Laila Lalami is a novelist and essayist, and currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Born and raised in Morocco, she attended Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, University College in London, and the University of Southern California, where she earned a Ph.D. in linguistics. She is the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and the novel Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize longlist. In this interview with Africa Book Club, she talks about her favorite writers and what it takes to succeed as a writer.
Tell us about yourself. How did you as a Moroccan end up in America?
I’m a Moroccan novelist and essayist. I came to the United States in 1992, to attend graduate school, and have been living and working in California ever since.
Where do you find time to write given your busy schedule?
I write six days a week, usually between 10 am and 4 pm. Of course, when I’m teaching (I’m a professor at the University of California, Riverside), I have to make some adjustments to that schedule. And I’m always reading, both fiction and nonfiction, so that, even if I’m not writing, I’m still refueling the creative engine in some way.
How long did it take to write your first book and what was the most challenging part of that?
It took about two years to write Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I was writing without expectation of being published, so it was a time of great freedom to play with structure and character.
Did the process get any easier with your second and most recent book, Secret Son?
Probably harder. The process of revising the novel was much longer.
It is interesting that you have chosen to write mostly in English, even though you speak French and Arabic just as well, if not more fluently. Why is this so?
There were two reasons. One was that I was doing a Ph.D. in California, and had to write my dissertation in English. Coming home at night and having to switch between the language of fiction and the language of work was getting to be difficult. The other reason is that, over the years, I grew more and more uncomfortable writing fiction in French, the colonial language and the language in which I had received most of my instruction.
I didn’t really set out to write about specific subjects; the themes grew out of writing about specific characters in present-day Morocco. These characters face many temptations, including the temptation to immigrate.
As a writer and as someone who teaches writing, what advice would you give to aspiring writers out there?
There are two pieces of advice I can give. One is to read constantly and eclectically . (You’d be surprised how many people want to become published writers, but don’t think it necessary to read.) The other is to write every day, even if for just an hour. You learn how to write by actually writing, and writing again, and writing some more.
For readers interested in African literature, what would be your top recommendations?
My favorite writer is J.M. Coetzee, so I’m always recommending his work to everyone I know. I have read and re-read, in particular, Waiting for the Barbarians, Disgrace, Life and Times of Michael K, and Elizabeth Costello. I also love the work of Leila Abouzeid (Year of the Elephant), Driss Chraibi (Le Passe Simple, Les Boucs), Mohammed Choukri (For Bread Alone); Mongo Beti (Mission to Kala); and Cheikh Hamidou Kane (Ambiguous Adventure). Among the younger poets and novelists, I’m a fan of Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze; Chris Abani’s Song for Night; Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish; Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men; and Teju Cole’s Open City.
Visit Laila Lalami’s site at www.lailalalami.com