Archive for the ‘personal’ Category

East Coast Tour

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

williams-moors-account

I just finished packing for my trip to the East Coast. I’ll be reading from and discussing The Moor’s Account in four cities: New York, Washington, DC, Williamstown, and Boston. The details are posted below:

October 6, 2014
8:00 PM

92nd Street Y

1395 Lexington Avenue

New York, New York

October 7, 2014
7:00 PM

Politics and Prose

5015 Connecticut Ave. NW

Washington, DC

October 8, 2014
6:30 PM

Williams College

Williamstown, Massachusetts

October 9, 2014
7:00 PM

Harvard Bookstore

1256 Massachusetts Ave

Cambridge, Massachusetts

For those who may be interested, here’s an interview I did with The Berkshire Eagle ahead of my reading at Williams. Reviews have continued to appear through last week. I particularly liked hearing Alan Cheuse’s review for NPR’s All Things Considered. Meanwhile, The Moor’s Account was published in Canada last week, so reviews have begun to appear there as well. Here, for instance, is a piece from the The Winnipeg Free Press. Details about my Canada appearances are on my Events page.

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New Mexico Readings

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

LL3

Thank you to all who came to my readings in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. I had a wonderful time talking about The Moor’s Account and enjoyed sharing anecdotes and stories. Now I’m getting ready to read in New Mexico, a state I’ve loved ever since my first visit, in the summer of 2010. First up is Albuquerque:

September 22, 2014
7:00 PM
Reading and Discussion
Bookworks
4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico

After that, I will be reading in Santa Fe:

September 23, 2014
6:00 PM
Reading and Discussion
Collected Works Bookstore
202 Galisteo St.
Santa Fe, New Mexico

You can read an interview I did with The Santa Fe New Mexican, ahead of my events in the state. The Moor’s Account was the subject of a wonderful essay by Rubén Martínez in The Los Angeles Review of Books. It also made Ebony‘s list of recommended reads. Do come and say hi.

Photo credit: Powell’s Books.

West Coast Tour

Monday, September 15th, 2014

laila-atdiesel

I’m packing today for the West Coast portion of my book tour. If you happen to be in Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco, I would love to see you! In Seattle, I’ll be reading at the public library, a place I love both for its architecture and for the people who work in it. The event is co-sponsored by Elliott Bay Book Co., where the booksellers always have the best recommendations for what to read next. I had a wonderful time in Seattle when my previous novel, Secret Son, was a citywide read there, so I’m really looking forward to being back.

September 16, 2014
7:00 PM
Reading and Discussion
Seattle Public Library in conjunction with Elliott Bay Book Co.
1000 Fourth Avenue
Seattle, Washington

After that, I’ll be reading at the legendary City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. I’m excited about the prospect of seeing family and friends from the area. Details are below:

September 17, 2014
7:00 PM
Reading and Discussion
City Lights Booksellers and Publishers
261 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, California

My last stop of the week will be at Powell’s Books. All I can say about this bookstore is that I want to set up a tent and live there. It’s that great.

September 18, 2014
7:30 PM
Reading and Discussion
Powell’s Books
1005 W. Burnside Street
Portland, Oregon

If you want to know a little more about the genesis of The Moor’s Account, you can read this piece I wrote for Biographile. I also created a musical playlist for Largehearted Boy’s Booknotes. Several new reviews of the book appeared over the last few days: The Wall Street Journal called the novel “sensitive” and “elegant;” the literary magazine The Millions said it was “magnificent;” and the Seattle Times found it “meticulously researched and inventive.” The New York Times made it an Editors’ Choice this week.

Coming To A BookStore Near You

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

BookShot_Moors Account

My new novel, The Moor’s Account, comes out today. The journey from conception to publication has been long, but it has been wonderful in every way. I’m very proud of this book and I hope you enjoy reading it. I’m also thrilled to see that it has already received some notice. For instance, in its review, The New York Times called it “a fictional memoir told in a controlled voice that feels at once historical and contemporary.” The Los Angeles Times said it was a “rich novel (…) that muses on the ambiguous power of words to either tell the truth or reshape it according to our desires.” Other reviews and mentions appeared in BookPage, The Huffington Post, and The Village Voice. And you can hear me discuss the novel with Arun Rath on NPR’s All Things Considered.

I will be launching The Moor’s Account in Los Angeles this week, at two separate events. Tomorrow, I’ll read from and discuss it at Skylight:

September 10, 2014
7:30 PM
Reading and Discussion
Skylight Books
1818 N Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, California

And then this Sunday, I’ll be speaking at Diesel in Brentwood. Details are below:

September 14, 2014
3:00 PM
Reading and Discussion
Diesel, A Bookstore
Brentwood Country Mart
225 26th Street, Ste. 33.
Brentwood, California

After that, I will be going on a huge tour to promote the book. All my scheduled readings are posted on my Events page. Do come.

The Moor’s Account Book Tour

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

seattlereading09

Book tours sound very glamorous, but they usually go like this: you wake up at an ungodly hour, you hope that your cab is on time, you hope that your flight is on time, you hope that your seat mate isn’t a sociopath, you hope that your hotel room is ready when you get there, you hope not to get lost on your way to the bookstore. All that hoping can be stressful. So why go on tour? Because after a few years of writing a novel, it’s very enjoyable to talk to readers about it. I have the most amazing readers. Once, at a reading in Los Angeles, a woman told me she had driven three hours so her daughter could come see me. Another time, my friend A. from grad school surprised me by showing up at my Elliott Bay reading in Seattle. He lives in Arizona, but was in town on business, so we ended up having dinner together and catching up. And I love doing events in independent bookstores because, unfailingly, the staff are knowledgeable, friendly, and always have a good book to recommend. Yes, book tours are stressful, but they’re also lots of fun. Right now, I’m getting ready to tour for my new novel, The Moor’s Account. I’ll be visiting Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, New York, Washington DC, and Boston this fall. I’m also doing the Chicago Humanities Festival, the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, and the Miami Book Fair. And I’m speaking at several colleges, including Williams in Massachusetts, Yavapai College in Arizona, and the University of Texas at Austin. Do come by and say hello! I’d love to talk to you about my new book.

Estebanico in Visual Art

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

While writing The Moor’s Account, I became curious about visual representations of Estebanico (a.k.a. Mustafa al-Zamori). As it turned out, the incredible story of the Narváez expedition inspired quite a few painters. Below, for instance, is the depiction of the Narváez castaways that Penguin Classics used for its cover of Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle. You will notice that Estebanico appears nowhere in it.

But as time passed and scholarship evolved, interest in Estebanico also grew. Here is a painting by José Cisneros, where Estebanico appears alongside the other three survivors, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Cabeza de Vaca. (Estebanico is second from right.)

estebanico2

It’s interesting to note the differences between artist depictions when it comes to style and dress. In the one below, for example, Estebanico appears shirtless and carrying a halberd, leading the way for the Coronado expedition, which took place many years after the Narváez expedition.

estebanico3

In his hometown of Azemmur, there are a few murals dedicated to the explorer. Here is one where Estebanico is portrayed in the dress and style of a pirate. (Of course, he was no pirate; he was a slave turned scout turned faith healer.)

estebanico4

Adjacent to that mural in Azemmur is another one, also depicting Estebanico. Here, the explorer is shown wearing a turban and a loincloth, and carrying a wooden lance.

estebanico5

What I find fascinating about all these images is what they tell us not about Estebanico, but about the artists themselves. Each one had a different view of the explorer, shaped by his or her culture and experience of history.

Image credits:
1. 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.
2. José Cisneros, Cabeza de Vaca and His Three companions on the Texas Coast. Museum of South Texas History.
3. Artist unknown, Estevanico. The Granger Collection. New York.
4. Artist name illegible, Estevanico/Estebanico El Azemmouri. MonMaroc Guide.
5. Koukou. Estebanico. Azemmur.

In Azemmur

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

azemmur

My new novel, The Moor’s Account, comes out in five weeks. It tells the story of America’s first African explorer, a Moroccan slave known as Estebanico. He was part of the Narváez expedition of 1528, which landed in Florida with the goal of claiming it for the Spanish Crown. From the start, however, the expedition faced disaster. The rations were small, the men came down with typhoid, and the indigenous tribes resisted the soldiers’ advance. Within a year, there were only four survivors: the expedition’s treasurer, Cabeza de Vaca; a captain by the name of Alonso del Castillo; a nobleman named Andrés Dorantes, and his Moroccan slave, Estebanico. Together, the survivors journeyed across America, living with native tribes and reinventing themselves as faith healers. Years later, when they were found, the Spaniards were asked to provide their testimony about this epic journey. But because he was a slave, Estebanico’s experience was considered irrelevant or unreliable or unworthy.

And yet his experience was unique. Although he took part in a conquering expedition, he was not a conqueror. He witnessed the Spaniards’ subjugation of indigenous tribes, while his own status was somewhere in between. The complexity of Estebanico’s position drew me in, as did the fact that his testimony was not part of the historical record. The silencing of his perspective felt modern to me. (Open up the newspaper and look at the bylines. Whose views do you read? Whose voices do you never hear?) I was so immediately and so powerfully drawn to Estebanico’s story that I decided to write a novel about him. I gave myself the freedom to speak in his voice, to describe his birth in Azemmur, his family life, his relationships with others, his many failings, and ultimately his redemption.

Last month, I had the chance to return to Azemmur. In the picture above, I’m standing where, I imagine, he once stood. To my right are the Portuguese ramparts, which date back to 1513; the Oum er-Rbi’ river is to my left.

A Grand Unified Theory of Writers’ Desires

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

mcescherhands

Writers write.
Those who write finish a manuscript.
Those who finish a manuscript want an agent.
Those who have an agent want a book deal.
Those who have a book deal want an even bigger book deal.
Those who have a big book deal want great reviews.
Those who have great reviews want huge sales.
Those who have huge sales want literary prizes.
Those who have literary prizes want movie adaptations.
Those who have book deals, reviews, sales, prizes, and movie adaptations want time to write.
Writers want time to write
Writers want time to write.

MFA & POC

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

VONA-2004

Last week, The New Yorker published an essay by Junot Díaz about his experience as a person of color in the Master of Fine Arts program at Cornell University. Of his time in the program, he wrote:

I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.

So what was the problem?

Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs.

That shit was too white.

Díaz goes on to describe the problems he faced: the faculty was not diverse, the curriculum skewed toward white male authors, there was a pervasive silence about issues of race, etc. These are experiences that feel familiar to me. When I took writing classes in the U.S., I discovered very quickly that my literary references were different from those of my classmates. I had read Abouzeid, Mahfouz, Saramago, Choukri, Marquez, but they were writers whose work was never included in reading lists on the craft of writing. If, in the course of a discussion on plot or character or point of view, I brought up an African or South American writer, my example would usually fall flat and immediately be superseded by a more familiar (white) writer. Once, I remember, I was told that I had to completely rewrite one of my stories: instead of it being about Moroccan immigrants to Spain, it should be about Cuban immigrants to Florida because “this will be more familiar to your readers.” I think this was why Díaz’s piece was so popular: it spoke about marginalizing experiences that many young writers of color have.

Díaz’s essay was a condensed form of his introduction for the anthology Dismantle, edited by Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, Andrea Walls, Adriana Ramirez, Camille Acker, and Marco Fernando Navarro. Dismantle collects the work of alumni from the Voices of Our Nation Workshop, which was founded by Elmaz Abinader, Victor Díaz, Diem Jones, and Junot Díaz in 1999. I attended the workshop in 2004 and found it to be different from others I had taken. No one tried to make my work fit into a mold of what an ‘immigrant story’ should be like, or shied away from difficult themes, or suggested I give my characters ‘easier’ names. Bonus: I made friends with whom I remain close and I learned a few things that I bring into my own pedagogy.

The photo above was taken at the conclusion of the workshop in 2004. (From left to right: Patty Tumang, me, Beverly Mendoza, Estella Gonzalez, Junot Díaz, Maaza Mengiste, Leticia del Toro, Leticia’s husband Michel.) If I look a little dazed in the photo, it’s probably because I had recently had a baby and was completely exhausted from lack of sleep. Every day, I had to get up early to pump, then I’d go to class, come back to my dorm room, and pump some more. I was tired and I missed my baby. Which brings me to another aspect of the writer’s life: we all need supportive partners. One of the pieces of advice that I always give to my students is to build a network of support, whether it’s a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend. Writing may be a solitary effort, but it cannot be done without a community.

L. A. Times Festival of Books

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

The L.A. Times Festival of Books takes place this weekend, on the USC campus. It’s one of my favorite events of the year because I get to spend time with fellow writers, meet readers old and new, and eat churros. My panel is on Sunday:

Sunday, April 13, 1:30 PM
Fiction: Writing Character & Culture
Laila Lalami, Eduardo Santiago, Margaret Wrinkle, Rebecca Walker. Moderated by Sacha Howells
SAL 101
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California

Do come and say hi. The full festival schedule is posted on the festival website.

In Conversation with Dinaw Mengestu

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

L.A. readers: I will be in conversation with Dinaw Mengestu at the Los Angeles Public Library this week. The occasion is the publication of his new novel, All Our Names, about a young student from Ethiopia and a social worker from the Midwest, who take turns narrating their lives and the start of their affair. The book received a rave review in this weekend’s New York Times, and I’m really looking forward to discussing it with Dinaw. Here are the details:

Thursday, March 27
7pm
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Los Angeles Public Library
630 W. 5th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 228-7000

I hope to see you there.

New Anthologies, Spring 2014

Sunday, 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.

The Chronicles of the Veil

Tuesday, 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)

The Moor’s Account: September 2014

Saturday, 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.

Imagine: On J.M. Coetzee

Monday, 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)

Fictional Grandparents

Sunday, 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

Saturday, 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.

New Novel: The Moor’s Account

Wednesday, 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

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

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

Among the Blasphemers

Saturday, 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)

The Year in a Snapshot

Sunday, 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

Sunday, 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.

History as Story

Sunday, 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.)

Midsummer Days

Friday, 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

Friday, 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

Friday, 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.

On Los Angeles

Wednesday, 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?

Wednesday, 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

Tuesday, 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

Friday, 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.

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