Tag Archives: Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami’s second novel, Secret Son

I think that Laila Lalami is a very good writer in her third or fourth language, English. It would be faint praise to bill her as “the best Moroccan-American novelist,” not a category in which there is much competition.

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Her second novel, Secret Son (2009) seems far more linear than Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005), though some very crucial information is supplied out of sequence in Son. It also seems — not least in its title — to have a single protagonist. In the opening part of Hope, there was one, Murad, though his was only one of five backstories that followed (and the four stories of what happened to some of those who were together in the debacle of the opening venture). Most of Secret Son is from the perspective of Youssef, but there are chapters from the perspective of four other characters. Two important scenes are replayed from a second perspective (although I think doing this was a mistake).

The book opens with a flood ending a drought and Youssef El Mekki rescuing the portraits of the father he has never known. Youssef and his friends from the Casablanca slum neighborhood, Maati and Amin, are finishing high school. Maati fails the college entrance test and starts work for the mysterious Party that has opened an Islamist center with a tea shop and sermons. Amin begins law school and Youssef majors in English.

Second Son has been likened to African American classics Native Son and Invisible Man (Lalami’s editor suggested the latter, which drove her to read Ellison’s book, and “son” was not in the title until later still, so is not an homage or an echo). The one scene of a class discussion of a book, however, addresses The Great Gatsby. Youssef sees that Daisy is Jay Gatsby’s dream, an impossible ideal to which he aspires (and IMO an unworthy chimera). His own dreams are thwarted by the society, his station in it, and by such blood relatives as he has.

Youssef aspires to and even beds one of the “Marboro and Mercedes” set, that is, students from affluent backgrounds. He remains an outsider (this was the book’s working title) to the Islamists, the Marxists, and the “Marboro and Mercedes” set, longing to belong somewhere, envying those with fathers and family.

Gradually, he learns more about the background of both his mother and his father, is lifted up and thrown back down, and used in various ways by various people who claim to have his best interests at heart—not least his mother. The childhood friends are out of his life for a while, but become central, way-too central to the denouement.

Much of the pleasure of the book is in the complicated unfolding of relationships in two families, making discussion of what happens and even who are the other major characters spoilers. There is a female character with some of the author’s geographical experience (LA, albeit being an undergraduate math major at UCA, rather than a graduate student in linguistics at USC). Lalami has expressed frustration at assumptions that Amal is autobiographical.

Lalami does not write anything from the perspective of the Angeleño of Brazilian descent, Pedro, but writes convincingly (at least to me) from the perspective of Morrocan males, elite and unemployed. Blaming Mom is a venerable American angle, though smothering mothering seems even more rampant in lower-class Moroccan culture than in middle-class Anglo American culture. Still, I was startled that disaster is laid on the doorstep of a conclave of mothers determined to keep control of their men in a novel written by a woman.

As in Hope, the Islamist movement, the corrupt and brutal government, and the smug Moroccan elite are all shown to be not only disingenuous but dangerous, with the naïve youths of the slums at best pawns, but mostly nonentities. Lalami is interested in telling stories, not in being an analyst of the society in which she was born and grew up. At a book event Q&A, she said: “I am not pretendingt to know my native country, Morocco, any more than anyone else. I am just trying to write the best story that I can.” Nevertheless, the story is set in a place in which some of those in situations of chronic unemployment are aiming to overthrow the corrupt and highly stratified status quo through terrorist attacks, and her imagination is rooted in recognition of the appeals of hedonism and Islamism, often on the same individuals in sequence or simultaneously.

The characters Lalami has imagined in both her novels are interesting, but however indirect the social critique is, they are also inevitably read in part from interest in the milieu of poor Arabs that leads to desperate acts of immigration north to unwelcoming Europe and of terrorist attacks.

©2009, Stephen O.  Murray

Desperate Moroccan attempts to reach Europe

The 2005 novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits was ritten in English by Laila Lalami was born in Rabat in 1968, where she lived through earning a she became an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and author of the popular blog Moorishgirl.


The book has, rightfully, been widely acclaimed both for her literary skills and for insights into those risking their lives to relocate north, across the Strait of Gibraltar rather than the Rio Grande. Showing the hypocrisy of both Islamists and secularists in Morocco has also made the book of wide interest. (It has been translated into six languages, including the languages of her earlier education, Arabic and French.)

Lalami has said that the original stimulus for this fiction was an online Le Monde article about an accident in which fifteen Moroccans drowned trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar on a fishing boat. The characters of her book— thirty passengers crammed into a Zodiac designed to hold eight — are mindful of the disaster and plenty scared when they set off.

The distance between Africa and Europe there is only fourteen and a quarter kilometers (8 miles). I can attest from personal experience that the waters can become turbulent quickly and are not warm. Currents are also treacherous (fortunately, I don’t have personal experience of that).

250 meters from the Spanish coast, the boatman forces the passengers (some of whom cannot swim) out. Some drown, a few make it and get away, while most of the others are captured by the Spanish Guardia Civil and deported back to Morocco.

The novel begins with the trip then backtracks to tell how four of the passengers got to the desperate gamble of paying substantial sums to be ferried (most of the way) across to Spain.

Murad, a multilingual guide, specializing in Paul Bowles tours for Anglophone visitors to Tangier lacks connections to get a job befitting his education (a degree in English like Lalami’s from Université Mohammed V). More direct interference occurred in the education of Faten at the same university. Faten joined an Islamist organization and influenced her friend Noura to don a headscarf, study the Koran, and decide not to go to NYU. Noura’s father is an official in the education bureaucracy and reaches out to have Faten failed. (Faten has received answers to a test from Noura, so her stern ethics are not invariable.)

Halima is fleeing with her children because her drunkard husband who has lost his job won’t grant her a divorce. (Men can divorce women by repeating “I divorce thee” four times, but women have to go to court and even if granted a divorce are rarely given custody of their children.

Aziz leaves his devoted and beautiful wife behind (with his mother) to try to make some money. (He also leaves behind a bosom buddy who also loves him, though Aziz does not seem to realize that they are more than friends, or that Lahcen would like them to be.)


The looking back at disparate characters who were together at disaster recalls Thornton Wilder’s 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge at San Luis Rey to me. His characters perished. Lalami’s survive. One escaped into Spain from the water. Three were deported. One made it into Spain on a later try. (I think it would be plot-spoiling to reveal who is where.)

The stories of the post-crossing-attempt characters fill in more backstory as well as showing them a few years later. Life in Spain is not a paradise for those who are there (one of them with legal status) and remains tough for those surviving in Tangier.

The book is not as grim as my account might suggest. It has a guarded optimism more like Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army than like Tahar Ben Jelloun’s nihilistic Leaving Tangier. There are more than a few ironies to make readers smile and some betterment of some lives recorded. The hope of undocumented migrants leads to dangerous attempts to reach a better life. And the lives of those left behind may be even harder, but hope does keep springing.


In an informative online interview at http://www.wab.org/events/allofrochester/2008/interview.shtml

Lalami noted: “Most of the Moroccans who undertake these journeys are people who have no job opportunities and very few useful educational prospects, whereas I have been very fortunate in receiving a good education (first in Rabat, the capital, and then in London and Los Angeles) and in finding employment…. I think I feel closest to Murad, however, because the whole book grew out of a short story [El Dorado] about him…. In the process of revising this story, I realized I was adding flashbacks of his life before the trip, so I decided to take these flashbacks out and put them in a separate story featuring the same character, but set in a different period of his life. Then I became interested in each of the other people on the boat with Murad and pretty soon I had a collection of stories, each from a different point of view, with the only connecting thread being that these characters make the same decision about emigrating illegally. Still, I felt that something was missing. Then I realized that what I needed was to reach closure with each of these characters, to find out what happened to each of them after the captain abandons them.”

I started taking English in high school, at the age of 15, and majored in English in college. After I moved to the States, I continued writing in French, but it quickly became clear to me that French comes with an enormous colonial baggage when one is writing Moroccan characters. I switched to writing fiction in English in 1996.

I don’t know of any Moroccans who would look to Paul Bowles for a story about Morocco, but it’s certainly true that many American readers might look to Bowles for a story about the country. I think he is a fine prose stylist, but I am not a big fan of his writing because I find it devoid of any compassion for his characters.


©2009, Stephen O. Murray