Seattle Reads Secret Son

May 3rd, 2010

As I may have mentioned, my novel, Secret Son, was selected for a “One City, One Book” program in Seattle. I’ll be in town for a week, from May 6th to May 10th, to give readings and Q&A events. Here are all the details:

May 6, 2010
11:00 AM
Q & A
Seattle Reads Event
Northgate Community Center
10510 5th Ave NE
Seattle, Washington

May 6, 2010
7:00 PM
Q & A
Seattle Reads Event
Seattle Public Library – Douglass-Truth Branch
2300 E. Yesler Way
Seattle, Washington

May 7, 2010
7:00 PM
An evening with Laila Lalami
Seattle Reads Event
Seattle Public Library – Central Library
1000 Fourth Ave.
Seattle, Washington

May 8, 2010
11:00 AM
Q & A
Seattle Reads Event
Seattle Public Library – North East Branch
6801 35th Ave. N.E.
Seattle, Washington

May 8, 2010
4:00 PM
Q & A
Seattle Reads Event
Seattle Public Library – Beacon Hill Branch
2821 Beacon Ave. S.
Seattle, Washington

I will also be delivering a lecture as part of the Seattle Arts & Lecture series at Benaroya Hall. This is a ticketed event and you can purchase tickets here:

May 10, 2010
7:30 PM
Seattle Arts & Lectures
Benaroya Hall
Seattle, Washington

That’s about it. I hope to see you there!

Quotable: Cormac McCarthy

April 28th, 2010

Here is a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—it’s a sentence, actually, a long, wonderfully crafted sentence, whose beauty highlights the very ugliness of what is about to happen when a group of Indians catches up with a band of American scalp hunters:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

I heard recently that a film adaptation of the novel is in the works. I’ve always thought this book was unfilmable, but perhaps Todd Field (who has directed good adaptations of In the Bedroom and Little Children) is up to the task.

After The Fest

April 26th, 2010

Thank you to all those who came to my L.A. Times Festival of Books panel this weekend. I hope you all had as much fun as I did. And thanks especially to Maret Orliss, Vanessa Curwen, and Ann Binney for organizing this huge festival–I have no idea how they do it every year! (Above is a picture of me with a few friends who were also in attendance.)

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

April 19th, 2010

Next weekend, the Los Angeles Times will hold its annual Festival of Books. I’ve had the pleasure of participating a few times, and it’s always been loads of fun. This year, I’ll be moderating a panel on Sunday, with André Aciman, Assaf Gavron, and Amy Wilentz. Here are the details:

April 25, 2010
10:30 AM
Fiction: Writing the Personal, Writing the Political
André Aciman, Assaf Gavron, and Amy Wilentz, moderated by Laila Lalami
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
UCLA Campus
Los Angeles, California

It’s a free event, but you do need tickets to get in, so please go here for details. In yet another sign of the apocalypse, I’ve joined Twitter, so you can follow me there if you’re really interested in occasional, 140-character accounts of what I’m reading, what I’m writing, where I’m going, and everything else in between.

Quotable: Percival Everett

April 16th, 2010

The passage below is from Percival Everett’s Erasure, from the scene in which Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, a writer and professor, visits a bookstore in Washington, DC and doesn’t find his books where he expects them to be.

While Lisa wandered off to the garden book section, I stood in the middle of Border’s thinking how much I hated the chain and chains like it. I’d talked to too many owners of little, real bookstores who were being driven to the poorhouse by what they called the Wal-Mart of books. I decided to see if the store had any of my books, firm in my belief that even if they did, my opinion about them would be unchanged. I went to Literature and did not see me. I went to Contemporary Fiction and did not find me, but when I fell back a couple of steps I found a section called African American Studies and there, arranged alphabetically and neatly, read undisturbed, were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph. I became quickly irate, my pulse speeding up, my brow furrowing. Someone interested in African American Studies would have little interest in my books and would be confused by their presence in the section. Someone looking for an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy would not consider looking in that section any more than the gardening section. The result in either case, no sale. That fucking store was taking food from my table.

Of course, it’s at this point that he comes across a poster advertising a reading by newcomer Juanita Mae Jenkins, author of We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, whose first line is My fahvre be gone since time I’s borned and it be just me an’ my momma an’ my baby brover Juneboy. There’s only one thing for poor Thelonious to do: write his own ‘ghetto novel,’ which he calls My Pafology. (He later changes the title to an expletive, and the publisher gets even more excited about potential sales.) Some time ago, I was joking with some friends online that I should try to write something like My Pafology, but for ‘my people.’ You know, cash in, while I can. After all, there are dozens of books purporting to diagnose what is wrong with Arabs and Muslims, so one more couldn’t hurt. It would be called Killer Instinct and it would give insight into how we (every single one of us) are raised to kill the infidel. But it seems that irony doesn’t really travel well online.

Novel in Progress

April 13th, 2010

When I give readings, one of the most common questions I get asked is to describe my writing process. I always hesitate to talk about it, because it seems so idiosyncratic and hence useless to anyone else but me. For instance, I always begin my writing day by listening to Rachmaninoff. Why Rachmaninoff? I have no idea. But listening to the same piece every day helps me start my routine. And routine is paramount for me, because I can’t afford to wait for my muse to show up. She’s kind of unreliable. I’m also pretty fastidious about my note-taking, so in addition to two writing notebooks (one for fiction, one for nonfiction), I also keep a logbook to keep track of what I’m writing and what I’m reading. Right now, I’m working on my new novel, so my current draft, my research, and all my associated notes are stored together. That way, I can find what I need when I need it. It’s early in the process, so I am only on my first box for this novel and it is not even full yet. But, you know, one page at a time…

Reading at Powells

April 6th, 2010

On Wednesday, April 7th, I will be in Portland to read from Secret Son at Powell’s Burnside. Below are the details:

7:30 PM
Reading and Signing
Powell’s Books
1005 W Burnside
Portland, Oregon
May 6, 2010

Reading at Mills College

April 5th, 2010

The event with Ngugi wa Thiong’o was wonderful—thank you to everyone who came. There should be an audio recording on the Los Angeles Public Library’s site at some point, in case you’re interested. Now I’m getting ready for a reading in Oakland, at Mills College. Below are the details:

Tuesday, April 6
5:30 PM
Reading and Discussion
Mills College
Oakland, California

This will be my only reading in the Bay area for the paperback release of Secret Son. I hope to see you there.

In Conversation with Ngugi wa Thiong’o

March 29th, 2010

This Thursday, April 1, I will be in conversation with the great Ngugi wa Thiong’o at the Los Angeles Public Library, as part of the ALOUD LA reading series. Here are the details:

7:00 PM
An evening with Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Laila Lalami
Los Angeles Central Library
Los Angeles, California

I am very nervous at sharing the stage with Ngugi, so please come by and help me feel at home!

In Morocco

March 25th, 2010

I am reading Edith Wharton’s travelogue In Morocco, which was published in 1920 (and which I believe has fallen out of print.) It is an amazing exemplar of what would later be called Orientalism–with musings about “Eastern laziness,” the “fatalism” of the people, the “grave clothes” that serve as attire, the “tortuous soul” of the land, and so on. A visit to the souk gives her the impression of “a draped, veiled, turbaned mob shrieking, bargaining, fist-shaking, calling on Allah to witness the monstrous villainies of the misbegotten miscreants they are trading with.” In contrast, she is full of praise for her host, General Lyautey (who served as Governor General) and his government. The French endeavor to keep the trails “fit for wheeled traffic,” they are “asked to intervene” to save antiquities, and at all times they show “respect for native habits [and] native beliefs.” What strikes me about these contrasts is not that they are outmoded, but rather the opposite: the same images, the same tropes are still to be found in travel writing or reportage about Morocco today. The book is turning up to be quite useful for a piece I’m doing on writing about Morocco (I know, I know, it’s very meta.)

Photo: Edith Wharton Restoration/New York Times

Quotable: Leila Ahmed

March 19th, 2010

The passage below is the closing paragraph of “Harem,” by the Egyptian writer and academic Leila Ahmed. The essay is part of her magnificent memoir, Border Passage, and is about three generations of women in her family. It discusses the changes in their lives over a period of a century and a half.

If the women of my family were guilty of silence and acquiescence out of their inability to see past their own conditioning, I, too, have fallen in with notions instilled in me by my conditioning—and in ways that I did not even recognize until now, when, thinking about my foremothers, I suddenly saw in what I had myself just written my own unthinking collusion with the attitudes of the society in which I was raised. Writing of Aunt Farida and of how aggrieved and miserable she was when her husband took a second wife, I reproduced here without thinking the stories I’d heard as a youngster about how foolish Aunt Farida was, resorting to magic to bring back her husband. But I see now how those stories in effect rationalized and excused his conduct, implying that even though taking a second wife wasn’t a nice way for a man to behave, perhaps he had had some excuse, Aunt Farida being so foolish.

“The mind is so near itself,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “it cannot see distinctly.” Sometimes even the stories we ourselves tell dissolve before us as if a mist were momentarily lifting, and we glimpse in that instant our own participation in the myths and constructions of our societies.

The last time I used this essay in a class, a couple of my students appeared stunned to discover that there were feminists in Egypt, much less in 19th-century Egypt. Feminism (by which I mean simply the belief that men and women are and should be equal) had seemed to some of them, I think, primarily and uniquely a Western movement.

Photo: Harvard Gazette.

Orange Prize Longlist!

March 17th, 2010

Yesterday I was talking about the fact that rejection is just a part of the writer’s life. Well, today I have the opportunity to mention another part of that life: the occasional (and, of course, fleeting) moment of recognition. The Orange Prize longlist for this year has been announced and I am happy to say that my novel, Secret Son, is included. The complete list of longlisted novels can be found on the website for the prize.

On Rejection

March 16th, 2010

It seems I’ve been collecting rejection notices lately. Yesterday’s came from the MacDowell Colony, to which I had applied earlier this year because I wanted to get some writing done in a quiet place, away from home. I had visions of sitting in one of their cozy studios, sipping Earl Grey or Darjeeling or whatever, and composing my newest magnum opus. But that won’t be happening. I’m disappointed, of course, but over the last ten years I’ve learned that rejection is just part of the writer’s life. And I’ve also learned that you can’t really evaluate what a rejection means when it’s just happened; you have to wait to gain some perspective. I remember how disappointed I was to have a story rejected from a particular literary magazine, and now when I think about that I just laugh to myself because that magazine went out of business (and I ended publishing that story elsewhere anyway.) There’s a great book that I often recommend to my grad students when they get discouraged. It’s called Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame. One of my favorites is the story that Margaret Atwood tells of giving a reading of The Edible Woman in the men’s sock and underwear section of a major department store.

A Pause, At Last

March 15th, 2010

Last week marked the end of the winter quarter at the University of California, which means I am finally able to take a little break. Actually, it’s a long break, since I am on leave in the spring quarter. I hope to finally have time to focus on my work and find a proper direction for the new book. I’ve been going through a tough time lately—not unhappy, but certainly fraught with all sorts of difficulties and familial worries—and of course it’s affected my work. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive the support of a few friends (and also disappointed in others, but that’s a story for another day.) There’s something about this new novel that’s very different. It takes place at a time and place I’ve never written about before, so there’s the challenge and excitement of that, and it also has an extremely important minor character, and I have to figure out how to do that well.

Reading at Book Soup

March 7th, 2010

I’m back in Los Angeles for a reading at Book Soup. This will be one of only two events that I will be doing in L.A. to promote the paperback launch of Secret Son. Here are the details:

Monday, March 8
7:00 PM
Reading and Signing
Book Soup
8818 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood California

If you’re around, stop by and say hello.

Reading in Georgia

March 1st, 2010

I’ve been to Georgia only once before, for a conference when I was in graduate school. I do remember, however, that I kept getting lost in Atlanta because nearly every street was named “Peach.” Peachtree Road. Peachtree Street. New Peachtree Road. Old Peachtree Street. You get the picture. I never got to see anything outside Atlanta, so I am looking forward to being back in the state this week for readings at North Georgia College and Georgia Southern University. Here are the details:

March 1, 2010
8:00 PM
Reading and Signing
North Georgia College and State University
Dahlonega, Georgia

March 2, 2010
8:00 PM
Hoag Lecture
North Georgia College and State University
Dahlonega, Georgia

March 4, 2010
8:00 PM
Lecture and Discussion
Georgia Southern University
Statesboro, Georgia

If you’re in the area, please stop by and say hello.

On The Road

February 25th, 2010

I am back in Los Angeles, but only briefly, as I have to be on the road again next week. You can listen to my appearance on BBC Radio 4 here. And my interview with Mark Coles on BBC’s The Strand has been archived here.

In London

February 18th, 2010

Greetings from London, where it’s really chucking it down at the moment. (“Chucking it down” is one of those wonderful Britishisms I’ve been picking up since I got here; it means “raining heavily.”) The event at the University of East Anglia on Tuesday night was a smashing success, with great turnout and wonderful questions from the audience. I had a great time. Then yesterday and today, I did a whole bunch of interviews, including one with the BBC’s Mark Coles for The Strand, which should be archived here. I will also be on Radio 4 on Saturday, so when the link is live I will post it here as well. Because my schedule has been so packed, I haven’t been able to get out much, although I did get a chance to spend some quiet time at the British Library. I highly recommend the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, where you can see some incredible artifacts, including an 8th-century Qur’an that uses the ancient Hijazi script, the Magna Carta, a handwritten page from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, one of Jane Austen’s notebooks, and so on. Anyway, I have to cut this short, as I still have loads of emails to catch up with. Toodeloo, as the Brits say!

Reading in the U.K.

February 15th, 2010

I’m in London this week for the launch of the U.K. edition of my book, Secret Son. I will be doing some interviews (details to come soon) and I will also be reading at the University of East Anglia, as part of their literary festival. Here are the details for the reading:

7:00 PM
Reading and Discussion
Lecture Theatre 1
University of East Anglia
Norwich, England

I don’t know if any readers of the blog are in the area, but it would be lovely to meet you if you are. I will try to post the interviews if/when they go online.

Quotable: Monique Truong

February 12th, 2010

By sheer coincidence, three of the five most recent books I’ve read were set in Vietnam or featured Vietnamese characters. One of these was Monique Truong’s debut novel, The Book of Salt, in which the main character, Binh, works as a cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. (The idea for the novel came to the author when she learned, from reading Toklas’s famous cookbook, that Stein and Toklas had employed “Indochinese cooks.”) In the passage below, Binh describes the interviews he has to submit to in order to find a job and during which he has to explain what he has been doing between his departure from Vietnam and his arrival in Paris.

Three years unaccounted for! you could almost hear them thinking. Most Parisians can ignore and even forgive me for not having the refinement to be born amidst the ringing bells of their cathedrals, especially since I was born instead amidst the ringing bells of the replicas of their cathedrals, erected in a far off colony to remind them of the majesty, the piety, of home. As long as Monsieur and Madame can account for my whereabouts in their city or in one of their colonies, then they can trust that the République and the Catholic Church have had their watchful eyes on me. But when I expose myself as a subject who may have strayed, who may have lived a life unchecked, ungoverned, undocumented, and unrepentant, I become, for them, suspect.

What struck me about this passage is how easily it could apply to another employee (a chauffeur, say) from another of France’s former colonies (Morocco, for instance.) The relationship between servant and master seems to be colored in similar hues, and it made me wonder if that was because of the similarities in the two colonial relationships.

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