Portland Tribune Profile
I was interviewed by the Portland Tribune for their “Person of the Week” feature, and the article came out on Friday, along with a picture of me looking slightly dazed and under-caffeinated. The article is available online, in case you’re curious. Here’s a snippet about the book:
The author part of the identity of Laila Lalami (pronounced LAY-la LA-la-mee) revolves around “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits,” her fiction debut, due out in October from Algonquin Books. The work is set entirely in the Morocco she left behind before pursuing her master’s degree at University College London and her doctorate in linguistics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“Hope” traces the lives of four illegal immigrants in a cramped dinghy heading by night across the eight miles from Africa to Spain. Their dinghy capsizes just short of the beach in Chapter 1. Then the action moves backward and forward in time, which sets up an interesting tension: We wonder how they fared at the same time as we learn what drove them to this desperate measure.
The details are foreign to the Anglo ear: children playing soccer in the slums, judges and school administrators who take cash bribes, a man who regularly beats his wife with an extension cord. There are inevitable references to the food of the poor and drinking mint tea, but there is no verbal luxuriating. The prose is spare and tight, and never descends into cookbookishness.
That’s partly because English is Lalami’s third language. Arabic is her mother tongue, while school was conducted in French. Like Joseph Conrad (the Polish novelist whose best work was in his third language, English), great things are possible for an emigrant who is an avid reader and dedicated writer.
I think I have a long, long, long way to go before I can be compared with Joseph Conrad. And, to clarify a bit on what the reporter wrote, I think I would have written a book (maybe not Hope) whether I’d come to America or not. I’ve written since I was a child, and that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. In fact, I suspect I probably would have finished a book sooner were it not for the distraction of getting a Ph.D. and having to adjust to writing in a language not my own. Then again, my readership if I’d stayed in Morocco would have been a lot smaller than here, so maybe things worked out that way for a reason.