Laila Lalami on Moroccan Literature and Why She Writes in English

Photos from Casablanca, where Lalami's /Secret Son/ is set.

African Writing Online has a strange, funny, and sometimes awkward interview with Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami in its latest issue.

It has some interesting moments, once the beginning awkwardness is over. And besides, it’s an excellent excuse to post some more of Esen’s photographs.

Lalami, who writes in English, speaks about her mother and step-mother tongues:

My mother tongue is Moroccan Arabic–it is the first language I learned and the language we spoke at home.  But when I was about to start kindergarten, my parents put me in a French school, so that I learned French at a very young age.  In fact, French was the language in which I was first exposed to literature, beginning with children’s comics like Tintin and Asterix, through young adult novels like those of Alexandre Dumas, all the way to classics like those of Victor Hugo.  That early dissonance between the world of the imagination and the world of reality is one that has marked me, I think. It wasn’t until I was a teenager, and in public school, that I finally came across Moroccan novels, written by Moroccan authors, and featuring Moroccan characters.  And it was the discovery of these works that enabled me to finally become the kind of writer that I am today.

Unfortunately, the interviewer didn’t ask which novels or writers those were. Ah well. Lalami also takes  a sideways swipe at the fos’ha/3meya divide:

Of course I would have preferred to write in my native language, but most Moroccan novels are actually written inModern Standard Arabic, a form that is learned in school, not at home.And because I went to a French school, I was never really trained to write properly in it, so that it wasn’t a possibility for me.

More Casablanca.

The five Moroccan authors she recommends:

I would recommend Mohamed Choukri, for his searing honesty about his characters’ lives; Tahar Ben Jelloun, for his playful language; Leila Abouzeid, for her keen eye on for the little hypocrisies in people; Fatema Mernissi, for her humor; and Abdellatif Laabi, for his intelligence.

The writer on Lalami’s list who hasn’t been mentioned here before—I guess I thought of her more as a scholar than as a writer—is Fatima Mernissi. A number of her books are available in English; you can read more about her on Wikipedia.

If you’re interested in learning more about Lalami, visit her website. Also, I review her novel Secret Son in some upcoming issue of Wasafiri.