March 9th, 2014
My work appears in two wonderful anthologies that are being published this month. Dismantle collects stories and essays by alumni and teachers from the Voices of Our Nation Workshop. (VONA is a great organization that nurtures and supports writers of color.) Contributors include Chris Abani, Nikky Finney, Maaza Mengiste, Minal Hajratwala, Justin Torres, Cristina Garcia, Mat Johnson, Mitchell Jackson, and me. The book also has an introduction by Junot Díaz.
Immigrant Voices, which is edited by Achy Obejas and Megan Bayles, features the work of Aleksandar Hemon, Edwidge Danticat, Lara Vapnyar, Yiyun Li, Sefi Atta, Daniel Alarcón, Porochista Khakpour, and Junot Díaz. The anthology is released by the Great Books Foundation in Chicago. A launch party is scheduled for March 19, and you can find out more about it here.
February 25th, 2014
I have a new piece in The Los Angeles Review of Books about the ways in which Muslim women’s rights are discussed in different parts of the world. Here’s a snippet:
I was struck then, and I suppose I still am now, by how different the Chronicles of the Veil™ were from the books I had read when I was growing up. Those books were written by Moroccan women and for Moroccan women; the authors explicitly critiqued the laws, cultural customs, and religious beliefs that hampered Moroccan women and prevented them from achieving full equality. But the books I encountered in America, particularly in commercial bookstores, were general, even generic, in their approach. They were often set in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia. They spoke breathlessly about “Muslim women,” a population so large and so diverse that hardly any statements made about them bear scrutiny. What could possibly be said to be true of 800 million women, spread out over 56 countries, dozens of ethnic groups, and a multitude of legal and cultural practices?
There came a moment when I realized that there are two distinct kinds of conversations taking place around Muslim women — one in Muslim countries and one in Western countries. The first conversation is highly specific, and focuses on local problems. In Morocco, for example, feminist activists pushed for a reform of family law for more than a decade; it was finally passed by parliament in 2004, and it granted women greater rights in marriage, divorce, and custody. These activists also successfully lobbied parliament for another reform, this time of the penal code, because it contained a loophole that allowed a man to escape statutory rape charges in case of marriage. Now feminists are focusing on access to education in rural areas, the practice of hiring underage girls as domestic workers, sexual harassment on the street — these are issues that Moroccan women and girls face every day, but they might not be exactly the same issues faced by women in Somalia or Comoros, where the legal apparatus and cultural practices are quite different.
The second kind of conversation takes place in Western countries, primarily via the Chronicles of the Veil™ and other sensationalistic materials. Here, the terms of the debate are global.
You can read the rest of the essay here.
(Photo credit: ArabGlot)
January 5th, 2014
Happy 2014! My winter holiday was brief (as are all holidays, I suppose) and now I am back at work. For those who may be interested, my review of Hooman Majd’s The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay appeared in the New York Times last week. Here is how it begins:
To write about one’s country while living in another is to invite questions about loyalty. Why are you writing this? And for whom? The questions can take an ominous tone: What is your agenda? The journalist Hooman Majd faced such suspicions on one of his trips to Tehran, when an employee from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance told him bluntly: “Just because you have an Iranian passport doesn’t mean you can come here and write whatever you want when you leave.”
It was partly in an attempt to gain a wider perspective on the country of his birth that Majd, who lives in Brooklyn, took his American wife and infant son to live in Tehran for one year. “The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay” is a memoir of 2011, spent reconnecting with the homeland he left as a baby, when his father, then a career diplomat, was posted abroad.
You can read the rest of the review here.
Photo credit: GQ.
November 23rd, 2013
For the last four years, I’ve spent the majority of my time inside a man’s body and mind. My character, a Moroccan slave known only as Estebanico of Azemmur, was part of a sixteenth-century Spanish expedition to claim the territory of Florida for the Crown of Castile. But the expedition turned out to be an unmitigated disaster and, within a few months, only four men were left standing: three noblemen, among whom the famed explorer Cabeza de Vaca, and Estebanico. I’ve followed along as Estebanico and the others journeyed to the heart of Florida and, desperate to survive among the Indians, reinvented themselves as faith healers. But my time with Estebanico is coming to an end. I’m happy to report that the release date for The Moor’s Account has been set for September 2014. I’m so proud of this book and so excited to share it with readers.
Illustration: Azaamurum. 1678 map of Azemmur by Daniel Meisner.
September 30th, 2013
Few writers inspire in me as much admiration and respect as J.M. Coetzee, so I was thrilled to have an opportunity to write about his most recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus, for The Nation magazine. Here is how the piece begins:
In 1516, when he was a councilor to Henry VIII, Thomas More published a slim little novel in which he described a society starkly different from his own, a place where education is universal, religious diversity is tolerated, and private property is banned. Citizens elect their prince and can unseat him if he turns tyrannical. The state provides free healthcare for everyone, and the law is so simple that there are no lawyers. For this ideal society, More coined the term Utopia (“no place” in Greek). It sounds enlightened, doesn’t it? But here is the fine print: in Utopia, each household has two slaves, drawn from among criminals or foreign prisoners of war; the prince is always a man; atheism is frowned upon; and women and children have far fewer rights than men.
Still, what enchants about Utopia is More’s dream of an ideal society, a dream shared by poets and prophets, artists and thinkers throughout the ages. In The Republic, Plato wanted the ideal city to be run by philosopher-kings. In Candide, Voltaire situated the perfect society in El Dorado, where there are schools aplenty but no prisons. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels theorized that the future would belong to workers once they had lost their chains. Every era has its utopia. Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try.
The great J.M. Coetzee follows in this tradition in his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, which explores the enduring question of what a just and compassionate world might look like. Over a career that has spanned forty years, the South African novelist (now an Australian citizen) has given us novels that explore the ethical responsibilities of the individual. How a person copes with power—whether political, physical or sexual—is a concern that runs through all his work. His characters often find themselves thrust into situations that force them to take note of, and act against, an injustice they had previously declined to notice. His latest novel offers a new variation on these themes: it focuses not on the drama of an unjust yet ordinary situation, but on an unusually just one.
You can read the rest of the essay here.
(Photo Credit: Basso Canarsa)
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.
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.
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.
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.
March 31st, 2013
A very short break, actually, just three days in Joshua Tree National Park. But, oh, they were glorious.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)