Quotable: Agha Shahid Ali

August 26th, 2010

The waning days of August have brought with them another bout of nostalgia–I keep thinking of childhood summers in Rabat. And in honor of those, I thought I’d share this poem by Agha Shahid Ali, “I Dream It Is Afternoon When I Return to Delhi”

At Purana Qila I am alone, waiting
for the bus to Daryanganj. I see it coming,
but my hands are empty.
“Jump on, jump on,” someone shouts,
“I’ve saved this change for you
for years. Look!”
A hand opens, full of silver rupees.
“Jump on, jump on.” The voice doesn’t stop.
There’s no one I know. A policeman,
handcuffs silver in his hands,
asks for my ticket.

I jump off the running bus,
sweat pouring from my hair.
I run past the Doll Museum, past
headlines on the Times of India
Panting, I stop in Daryaganj,
outside Golcha Cinema.

Sunil is there, lighting
a cigarette, smiling. I say,
“It must be ten years, you haven’t changed,
it was your voice on the bus!”
He says, “The film is about to begin,
I’ve bought an extra ticket for you,”
and we rush inside:

Anarkali is being led away,
her earrings lying on the marble floor.
Any moment she’ll be buried alive.
“But this is the end,” I turn
toward Sunil. He is nowhere.
The usher taps my shoulder, says
my ticket is ten years old.

Once again my hands are empty.
I am waiting, alone, at Purana Qila.
Bus after empty bus is not stopping.
Suddenly, beggar women with children
are everywhere, offering
me money, weeping for me.

The poem appears in his collection The Half-Inch Himalayas. You can find out more about Agha Shahid Ali here.

The Pakistan Floods

August 17th, 2010

I feel I have yet to fully apprehend the devastation in Pakistan. The papers say there are 1,600 dead, 2 million homeless, and as many as 14 million affected by the floods. But the numbers, as always, don’t tell the whole story. The monsoon season is not over yet, it’s exceedingly difficult to get help to all those who need it, and the country has received little foreign relief. (The British charity Oxfam, for instance, says that donations to flood relief represent about $3 a person, compared to $495 per person after the Haiti earthquake.)

If you have not already done so, please donate to the relief effort in Pakistan. Here is a list of charities that work there.

(Photo credit: Reuters)

The Half-Known World

August 11th, 2010

So far this year, I’ve read thirty-four books—novels, memoirs, biographies, academic stuff—but only one book on the craft of writing. I don’t really like how-to books on fiction, because too many of them come equipped with check lists of things you should do in order to write. But this particular book was great: The Half-Known World, by Robert Boswell. It’s a collection of essays that address different aspects of writing and, for me at least, offer a few new ways of looking at literary fiction. The title essay, for instance, makes an excellent argument against knowing everything about a particular character or world.

It should be no surprise that the fully known worlds presented on television and in commercial movies are populated by stereotypes. To call a character a type is to say that he’s so true to a group of characters that he is indistinguishable from all the others in that group. Here’s another definition of stereotype: any character that is fully known.

I met Boz in 2006, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where I was a fellow and he was my faculty mentor. (He was smart, funny, and generous, and I will forever be grateful to him.) The lecture he delivered at the conference that year was called “Process and Paradigm.” It’s included in this collection. So if you’re looking for a good book on craft, try this one. It’s good.

Park51 and the Silenced Majority

August 9th, 2010

I want to know: what would the GOP do if it didn’t have Muslims to gripe about ahead of the November elections?

In the last three weeks, Glenn Beck mounted a campaign against “Muslim Family Day” at a Three Flags theme park in New Jersey, because that day fell on September 12th, which, of course, can only mean that Muslim evil-doers are plotting to offend the American people. (Never mind that Muslim Family Day started in 2000, that its chief organizer died in the World Trade Center attacks, and that the only reason it fell on September 12 this year is because it is the date of Eid.) In Temecula, California, a group of Tea Partiers called for a rally against a planned mosque and suggested to its participants that they bring dogs, because dogs are considered by some Orthodox Muslims to be unclean. And in Florida, a pastor wants to set up an International Burn a Quran Day on September 11, because he believes, and I quote, that “Islam is of the devil.”

This weekend, the New York Times ran an article that recaps the recent spate of anti-Muslim demonstrations and focuses more specifically on the opposition to the Park51 project, which, in case you have been hiding under a rock, is otherwise (and incorrectly) known as the “Ground Zero mosque.” The article quotes both proponents and opponents of the project, which gives the reader the appearance of balance. But in fact it silences the vast majority of Muslims. Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):

Feeding the resistance is a growing cottage industry of authors and bloggers — some of them former Muslims — who are invited to speak at rallies, sell their books and testify in churches. Their message is that Islam is inherently violent and incompatible with America.

But they have not gone unanswered. In each community, interfaith groups led by Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, rabbis and clergy members of other faiths have defended the mosques. Often, they have been slower to organize than the mosque opponents, but their numbers have usually been larger.

Notice that, in setting up the two groups of proponents and opponents of Park51, the Muslims who get mentioned are “former Muslims”, while the people who bravely stand up for religious freedom include ministers of every faith, except Islam. Are we to believe that no Muslims, whether ministers or not, are taking part in these interfaith groups, even though the matter at hand is an Islamic community center?

I see this kind of silencing everywhere in our media. Politicians constantly talk about the need for “moderate Muslims” to step up, and when they do, as Imam Feisal Abdel Rauf did when he tried to set up this community center, it is the extremists among Muslims—both the religious and the secular—who are given ample room to voice their opinions. Enough.

Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters/New York Times

Quotable: Ralph Ellison

July 26th, 2010

Every few months, an editor will say in an interview that he or she can tell, after reading only two or three pages of a submitted manuscript, whether the writer can write. These pronouncements are usually met with a good deal of skepticism and even some anger. After all, applying this rule provides the quickest way to go through the submission pile. But it’s probably true that, for some writers, you can tell. Take the opening few paragraphs of Invisible Man, for instance.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then, too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those with poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

I think you’ll agree that the voice of the narrator is so powerful it compels you to read what follows. I remember when I read Invisible Man the first time, I felt almost overwhelmed by its artistry–how deeply layered the writing was and how character, voice, setting, time and plot all worked together completely seamlessly. I couldn’t stop reading. And I suspect that that’s what these editors have in mind when they say you can tell.

Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Summer Holidays

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.

The Beautiful Game

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

The Last Station

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

Enfants de la Balle and The Secret Miracle

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.

In Praise of Khaled Mattawa

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.

Events in Michigan

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.

BP Oil Spill: Day 37

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.

Woman At Work

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.

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…

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