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Laila Lalami is a is a writer and Hedgebrook alumna. We asked her about her work and about being a Woman Authoring Change.


Tell us about your work as a writer—do you write in multiple genres/forms?

I am the author of three novels, all of them using historical fact as a starting point to explore migration across physical borders or social boundaries. My first book, the collection of linked stories Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is about a group of Moroccan immigrants who try to cross the straits of Gibraltar on a lifeboat. But the boat capsizes just a few yards away from the Spanish shore, and the immigrants are forced to swim in order to survive. The stories explore each of the character’s reasons for leaving their homes, and the outcome of their dangerous crossing. My second book, the novel Secret Son, is about Youssef, a young man from a Casablanca slum who finds out that his real father is a wealthy businessman from across town. As Youssef begins to form a relationship with his father, he is drawn into the embrace of a charismatic political leader who wishes to recruit him for a deadly mission. My most recent novel, The Moor’s Account, is based on the true story of the first black explorer of America, a Moroccan slave known as Estebanico. He was part of the Narváez expedition of 1528, which landed in Florida with the goal of claiming it for the Spanish Crown. Within a year, however, there were only four survivors: three Spanish noblemen and the Moroccan slave. Together, these four men crossed the continent, re-inventing themselves as faith healers in order to survive. The Moor’s Account was published by Pantheon last month.

My nonfiction work falls into four areas of interest: literary criticism, cultural commentary, political analysis, and memoir. My literary criticism appears regularly in The Nation, the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States. I have written essays on American, Middle Eastern, or African novelists such as J.M. Coetzee, Katherine Boo, Abdelfattah Kilito, Sinan Antoon, Tahar Ben Jelloun, and Abdulrazzak Gurnah. My cultural commentary has focused on gender in Islam, civil rights, and immigration. I am also interested in politics of North Africa and the Middle East and have contributed essays and opinion pieces to Foreign Policy, Newsweek International, and The Guardian, among other publications. As for memoir work, it includes personal essays like “So To Speak,” which appeared in World Literature Today or “My Fictional Grandparents,” which was published in The New York Times Magazine.


Do you consider yourself an activist?

I suppose it depends on what you mean by the word. When I see that my government does something I find reprehensible, I protest and petition. I use the platform I have to contribute intelligently to the conversation on freedom of speech, women’s rights, and civil rights in general. But I am wary of being called an activist, because I have no allegiance to any party.


Would you characterize your writing as activist? Why or why not?

My work is engaged with history, whether ancient or recent, so I often get asked whether it’s a proxy for activism. My answer is no. My goal, always, is to tell a good story, and to tell it as truthfully as I can. I remember, some years ago, when my first book came out, a friend told me that she found it to be political. I was surprised by the reaction and asked why. She said that it was because it was about immigration. But I was not writing about immigration as an issue, I was writing about characters who happen to be immigrants. If some readers interpret this as activism, then that’s certainly their prerogative.


What impact do you hope your writing will have in the world?

I want my readers to feel that they have something in common with the stranger, the outsider, the misfit, the other. I want them to look at the world in a novel way.


About Laila Lalami:

Laila Lalami is the author of the novels Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award; Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize longlist, and The Moor’s Account, which was a New York TimesNotable Book, a Wall Street Journal Best Book of the Year, a nominee for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, and a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington PostThe Nation, the Guardian, the New York Times, and in many anthologies. Her work has been translated into ten languages. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Learn more on her website: lailalalami.com



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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

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1 Comment

  • Gail Reitano
    12:03 PM - 11 October, 2015

    I’m inspired by women writing about immigration, assimilation, repression (all kinds) through personal stories. As a fiction/memoir writer I know the power. I can’t help thinking Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel, although for nonfiction, will make more stories see the light of day.

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