About Laila

Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She is the author of four novels, including The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. It was on the longlist for the Booker Prizer and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Her most recent novel, The Other Americans, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award in Fiction. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times. She has been awarded fellowships from the British Council, the Fulbright Program, and the Guggenheim Foundation and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. She lives in Los Angeles. Her new book, a work of nonfiction called Conditional Citizens, was published by Pantheon in September 2020.

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I was born to working-class parents in Morocco, and grew up in a house full of books. Neither of my parents went to college, but they read constantly and eclectically–thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, comic books, memoirs–and they passed their love of books to me. I’ve written about my earliest exposure to literature, and the role that colonial history, language, and power played in shaping that encounter, in this essay for World Literature Today.

I hold a Licence ès Lettres in English from Université Mohammed-V (major de promotion); a Master of Arts degree in Linguistics from University College, London; and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Southern California. Currently, I am a professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, where I teach seminars and workshops in fiction and nonfiction.

My first book, the collection of short stories Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (Algonquin, 2005), is about a group of Moroccan immigrants who cross the Mediterranean on a lifeboat. It was published to critical acclaim, was named a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and the John Gardner Fiction Prize, and was adopted as a common read by many colleges and universities.

My second book, the novel Secret Son (Algonquin, 2009), tells the story of a young man from a Casablanca slum who discovers the identity of his real father, leading him on a journey that has devastating personal and political consequences. It was an IndieNext selection, was chosen by The Guardian as a best book on 9/11, and was on the longlist for the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize).

My third book, The Moor’s Account (Pantheon, 2014), is based on the true story of the first black explorer of America, an enslaved man from Morocco who was part of the Narváez expedition to Florida in 1528. The Moor’s Account won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. It was a semi-finalist for the Booker Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Guillermo del Toro liked it! So did Stacey Abrams!

My most recent novel, The Other Americans (Pantheon, 2019), is about the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant in California, which sets off a chain of events that reveals a family’s secrets, a small town’s hypocrisies, and the ties that bind people together. It was a national bestseller, a best-of-the-year selection by NPR, Time, the Washington Post, and Variety, and was named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the 2019 National Book Award in Fiction.

I never expected to become an immigrant or to be writing fiction in English, but these two decisions have had a profound impact on my creative and critical thinking. My fiction frequently deals with themes of home, and my characters tend to be outsiders, people who don’t quite fit in anywhere. My nonfiction falls into three broad categories: book criticism, political commentary, and essays. This work appears regularly in The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the New York Times Magazine.

My first book of nonfiction, Conditional Citizens, was published by Pantheon in September 2020. It was a New York Times‘ Editors’ Choice, was named a best book of the year by Time, NPR, the L.A. Times, and Alta, and was on the longlist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.


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