July 15th, 2010
I am back from a short holiday in beautiful New Mexico. The skies, the vistas, the pueblos, the museums in Santa Fe–everything was just perfect. My husband loved it so much he started to make plans to retire there, even though he still has a good twenty-five years to go before he can consider such a thing. I did some reading before and while on travel, some of it academic (a history book that is somewhat relevant to my novel in progress), some of it genre (Stieg Larsson), and some of it literary (Mongo Beti.) It was good to be away from the computer and the phone for a while. Now I am back at my desk, catching up on mountains of email and other correspondence, and finally, finally, having my special cup of Cuban coffee.
July 5th, 2010
Between working on my new book and keeping up with the World Cup, my days have been very busy lately. What better soap opera than the implosion of the French team? What better opportunity to compare bad haircuts than the one provided by the Algerian team? What more devastating exit than that of Brazil, who scored against themselves? Was there ever a more exciting football game than the Uruguay-Ghana match this week? I had hoped that Ghana would make it past the quarter-finals and was crushed when they didn’t, especially because the game would not have been decided on penalties if Gyan hadn’t missed his kick against Uruguay. And don’t get me started on Suarez’s left hand! So you see there is plenty of character and drama, which is all I need to keep me happy, whether in or out of books.
Photo credit: Getty images
June 28th, 2010
I didn’t know what to expect from The Last Station, the film adaptation of Jay Parini’s novel about the last year of Tolstoy’s life, but I have to say I enjoyed it tremendously. As I’m sure you’ve heard, the acting is great: Helen Mirren plays Sophia Tolstaya; Christopher Plummer is the great man; James McAvoy plays Tolstoy’s secretary Valentin Bulgakov; and poor Paul Giamatti gets to be Chertkov. But really what sets this adaptation apart is that the screenplay is so good. It’s multi-layered, well-paced, and handles its deeply flawed characters with great care. Which, of course, it owes to Parini’s novel. This movie made me glad I reinstated my Netflix subscription.
On a somewhat related note, it was reported this week that Sergei Tolstoy, the novelist’s 87 year old great-grandson, now lives in a low-income assisted living facility in DC. He wants to write a book about his service as an undercover officer in the U.S. Army.
Photo credit: Sony Picture Classics
June 14th, 2010
Just in time for the World Cup, Les Editions Jean-Claude Lattès have released a new anthology called Enfants de la Balle. Edited by Abdourahman Waberi, the volume features short stories on football by writers from across Africa, including Anouar Benmalek, Alain Mabanckou, Wilfried N’Sonde, Jamal Mahjoub, Ananda Devi—and me. You can read some early reviews in L’Express, Slate, and France Culture.
If the World Cup isn’t really your thing, perhaps you might be interested in The Secret Miracle, a handbook of tips and guidelines edited by Daniel Alarcón. I suspect that Daniel got the title for the book from the famed short story by Jorge-Luis Borges, but I’m not sure. I do remember, though, that when he asked me to contribute something, he explained that he didn’t want to do a “how-to” book. Instead, this anthology collects various answers given by a diverse group of writers about their writing habits. Here’s a review in the SF Chronicle.
June 9th, 2010
The letter came in the mail a few weeks ago, though I completely forgot to mention it on the blog: I am now officially tenured at the University of California.
The amount of paperwork that was required for this was greater than what was asked of me by the INS, and, trust me, that’s saying something. So the overwhelming emotion I felt when I heard the news was relief. I was starting to feel like a character in a campus novel.
Photo credit: Screen capture from the film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.
June 7th, 2010
I returned from Ann Arbor full of awe and admiration for my friend Khaled Mattawa. Over the three days of the Rawi conference, he managed to take part in two panels, one on translating Arabic poetry and one on style, welcome each participant, handle numerous logistical details, and contribute to several discussions of literature, culture, and politics. And he still had energy left to dance with us on Saturday night! He has done so much for the community and for that I am thankful. I also want to thank Deema Shehabi, Lutfi Hussein, Sahar Mustafa, Debbie Najor, Steven Salaita, Evelyn Alsultany, Kate Middleton, and David Ward, for all their work in putting the meeting together. You are all amazing.
June 1st, 2010
This picture was taken last summer in the Qasbah of Chaouen, in northern Morocco. It makes me smile because it looks like a postcard, which is I think what my husband was going for here. This summer, however, will not be leisurely at all. I’m working on my new book and hoping to make enough progress on it before classes resume. But I wanted to pop back in here to let you all know that Rawi, the association of Arab American writers, will hold its third annual conference later this week. I will be participating in a panel with Nouri Gana, Carol Bardenstein, Carol Fadda-Conrey, and Pauline Homsi-Vinson on Friday morning, on the theme of “The Transnational in Contemporary Arab-American Literature.” Then, on Friday evening, I will be doing a reading with Hisham Matar and Marilyn Nelson. (Details on my Events page.) The full list of participants can be found on Rawi’s website. I hope to see some of you there. And, for those of you who have succumbed to the latest Satanic invention, I’ll also post some updates on Twitter.
May 27th, 2010
Earlier this morning, BP said that it was “cautiously optimistic” that the 37-day oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been plugged. As for me, I feel a bit like this dragonfly: helpless against what has happened, helpless against BP’s might, helpless against our useless government.
Photo: AP/Gerald Herbert. From the Boston Globe‘s The Big Picture series.
May 17th, 2010
Hello, dear readers. I am back from a long and lovely stay in Seattle, where I spoke to so many different groups that I nearly lost my voice. I didn’t take my laptop with me, and instead spent my free time resting and reading. I enjoyed Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel, Wench, which is set in a resort that catered to Southern gentlemen and their slave mistresses in 1850s Ohio. It’s beautifully written and it kept me up at night. I also loved Toni Morrison’s A Mercy; I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this one, but I’m glad I did. It’s a fascinating little book, challenging at times, and it has the curious effect of making you want to immediately start reading it again the minute you reach the end. Since getting back, I’ve been working around the clock on my new novel and so I haven’t had any time at all to read blogs or to write on mine. My silence here is, I hope, the good kind of silence, the silence of work, designed to prevent the more dangerous kind of silence(s) that Tillie Olsen once wrote about.
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
Q & A
Seattle Reads Event
Northgate Community Center
10510 5th Ave NE
May 6, 2010
Q & A
Seattle Reads Event
Seattle Public Library – Douglass-Truth Branch
2300 E. Yesler Way
May 7, 2010
An evening with Laila Lalami
Seattle Reads Event
Seattle Public Library – Central Library
1000 Fourth Ave.
May 8, 2010
Q & A
Seattle Reads Event
Seattle Public Library – North East Branch
6801 35th Ave. N.E.
May 8, 2010
Q & A
Seattle Reads Event
Seattle Public Library – Beacon Hill Branch
2821 Beacon Ave. S.
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
Seattle Arts & Lectures
That’s about it. I hope to see you there!
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.
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.)
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
Fiction: Writing the Personal, Writing the Political
André Aciman, Assaf Gavron, and Amy Wilentz, moderated by Laila Lalami
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
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.
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.
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…
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:
Reading and Signing
1005 W Burnside
May 6, 2010
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
Reading and Discussion
This will be my only reading in the Bay area for the paperback release of Secret Son. I hope to see you there.