple genres, multiple eras, all of them held together with a fragile thread—the transmigration of souls.

The passage below, about life, death and rebirth, and which I can hardly ever re-read without having a knot in my throat, is from the Frobisher story, “Letters from Zedelghem.”

Luger here. Thirteen minutes to go. Feel trepidation, naturally, but my love of this coda is stronger. An electrical thrill that, like Adrian, I know I am to die. Pride, that I shall see it through. Certainties. Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools and states, you find indelible truths at one’s core. Rome’ll decline and fall again. Cortés’ll lay Tenochtitlán to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again, Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities.

Time cannot permeate this sabbatical. We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger let me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me in a heartbeat. Thirteen years from now we’ll meet again at Gresham, ten years later I’ll be back in this same room, holding this same gun, composing this same letter, my resolution as perfect as my many-headed sextet. Such elegant certainties comfort me at this quiet hour.

More on David Mitchell here.

Photo credit: The Guardian.

History as Story

September 9th, 2012

Some years ago, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company recommended three books I could take with me to keep me company while I was on a promotional tour for Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I bought the books, put them in my suitcase, and then of course read something else entirely. It wasn’t until last week that I pulled the three books that make up Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire from my shelves. This is brilliant, brilliant work. In brief, poetic vignettes, Galeano tells the history of the Americas from ancient times to the present. It seems impossible, doesn’t it, telling the history of an entire continent in just three books? But he does it so well and so sensitively. For each year, he selects one or two events and turns them into a little story, sometimes as short as a paragraph, sometimes as long as two or three pages, but always taking the time to bring characters into relief. I brought the books with me to Marfa, Texas, where I am on residency to work on my new novel.

(Photo credit: Marfa courthouse via West Texas Weekly.)

‘Among the Republicans’

August 30th, 2012

The Republican National Convention is getting a lot of attention in the press this week, but for me the best essay about it so far comes from… 1984. That was the year V.S. Naipaul traveled to Dallas, Texas, to write about the RNC for the New York Review of Books. He captures not the just the absurdities of political theater, but also the kind of detail that might seem at first insignificant but resonates deeply afterward.

That year, the benediction that followed Ronald Reagan’s acceptance speech was given by the famous pastor W.A. Criswell. Here is Naipaul:

Dr. Criswell, working up to his Judgment theme, spoke of homosexuality. His language was direct. No euphemisms; no irony; no humor. He was earnest from beginning to end. He moved about on the platform and sometimes for a second or so he turned (in his white suit) to face his red-gowned choir.

“In our lifetime we are scoffing at the word of God…and opening up society and culture to the lesbian and sodomite and homosexual…and now we have this disastrous judgment…the disease and sin of AIDS….”

AIDS, on the first Sunday after the Republican Convention, and in that voice of thunder! But if you thought about it the topic wasn’t so unsuitable. There was something oddly Biblical (though Dr. Criswell didn’t make this particular point) about AIDS, which struck down buggers and a special kind of black and spared everybody else.

“God is like his LAWS!” Dr. Criswell thundered. “There are laws everywhere. Laws of fire, laws of gravity.”

From this idea of Judgment and the laws (two distinct senses of “laws” run together) Dr. Criswell moved on to Karl Marx. A bugger? Only metaphorically. Karl Marx had his place in this sermon as a nineteenth-century atheist. Dr. Criswell gave Marx’s dates but said little about the heresies: in this auditorium Karl Marx was just his demonic name, and it was enough. Karl Marx wasn’t dead, Dr. Criswell said (or so I understood him to say: the theology was a little difficult for me). Karl Marx was still alive; Karl Marx would die only on the great Judgment Day.

You can update the language a bit, remove certain turns of phrase that now seem offensive, replace Marx with a certain Kenyan Socialist Crypto-Muslim, but otherwise it’s all there: fiery sermons, accusations of being “soft,” and even endorsements by former leftists. You can read the essay in full here.

Photo credit: Nobel Prize website.

Midsummer Days

August 3rd, 2012

And now, suddenly, it’s August. The last few weeks have gone by in a blur. I’m reading a lot, though, mostly on history. I recently finished Bernal Díaz’s The Conquest of New Spain, an eyewitness account of Hernan Cortés’ conquest of Mexico. (Warning: not for the faint of heart!) I also enjoyed Hassan al-Wazzan’s Description of Africa, a fascinating narrative by the famed Moroccan diplomat of his travels in northern Africa in the early sixteenth century. And I’ve just started Patrick French’s biography of V.S. Naipaul—some wonderful revelations about the writer here, though it does nothing to change my opinion about the man. Other than that, I’m working on my novel, of course, as usual, as ever, and trying to get ready for my residency in Marfa.

Travels in New Mexico

July 13th, 2012

Ghost Ranch

I’ve just returned from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I spent a wonderful week with my family. The picture above was taken outside Ghost Ranch, in the small town of Abiquiu, about 50 miles north of Santa Fe. In the distance, you can see Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain that Georgia O’Keeffe spent years and years painting.

In the mountains not far from Abiquiu, we also came across an adobe mosque. It was designed by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy in the late 1970s and is adjacent to an educational center and retreat.

Dar Al Islam

The landscape near Santa Fe is spectacular. We did some hikes in Bandelier National Park, but the big surprise this time was Plaza Blanca, pictured below.

Plaza Blanca

On Islamophobia

June 15th, 2012

The Nation

Samar Ali is a lawyer, an activist, a White House fellow, and a public servant who was recently appointed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to serve on his Economic and Community Development office. However, because Ms. Ali is Muslim, Tea Partiers are pressuring the governor to drop the hire, accusing her of being a “financial jihadist.” (The same group staged protests against the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro.) Though this kind of story may seem odd and even ridiculous, it’s becoming more common, which is why The Nation‘s special issue on Islamophobia is so timely. I contributed a piece about how anti-Muslim sentiment is often denied or dismissed. Here’s how the piece starts:

Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.

You can read my essay in full here.

Quotable: Toni Morrison

June 3rd, 2012

Morrison

Earlier this week, Toni Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony in the White House. In his remarks, Barack Obama mentioned that he read Song of Solomon not just to learn how to write, but also “how to be.” Song of Solomon is one of my favorite of Morrison’s novels. And it struck me that it often uses repetition as a stylistic device, which is something that Obama does a lot in his speeches. So I thought I’d excerpt two short paragraphs from the book, both of which use repetition masterfully. Here is a passage from early on in the book, describing Macon Dead’s car:

In 1936 there were very few among them who lived as well as Macon Dead. Others watched the family gliding by with a tiny bit of jealousy and a whole lot of amusement, for Macon’s wide green Packard belied what they thought a car was for. He never went over twenty miles an hour, never gunned his engine, never stayed in first gear for a block or two to give pedestrians a thrill. He never had a blown tire, never ran out of gas and needed twelve grinning raggle-tailed boys to help him push it up a hill or over to a curb. No rope ever held the door to its frame, and no teenagers leaped on his running board for a lift down the street. He hailed no one and no one hailed him. There was never a sudden braking and backing up to shout or laugh with a friend. No beer bottles or ice cream cones poked from the open windows. Nor did a baby boy stand up to pee out of them. He never let rain fall on it if he could help it and he walked to Sonny’s Shop–taking the car out only on these occasions. What’s more, they doubted that he had ever taken a woman into the back seat, because rumor was that he went to “bad houses” or lay, sometimes, with a slack or lonely female tenant. Other than the bright and roving eyes of Magdalene called Lena and First Corinthians, the Packard had no real lived life at all. So they called it Macon Dead’s hearse.

The repetition of the adverb “never” obviously emphasizes how little use Macon Dead makes of the car, but it also informs us about the multiple uses other people in his community might have made of it. Halfway through, the switch from “never” to “no” highlights the fact that the car, like its owner, lacks a certain essence, a kind of vitality. All of which leads us to its funny, and appropriate, nickname: “Macon Dead’s hearse.”

Now, toward the end of the novel, Macon Dead’s son returns to Montour County to learn more about his deceased grandfather, who was also named Macon Dead. And, here, Toni Morrison uses the same device, but for the opposite effect. This is a description of the farm that the elder Macon owned:

A farm that colored their lives like a paintbrush and spoke to them like a sermon. “You see?” the farm said to them. “See? See what you can do? Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling,” it said. “Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this county right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home, you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on–can you hear me? Pass it on!”

Though the sentence starts familiarly with the repetition of “never,” it doesn’t speak of what never happens, but of what people should never mind happening. It isn’t about absence, it’s about presence and power. And then other syntactic forms are repeated: the demonstrative (“this nation, this county”) and the imperative (“take it, hold it”), for instance, to emphasize that power. The beauty of the two passages is how, through the description of two simple possessions, the car and the farm, we get two portraits of two very different Macon Deads.

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Los Angeles

May 16th, 2012


The most recent issue of Newsweek includes a piece I wrote about the city of Los Angeles. Here’s how it starts:
I came to Los Angeles with a suitcase full of books and shoulder pads stuffed with cash. It was 1992, just a few months after the infamous riots, and I was about to start graduate school at the University of Southern California, near the epicenter of the unrest. One of my professors advised me against coming here—I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the substance of his message could be summarized in three words: Drugs! Guns! Violence! I had been warned so often about muggings that I decided to sew some bills inside the shoulder pads of my jacket. I didn’t know a single soul here.

You can read the rest of the piece on the website of Newsweek.

(Photo credit: Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles International Airport, 1964)

Who Should Have Won the Pulitzer?

May 9th, 2012

On April 16, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that there were three finalists for the award in fiction, but no winner—a decision that sparked an outcry in some parts of the literary community. The three finalists were The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace; Swamplandia! by Karen Russell; and Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson. Each book had many vocal supporters, who were understandably upset at seeing their favorite be passed over—and not for another book, but for no book at all.

So the New York Times Magazine asked eight critics and writers, including me, to write about the books they would have chosen for the prize. You can read about our choices here. And you can chime in with your own here.

I Want Your Vote

April 24th, 2012

vote.jpg

I want your vote! And the best part is this: I won’t make you, the voter, any promises I can’t keep. Actually, I won’t make you any promises at all. The editors of World Literature Today have chosen my essay “So to Speak” as one of their five favorites of the past decade. Here is how it begins:

Not long ago, while cleaning out my bedroom closet, I came across a box of old family photographs. I had tied the black-and-white snapshots, dog-eared color photos, and scratched Polaroids in small bundles before moving from Morocco to the United States. There I was at age five, standing with my friend Nabil outside Sainte Marguerite-Marie primary school in Rabat; at age nine, holding on to my father’s hand and squinting at the sun while on vacation in the hill station of Imouzzer; at age eleven, leaning with my mother against the limestone lion sculpture in Ifrane, in the Middle Atlas. But the picture I pulled out from the bundles and displayed in a frame on my desk was the one in which I was six years old and sat in our living room with my head buried in Tintin and the Temple of the Sun.

You can read the essay in full here and, if you like it, you can vote for it here.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

Event: L.A. Times Festival of Books

April 20th, 2012

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is this weekend. It’s one of my favorite weekends of the year—there’s something for every kind of reader, plus lots of great food and music. I’ll also be doing a panel on Sunday; here are the details:

3:30 pm
Fiction: Conflicting Identities
Panel with Dana Johnson, Laila Lalami, Nina Revoyr, and Antoine Wilson
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
Annenberg Auditorium
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California

So come on by and say hello. And don’t forget to wear sunscreen.

On Annawadi

April 19th, 2012

My review of Katherine Boo’s amazing book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, appears in the latest issue of The Nation. Here is an excerpt:

During the year I spent in Casablanca, I noticed that slums were discussed in the press almost exclusively with the vocabulary of pathology. The karian were “dangerous.” They were places that “tainted” the city and had to be “eradicated.” One journalist called them “a gangrene”; another urged a “hunt for the slums.” The language became even more antagonistic after a failed terrorist attack in March 2007, when it was revealed that one of the suicide bombers, like those who had attacked the city four years earlier, had come from the slum of Sidi Moumen. I remember vividly a television reporter shoving a microphone in a woman’s face in Sidi Moumen and demanding to know why “your” youths did what they did.

I tell you all this because I want to explain why Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, struck me with the force of a revelation. Unlike other reporters, who come to the slums in brief and harried visits, only when they have news to report or statistics to illustrate, Boo, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has chosen to chronicle the lives of slum-dwellers in the Indian city of Mumbai by spending more than three years with them, patiently listening to them talk about their aspirations, their struggles and their dilemmas.

Here is one dilemma, all the more disturbing for its banality. Fatima Sheikh, a crippled woman, lies on a bed in Burn Ward Number 10 at Cooper Hospital in Mumbai, an IV bag and a used syringe sticking to her skin. Abdul Hakim Husain, the teenager who is accused of pouring kerosene over Fatima’s body and setting it alight, is in the custody of officers from the Sahar Police Station. After assessing the situation, Asha Waghekar, a part-time schoolteacher and full-time fixer, makes what she deems a very fair offer: Abdul Hakim’s parents can pay her 1,000 rupees and she will persuade Fatima to drop the charges.

You can read the full review here, and you can subscribe to The Nation here.

Event: Chicago

April 14th, 2012

Hello, readers! I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago on Monday. I’ll be talking about protest movements in Morocco. Details are pasted below:

6:00 PM
Arab Spring: Unfoldings, Refoldings
Panel discussion with Laila Lalami and Ahmed El Shamsy
Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

This will be my first time doing an event in Chicago. If you’re in the area, please come by and say hello!


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