Archive for the ‘personal’ Category

Imagine: On J.M. Coetzee

Monday, September 30th, 2013

Few writers inspire in me as much admiration and respect as J.M. Coetzee, so I was thrilled to have an opportunity to write about his most recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus, for The Nation magazine. Here is how the piece begins:

In 1516, when he was a councilor to Henry VIII, Thomas More published a slim little novel in which he described a society starkly different from his own, a place where education is universal, religious diversity is tolerated, and private property is banned. Citizens elect their prince and can unseat him if he turns tyrannical. The state provides free healthcare for everyone, and the law is so simple that there are no lawyers. For this ideal society, More coined the term Utopia (“no place” in Greek). It sounds enlightened, doesn’t it? But here is the fine print: in Utopia, each household has two slaves, drawn from among criminals or foreign prisoners of war; the prince is always a man; atheism is frowned upon; and women and children have far fewer rights than men.

Still, what enchants about Utopia is More’s dream of an ideal society, a dream shared by poets and prophets, artists and thinkers throughout the ages. In The Republic, Plato wanted the ideal city to be run by philosopher-kings. In Candide, Voltaire situated the perfect society in El Dorado, where there are schools aplenty but no prisons. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels theorized that the future would belong to workers once they had lost their chains. Every era has its utopia. Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try.

The great J.M. Coetzee follows in this tradition in his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, which explores the enduring question of what a just and compassionate world might look like. Over a career that has spanned forty years, the South African novelist (now an Australian citizen) has given us novels that explore the ethical responsibilities of the individual. How a person copes with power—whether political, physical or sexual—is a concern that runs through all his work. His characters often find themselves thrust into situations that force them to take note of, and act against, an injustice they had previously declined to notice. His latest novel offers a new variation on these themes: it focuses not on the drama of an unjust yet ordinary situation, but on an unusually just one.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

(Photo Credit: Basso Canarsa)

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Fictional Grandparents

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

For the New York Times Magazine, I wrote about my attempts to learn more about my mother’s side of the family. Here is how the essay begins:

My mother was abandoned in a French orphanage in Fez in 1941. That year in Morocco, hundreds of people died in an outbreak of the plague; her parents were among the victims. Actually, no, they died in a horrific car crash on the newly built road from Marrakesh to Fez. No, no, no, my grandmother died in childbirth, and my grandfather, mad with grief, gave the baby away. The truth is: I don’t know how my mother ended up in a French orphanage in 1941. The nuns in black habits never told.

Growing up in Rabat, I felt lopsided, like a seesaw no one ever played with. On my father’s side: a large number of uncles, cousins, second cousins, grandaunts, all claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad. On my mother’s side: nothing. No one. Often I imagined my mother’s parents, the man and woman whose blood pulsed in my veins but whom I had never seen.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

Illustration: “My Grandparents, Parents, and I (Family Tree)” by Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo Museums Trust.

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A Cottage of One’s Own

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

I spent the last two weeks of June at Hedgebrook, a women writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island in Washington. In a happy coincidence, I received my editorial letter just as I arrived in Oak Cottage (pictured above), so I was able to make revisions for my new novel while I was there. I loved being in residency—being alone all day, in silence, in a space where I could spread out my manuscript and all my notes was incredibly beneficial.

Now I’ve returned to my ordinary life, made more hectic by a house move, and I miss the silence.

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New Novel: The Moor’s Account

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

How do you get ideas for your novels? This question, or some version of it, comes up at nearly every reading I give. Since the answer this time around is a little unusual, I thought I’d share it with you.

In the fall of 2009, I was working on an essay for The Nation magazine about Christopher Caldwell’s polemic on Muslim immigration, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. As part of my research for the essay, I picked up Anouar Majid’s We Are All Moors, which places recent Muslim immigration in the context of a larger debate around Muslim presence in Europe, a debate that started before the expulsion of Moriscos (Spaniards of Muslim descent) from Spain in 1609.

Halfway through We Are All Moors, I came across a brief mention of a certain Estebanico, a Moroccan slave who was said to be a companion of the explorer Cabeza de Vaca. The story of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca is well known. In 1527, he and several hundred Spaniards landed in Florida as part of the Narváez expedition. The conquistadors were looking for gold, but within a year they became lost in the unfamiliar continent and only four of them survived. Cabeza de Vaca and the other survivors traveled across America, living with Indian tribes for many years. But I had not known about Estebanico, the Moroccan slave.

Why haven’t I heard of him, I wondered. Who was he? What was his real name? How did he end up in this expedition? So I read Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, and was immediately struck by this narrative, by what it emphasized and what it left out. I decided I wanted to write Estebanico’s version of this famed journey. It is now almost four years later, and I am thrilled to report that The Moor’s Account will be published by Pantheon in 2014. I will, of course, have more updates about the book as the publication date draws near.

Image: Alfred Russell, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions Lost on the Shore of the Gulf of Mexico, 1528. The Granger Collection. New York.

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Spring Break

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

A very short break, actually, just three days in Joshua Tree National Park. But, oh, they were glorious.

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Among the Blasphemers

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

The latest issue of The Nation magazine includes an essay I wrote about Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, his memoir of life during the years of the fatwa. More generally, this piece is about how society reacts to blasphemy and what those reactions tell us. Here’s how the essay starts:

The name Salman Rushdie and the word fatwa entered my vocabulary on the same February day in 1989. I was standing in the living room of my parents’ house in Morocco; my uncle, a newspaper rolled under one arm, had just arrived for dinner; my grandmother was sitting on the orange divan, her prayer beads wound on her right hand. Then someone pointed to the television screen and we all turned to look. Young men in the small British city of Bradford were burning copies of a book; the footage was interwoven with photographs of a hunched and dour-looking Khomeini. The ayatollah had found something offensive about a novel—wait, what was it called? Satanic something?—and had decreed that Muslims everywhere were duty-bound to kill its author.

Enter: Rushdie, fatwa.

As it happened, my entire family was Muslim. But to the ayatollah’s chagrin, no one rushed out to find the novelist. We ate dinner and talked about inflation and gas prices. I had grown up in a secular family, but as a teenager I had discovered religion and become a practicing Muslim. Of all those seated around our dinner table that night, the two who would have paid the most attention to a supposed insult against Islam were my grandmother and me. But my grandmother was illiterate and had wisely chosen not to form an opinion on something she had not read. And I loved books more than anything; I could not conceive of burning them.

You can read the rest here. And you can subscribe to the Nation magazine here.

(Photo credit: Syrie Moskowitz)

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The Year in a Snapshot

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

The end of the year is traditionally a time of retrospectives and resolutions, a ritual which I tend to resist, but with the end of my sabbatical and my imminent return to teaching, a bit of stock-taking seems inevitable. I was away from the University of California for a little over six months, which sounds like a very long leave of absence, but of course it went by in a blink. I’ve used the time to work on my new book, especially during my Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, and I’m happy to report that I made significant progress. This novel is much longer than I anticipated when I started it three years ago and certainly the most ambitious project I’ve ever undertaken, but also the most pleasurable writing experience I’ve ever had.

This year, I also wrote a few other things here and there: a short piece for the New York Times on Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder; a review for The Nation of Percival Everett’s Assumption; an essay, also for The Nation, on Katherine Boo’s National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers; and contributions to the Guardian about the Arab revolutions; the Daily Beast on the rape of Amina Filali; The Nation on Islamophobia; and Newsweek on Los Angeles and a return to Morocco.

Most of the reading I’ve done in 2012 was related in some way to my novel, but I’ve also used the time to read for leisure: Joan Didion’s Run River, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, and V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street were particular favorites. I read relatively few books published this year, but those that stand out were G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, Zadie Smith’s NW, and Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton (about which I have an essay coming out soon.) I also read and admired Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, which tells the story of Henry James’s best-known work. This is not a traditional biography; instead, it shows us the writer at work on a single book: how he came to write it, how it relates to other books of the period, and how it was revised many years later.

I have no resolutions for 2013, save for the usual: to write, to read and learn, and to get better at what I do.

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Bright Lights, Small City

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

I have been back at home in Santa Monica for a few days now, but I feel as though I’m still under the spell of the magical time I spent in Marfa. I brought back a kind of energy that still surrounds and propels me, and I wonder if it has something to do with the size of the place. All my life, I’ve lived in big cities: Rabat, London, Los Angeles. But Marfa is a small town in west Texas, with a population of 2,100. Although the Lannan Foundation had graciously lent me a car for the duration of my stay, I walked everywhere I needed to go, whether to the post office, the bookstore or the farmer’s market. Everyone waved hello; everyone was friendly; everyone invited me to the Friday night football game; and everyone was a little mystified that writers go on these things called ‘residencies.’

I did attend Marfa High School’s friday night game. There were only six players on each team, instead of eleven, but the stadium lights shone just as bright. Six-man football, I was told, was the only variant that could be played in such a small town. The Marfa Shorthorns did very well that night, beating the Sanderson Eagles with a score of 55-42. But I was no closer to understanding or even really enjoying the game. (Like all Moroccans, I remain a fan of good old football, played with a round black-and-white ball.) What I enjoyed instead was watching an entire community come together to cheer and support its children.

Above is a picture of my desk. This is where I spent the better part of my time last month, working on my novel. I listened to classical music—Brahms and Rachmaninov were favorites—but I did not mind the unusual sounds of an unfamiliar place. Freight trains, which run through the center of Marfa, blew their horns several times during the day. A murder of crows roosting on the tree in the front yard kept me company in the afternoon. There were also neighborhood dogs. None of them were tethered, and I had to overcome my fear of small canines whenever I stepped out. But I loved, especially, the wild and fearless turkey who visited me from time to time. Maybe it was all this unfamiliarity that gave birth to the energy I brought back with me to the metropolis.

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History as Story

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Some years ago, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company recommended three books I could take with me to keep me company while I was on a promotional tour for Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I bought the books, put them in my suitcase, and then of course read something else entirely. It wasn’t until last week that I pulled the three books that make up Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire from my shelves. This is brilliant, brilliant work. In brief, poetic vignettes, Galeano tells the history of the Americas from ancient times to the present. It seems impossible, doesn’t it, telling the history of an entire continent in just three books? But he does it so well and so sensitively. For each year, he selects one or two events and turns them into a little story, sometimes as short as a paragraph, sometimes as long as two or three pages, but always taking the time to bring characters into relief. I brought the books with me to Marfa, Texas, where I am on residency to work on my new novel.

(Photo credit: Marfa courthouse via West Texas Weekly.)

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Midsummer Days

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

And now, suddenly, it’s August. The last few weeks have gone by in a blur. I’m reading a lot, though, mostly on history. I recently finished Bernal Díaz’s The Conquest of New Spain, an eyewitness account of Hernan Cortés’ conquest of Mexico. (Warning: not for the faint of heart!) I also enjoyed Hassan al-Wazzan’s Description of Africa, a fascinating narrative by the famed Moroccan diplomat of his travels in northern Africa in the early sixteenth century. And I’ve just started Patrick French’s biography of V.S. Naipaul—some wonderful revelations about the writer here, though it does nothing to change my opinion about the man. Other than that, I’m working on my novel, of course, as usual, as ever, and trying to get ready for my residency in Marfa.

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Travels in New Mexico

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Ghost Ranch

I’ve just returned from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I spent a wonderful week with my family. The picture above was taken outside Ghost Ranch, in the small town of Abiquiu, about 50 miles north of Santa Fe. In the distance, you can see Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain that Georgia O’Keeffe spent years and years painting.

In the mountains not far from Abiquiu, we also came across an adobe mosque. It was designed by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy in the late 1970s and is adjacent to an educational center and retreat.

Dar Al Islam

The landscape near Santa Fe is spectacular. We did some hikes in Bandelier National Park, but the big surprise this time was Plaza Blanca, pictured below.

Plaza Blanca

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On Islamophobia

Friday, June 15th, 2012

The Nation

Samar Ali is a lawyer, an activist, a White House fellow, and a public servant who was recently appointed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to serve on his Economic and Community Development office. However, because Ms. Ali is Muslim, Tea Partiers are pressuring the governor to drop the hire, accusing her of being a “financial jihadist.” (The same group staged protests against the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro.) Though this kind of story may seem odd and even ridiculous, it’s becoming more common, which is why The Nation‘s special issue on Islamophobia is so timely. I contributed a piece about how anti-Muslim sentiment is often denied or dismissed. Here’s how the piece starts:

Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.

You can read my essay in full here.

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On Los Angeles

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012


The most recent issue of Newsweek includes a piece I wrote about the city of Los Angeles. Here’s how it starts:

I came to Los Angeles with a suitcase full of books and shoulder pads stuffed with cash. It was 1992, just a few months after the infamous riots, and I was about to start graduate school at the University of Southern California, near the epicenter of the unrest. One of my professors advised me against coming here—I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the substance of his message could be summarized in three words: Drugs! Guns! Violence! I had been warned so often about muggings that I decided to sew some bills inside the shoulder pads of my jacket. I didn’t know a single soul here.

You can read the rest of the piece on the website of Newsweek.

(Photo credit: Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles International Airport, 1964)

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Who Should Have Won the Pulitzer?

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

On April 16, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that there were three finalists for the award in fiction, but no winner—a decision that sparked an outcry in some parts of the literary community. The three finalists were The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace; Swamplandia! by Karen Russell; and Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson. Each book had many vocal supporters, who were understandably upset at seeing their favorite be passed over—and not for another book, but for no book at all.

So the New York Times Magazine asked eight critics and writers, including me, to write about the books they would have chosen for the prize. You can read about our choices here. And you can chime in with your own here.

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I Want Your Vote

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

vote.jpg

I want your vote! And the best part is this: I won’t make you, the voter, any promises I can’t keep. Actually, I won’t make you any promises at all. The editors of World Literature Today have chosen my essay “So to Speak” as one of their five favorites of the past decade. Here is how it begins:

Not long ago, while cleaning out my bedroom closet, I came across a box of old family photographs. I had tied the black-and-white snapshots, dog-eared color photos, and scratched Polaroids in small bundles before moving from Morocco to the United States. There I was at age five, standing with my friend Nabil outside Sainte Marguerite-Marie primary school in Rabat; at age nine, holding on to my father’s hand and squinting at the sun while on vacation in the hill station of Imouzzer; at age eleven, leaning with my mother against the limestone lion sculpture in Ifrane, in the Middle Atlas. But the picture I pulled out from the bundles and displayed in a frame on my desk was the one in which I was six years old and sat in our living room with my head buried in Tintin and the Temple of the Sun.

You can read the essay in full here and, if you like it, you can vote for it here.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

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Event: L.A. Times Festival of Books

Friday, April 20th, 2012

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is this weekend. It’s one of my favorite weekends of the year—there’s something for every kind of reader, plus lots of great food and music. I’ll also be doing a panel on Sunday; here are the details:

3:30 pm
Fiction: Conflicting Identities
Panel with Dana Johnson, Laila Lalami, Nina Revoyr, and Antoine Wilson
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
Annenberg Auditorium
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California

So come on by and say hello. And don’t forget to wear sunscreen.

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On Annawadi

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

My review of Katherine Boo’s amazing book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, appears in the latest issue of The Nation. Here is an excerpt:

During the year I spent in Casablanca, I noticed that slums were discussed in the press almost exclusively with the vocabulary of pathology. The karian were “dangerous.” They were places that “tainted” the city and had to be “eradicated.” One journalist called them “a gangrene”; another urged a “hunt for the slums.” The language became even more antagonistic after a failed terrorist attack in March 2007, when it was revealed that one of the suicide bombers, like those who had attacked the city four years earlier, had come from the slum of Sidi Moumen. I remember vividly a television reporter shoving a microphone in a woman’s face in Sidi Moumen and demanding to know why “your” youths did what they did.

I tell you all this because I want to explain why Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, struck me with the force of a revelation. Unlike other reporters, who come to the slums in brief and harried visits, only when they have news to report or statistics to illustrate, Boo, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has chosen to chronicle the lives of slum-dwellers in the Indian city of Mumbai by spending more than three years with them, patiently listening to them talk about their aspirations, their struggles and their dilemmas.

Here is one dilemma, all the more disturbing for its banality. Fatima Sheikh, a crippled woman, lies on a bed in Burn Ward Number 10 at Cooper Hospital in Mumbai, an IV bag and a used syringe sticking to her skin. Abdul Hakim Husain, the teenager who is accused of pouring kerosene over Fatima’s body and setting it alight, is in the custody of officers from the Sahar Police Station. After assessing the situation, Asha Waghekar, a part-time schoolteacher and full-time fixer, makes what she deems a very fair offer: Abdul Hakim’s parents can pay her 1,000 rupees and she will persuade Fatima to drop the charges.

You can read the full review here, and you can subscribe to The Nation here.

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Event: Chicago

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Hello, readers! I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago on Monday. I’ll be talking about protest movements in Morocco. Details are pasted below:

6:00 PM
Arab Spring: Unfoldings, Refoldings
Panel discussion with Laila Lalami and Ahmed El Shamsy
Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

This will be my first time doing an event in Chicago. If you’re in the area, please come by and say hello!

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Morocco: The Story of a Return

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

The latest issue of Newsweek magazine includes an essay I wrote about returning to Morocco in February, one year after the protests began. Here is how the piece opens:

One afternoon in February, a few hours after I arrived in Casablanca from Los Angeles, I learned that my uncle A., a generous man with a troubled soul, had died. I was putting my shoes on with one hand and checking my phone with the other, already running late for a panel discussion at the Casablanca Book Fair, when I saw the message. I was stunned, not just by the news of his death—he was only 73, after all, and although he suffered from diabetes, he was otherwise healthy—but by the realization that I had missed his funeral.

In the Muslim tradition, a body is interred as soon as possible after death. The hospital notified our family of A.’s passing a little after midnight; by morning, he was already washed, shrouded, and prepared for funeral prayers; by lunchtime he was buried at Martyrs’ Cemetery in Rabat, Morocco’s capital city. Because I had silenced my phone, and because I had slept through my jet lag, I had found out about his death only after he had been laid to rest.

To be an immigrant is to live a divided life—a part of you lives in one country, the other part in another. You speak two languages, read two sets of newspapers, hear the conversations of two nations. You learn to dread the moments when the two worlds come together abruptly—like when your phone rings in the middle of the night. Twice already I have had to find out in this way about the death of a loved one. This time, I was in Morocco, but I had somehow managed to be as absent as if I had remained in America.

You can read the essay in full on the website of Newsweek.

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Breaking the Silence

Friday, March 16th, 2012

On Tuesday, Moroccans tweeters began expressing their outrage at a tragic fait divers that was published in the newspaper Al Massae: a Moroccan teenager killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist. I joined the discussion on Twitter, but I soon noticed that, though well-intentioned, some of the tweets, comments and articles that followed contained inaccuracies and contradictions about the case. I was also enraged at those who preferred for the news to disappear because it’s “shameful.” So I’ve written about the case for the Daily Beast; here is how the piece opens:

“Moroccan Girl Kills Herself After Judge Forces Her To Marry Her Rapist.” This horrific headline, or some version of it, spread from Twitter to traditional news outlets around the world earlier this week. Using the hashtag #RIPAmina, people voiced their outrage and disbelief, and called for a reform of Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code, which was said to enable rapists. But preventing this tragedy from happening again isn’t simply a matter of legal reform. It’s a matter of how cases of rape are handled by Moroccan society at large.

You can read the rest of the piece at the Daily Beast.

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Event: Casablanca

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

A quick post to let you know that I will be at the Casablanca Book Fair this Thursday. Here are the details:

February 16, 2012
5:40 PM
Ecrits d’Amérique
Stand du CCME
Salon du Livre
Rue Tiznit, Face à la Mosquée Hassan II
Casblanca, Morocco

If you are in the area, do stop by and say hello! (I am told the event will be in French.) I should also be at the Dar America booth at 3:30 pm, if you’d like to meet me and get your book signed.

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Some News

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

In my last blog post, I talked about how I’ve been having a hard time with my new novel. I don’t like to complain about my novel–really, who needs more whining from a writer? But that week had been particularly brutal. Now, though, I’ve heard some lovely news, and I thought I’d share that with you too. I’ve been awarded a Lannan Residency Fellowship by the Lannan Foundation for next fall. What this means is that I will finally have that most precious of things: uninterrupted time to work on my book. The fellowship really could not have come at a better moment, so thank you to whoever nominated me for this!

I neglected to mention that, last month, the Guardian asked a few writers, including me, to reflect on the uprisings in the Arab world, one year later. And I also have an essay about Percival Everett’s new novel in this week’s Nation. (The article is only available to subscribers, but you can subscribe to the magazine here, for as little as $10.)

One last thing. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had to contend with several hacking attacks on my website. (As if I didn’t have enough craziness in my life.) So I’ve had to do a few upgrades to security, and I got myself a new design as well, thanks to the brilliant people at Being Wicked. If you’re looking for great web designers, hire them. They’re amazing.

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Mental Health Break

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

I’ve just returned from Death Valley, where I went to decompress a bit after a particularly rough writing week. There’s something about the landscape there that resonates with me—it’s topographically diverse and incredibly peaceful. If you stand still for a moment, you can hear complete silence. Here is a picture of Titus Canyon early in the morning.

Farther down the trail in Titus Canyon:

Then there are the salt flats at Badwater Basin:

A cottonwood tree in Grapevine Canyon:

Ubehebe Crater:

And, lastly, Mustard Canyon:

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On Sexual Harassment

Friday, January 6th, 2012

It’s strange how a memory comes back to haunt you when you least expect it. Last month, I heard about the death of an independence activist and labor-rights advocate in Morocco, and, while everyone I knew was mourning his passing and praising his legacy, I could only think about my encounter with him in an office in Casablanca, years ago. At the time, I was working as a correspondent for a local newspaper and I had gone into the office to do some paperwork. I ran into a friend and we struck up a conversation; this famous man joined us, and eventually my friend left and I was left alone with him in the office.

He sat down on a chair by the open window. It was a bright day in July, and the air was already thick with heat and the smell of car exhaust from the street. He asked me whether the rumor he had heard was true, that I was leaving to go to grad school. “Yes,” I said, “I’m leaving next month.” Peering at me over the rim of his glasses, he said it would be a loss for the newspaper, that I should reconsider. He himself wrote for the newspaper frequently. “You can do your graduate thesis with me,” he said. I had completely forgotten he was a university professor; I knew him mostly through his writing and his activism. I said politely that I already had a project I wanted to work on with a professor I liked in California.

All of a sudden, he grabbed my wrist, and told me to sit on his lap. “No!” I said. “Come on, just for a minute. Sit on my lap.” “No,” I said and pulled my wrist out of his hand. I felt such a confusing mix of emotions: shock and fear, of course, but also horror that this man I admired so much could do such a thing. I was twenty-two; he was old enough to be my father. I walked out of the office and went home that day, but I don’t believe I ever told anyone, at work or at home, about this. Sexual harassment was so prevalent that complaining about it was like complaining about bad weather. Besides, even if I had spoken about this, I would have been the one blamed, not him.

I debated whether to write about this. The man is dead. What does it matter what I think of him? But this happened around the same time as the Herman Cain scandal, when the women who came forward were called “whores” and “sluts” by Cain’s supporters. And I realized that silence is what binds all these men together. Silence is what they count on, what allows them to continue.

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Refund UC

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

The last few weeks have been difficult but also instructive for me, both as an educator and as a citizen. I’m a professor at the University of California—the best public university system in the nation— and have of course been following news of its funding crisis. I’ve written about it here and here, and for The Nation here. Throughout all this, I’ve wanted to believe that, though we had different ideas and opinions, the administration, the faculty, the staff, and the students essentially had a common goal: refunding the university, so that it can fulfill its mission of public education.

But when the chancellor of UC Berkeley sends campus police and Alameda county sheriffs to beat and then chase students, faculty, and staff from a space in which they had peacefully gathered—a space, it must be noted, which was built for these very people—I have to question that belief. And when a police officer nonchalantly pepper sprays seated protesters, and the chancellor of UC Davis claims, in spite of visual evidence to the contrary, that such police action was justified, I have to reject that belief.

President Yudof says that he’s “appalled” by images of violence against students and that he’s committed to protecting “the rights of our students, faculty & staff to engage in non-violent protest.” But he has taken no decisive action. Instead, he’s put former LAPD chief William Bratton in charge of a “fact-finding” mission.

Here are a few facts. Right now, I have students who are forced to drop out because they can’t afford their tuition. I have students who borrow money at rates they cannot possibly afford in order to finish their degrees, setting themselves up for a lifetime of debt. My department shares staff with three other departments, which means that our staff have three times the workload for the same pay. The phones on our floor were removed last year as a “cost-cutting measure.” I could go on and on. And the UC Regents’ answer? They are looking at a plan that would raise tuition by as much as 16% annually, for a cumulative total of 81% (yes, 81%) over 4 years.

And it would appear that our administration doesn’t mind replacing state funds with student tuition, because state funds come with restrictions (e.g. they have to be used for instructional purposes only) whereas student tuition can be used for anything (e.g servicing debt.) So students will be paying much more money, but they won’t necessarily see a proportional improvement in their classroom experiences. What the current Regents’ plan shows is that, in fact, we—administration, faculty, staff, students—may not all share a common goal; we may not all believe in the virtues of higher public education.

The students make up the majority of the university community. They are what gives the university its raison d’être. What a shame that they are the ones being made to carry the full cost of disinvestment.

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Dichotomy

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

There is a passage in John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” that has always haunted me. (The story, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, can be found in The Stories of John Cheever. It’s narrated by a middle-aged high school teacher, an optimistic and unreflecting man. The setting is a family home on the shore of a Massachusetts island, where the narrator’s mother and siblings get together for a summer holiday. Three of the siblings get along reasonably well, but the fourth, Lawrence, is disliked by everyone because of his pessimism. The siblings refer to him, variously, as “Tifty,” “Croaker,” and “Little Jesus.”) Near the end of the story, the narrator tries to talk Lawrence out of his gloominess:

I let him get ahead again and I walked behind him, looking at his shoulders and thinking of all the goodbyes he had made. When Father drowned, he went to church and said goodbye to Father. It was only three years later that he concluded that Mother was frivolous and said goodbye to her. In his freshman year at college, he had been good friends with his roommate, but the man drank too much, and at the beginning of the spring term Lawrence changed roommates and said goodbye to his friend. When he had been in college for two years, he concluded that the atmosphere was too sequestered and he said goodbye to Yale. He enrolled at Columbia and got his law degree there, but he found his first employer dishonest and at the end of six months he said goodbye to a good job. He married Ruth in City Hall and said goodbye to the Protestant Episcopal Church; they went to live on a back street in Tuckahoe and said goodbye to the middle class. In 1938, he went to Washington to work as a government lawyer, saying goodbye to private enterprise, but after eight months in Washington he concluded that the Roosevelt administration was sentimental and he said goodbye to it. They left Washington for a suburb of Chicago, where he said goodbye to his neighbors, one by one, on counts of drunkenness, boorishness, and stupidity. He said goodbye to Chicago and went to Kansas; he said goodbye to Cleveland and come East again, stopping at Laud’s Head long enough to say goodbye to the sea. It was elegiac and it was bigoted and narrow, it mistook circumspection for character, and I wanted to help him. “Come out of it,” I said. “Come out of it, Tifty.”

I have seemingly nothing in common with Lawrence, not even this tendency to say goodbye to everyone and everything. And yet the impulse behind his saying goodbye is one that I recognize, one that I have lived with and struggled with for many years. I think it comes from expecting so much from oneself, from others, from the world in general, which is nothing if not a guarantee of disappointment. But I also have moments when I identify with the narrator, who seems to enjoy the life he has—he swims, plays tennis, goes to a party with his wife, and generally tries to have a good time—without expecting anything else. By the end of “Goodbye, My Brother,” the narrator lashes out at Lawrence, who leaves the island. Only then does the narrator reflect:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming — Diana and Helen — and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

One brother is consumed with obsessive rumination; the other is after constant gratification. One is given to despair; the other to hope. One lives in the past; the other in the present. Perhaps the reason I identify with both is that I see myself in both.

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Mysteries of the English Stress System

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, Maud Newton linked to a short list of English words Nabokov reportedly found difficult to pronounce. The diacritical marks were meant to help him remember which syllable was to receive stress:

prívet
clématis
bígoted
pólypany
múltiple
cátechism
sólace
péctoral
Botocúdos
málleable
nastúrtium

In high school, I learned English from other non-native speakers (two of them Moroccans, one a Belgian). In college, I had three British professors, but the rest were Moroccan: some spoke with a British accent, others with an American one, depending on where they had done their graduate studies. All this made for a thoroughly confusing mix of regional dialects and foreign accents. So when I moved to London to attend UCL, I was never entirely sure how to pronounce certain words, words I had come across before mostly in print, like incredulous and mandatory, or words with Greek and Latin roots, like anthropomorphic and debilitating. Then there were the baffling exceptions, like Gloucester and Leicester, which didn’t sound at all the way they were written. But eventually, my ear grew accustomed to British English. Then I arrived in Los Angeles. And, oh, the words that gave me trouble! Like delicatessen and Mississippi and coroner and a dozen others. But I always relied on mental diacritics. I never had a list like the one above—a little snapshot of personal history.

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Common Readings

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Recently, NPR’s Talk of the Nation did a series of segments on “common reads.” (These are programs in which incoming college freshmen in the U.S. are required to read the same book over the summer holiday and then discuss it in their first few classes.) Popular selections this year include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Other Wes Moore, and Guns, Germs, and Steel, among others.

Now, I didn’t do my undergraduate studies in the United States, so I had no idea what “common readings” were until Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits was selected for the Life of the Mind program at the University of Tennessee, back in 2006. Over the course of three days, I visited the campus, spoke to several classes, and gave a public lecture. Since then, I’ve done quite a few common readings, the most recent of which was earlier this week at Wingate University in North Carolina, where first-year students (a term I much prefer to “freshmen”) read Hope. I always find it fun to talk to younger students about the book; they always have the most interesting (and often unusual!) questions.

Photo credit: Ibarionex Perello. This was taken at a reading at the now defunct Dutton’s Books.

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End of Summer

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

The weather was wonderfully hot in Santa Monica all of last week, as if to reassure me that I could hold on to summer for a little while longer. But today it’s noticeably cooler, and there is a chance of thunderstorms. The quarter at UC will be starting in just a couple of weeks. Part of me is excited about the prospect of being on campus again–there’s such a great energy the classroom. But part of me still wants to hold on to summer, and to my long days of reading and writing.

Speaking of writing, I have a short story this week in the Guardian. It’s called “Echo,” and is part of a series on 9/11 fiction that also features the work of Geoff Dyer, Kamila Shamsie, and Helon Habila. (I know that, by now, you must all be sick of hearing about 9/11 reading lists, or 9/11 photographs, or 9/11 retrospectives. But this story doesn’t even mention 9/11. Really. Have a read!)

In other news, I also received in the mail this week copies of the Granta Book of the African Short Story, where “Homecoming,” one of the stories from my collection, is reprinted. I’m amazed at how much love Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits continues to get, even this many years after its publication. (I wish I could tell my younger self, when she was receiving rejection after rejection for that particular story, that someday its time would come.)

And if fiction isn’t really your cup of tea, you can also find me in The Nation, discussing Moroccan “exceptionalism.” For now, I have to start getting ready for fall: syllabi, reading lists, and sensible shoes.

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Industrio Ad Infinitum

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

I haven’t posted much on the blog lately, mostly because the last few weeks have been extraordinarily busy. I wrote about press freedoms for Newsweek, music festivals in Morocco for Foreign Policy, and the enduring mythology of Tangier for Time. I also reviewed Leila Ahmed’s new book, A Quiet Revolution, for the Los Angeles Times. And in between writing all of this, I went on holiday for a week. But things should be settling down now. (I hope.)

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