Author and blogger
Born in Rabat, Morocco; children: one daughter. Education: Université Mohammed V, B.A.; University College, London, England, M.A.; University of Southern California, Ph.D.
Addresses: Agent—Stephanie Abou, Joy Harris Agency, 156 Fifth Ave., Ste. 617, New York, NY 10010-7002. Home—Portland, OR.
Contributor of articles to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Nation, Boston Globe, Oregonian, and Baltimore Review; founder and editor of the blog MoorishGirl.com; published first novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, 2005.
Laila Lalami's first novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, won critical acclaim when it appeared in 2005. A journalist and editor of the blog MoorishGirl.com, Lalami switched to fiction as a way to challenge oft-repeated accounts of Muslims and Arabic-speaking peoples in the media, which she characterized as "stories about the veils, the bombs, and the billionaires," she told Charlotte Abbott in Publishers Weekly. Most critics felt she had succeeded, and admirably, in her goal. Chicago Tribune writer Kathryn Masterson called Lalami "a sharp observer of the human condition, and she infuses her characters with universal emotions that make us see ourselves in these others."
Lalami was born in Rabat, Morocco's capital, and received her undergraduate degree in English from the city's Universiteé Mohammed V. After a stint in London, England, where she earned a master's degree from University College, she entered the doctoral studies program in linguistics at the University of Southern California, which granted her a Ph.D. Eventually, she settled in Portland, Oregon, and became a mother. She began to contribute articles to periodicals such as the Nation, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times.
In 1997, Lalami wrote a satirical piece titled "Why Hollywood Owes Me Money" that was published in the Los Angeles Times. In it, she channeled her anger over a new Hollywood action movie into a humorous send-up that skewered the stereotypes of Middle Eastern or Arabic characters as the stock villains in films like Operation Condor. She offered a quick "how-to" guide for future action-flick projects: the characters "must all have easily recognizable names like Ali, Abdul, or Mustapha…. The rest of the Arab characters in your movie can simply be called Terrorist #1, Terrorist #2, Terrorist #3 and so forth, as their roles will be limited to brandishing their fists, AK-47s, or the Koran, depending on the situation." Later down on her list, she also explains that the bad guys must be planning to use a bomb or explosives against unsuspecting civilians. "In all cases, you must make it clear that the motive has to do with holy war," she wrote.
Lalami decided to launch a literary Web log, or "blog," she called MoorishGirl.com soon after the real-life catastrophe of 9/11. Its title was a nod to the comments her Moroccan heritage sometimes prompted in others once she left her homeland. Britons and Americans, she noted on the blog's FAQ, would "ask, very innocently, if I'm Moorish, even though it's an antiquated term. I was trying to come up with a name for the blog, and thought I'd play on that a little." The site was a compilation of news stories from around the world, along with commentary by her or others, that focused on Islamic and Arabic politics and culture.
In 2005, Lalami published her first novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Its plot centers around a relatively brief but perilous sea crossing that several Moroccans undertake in an attempt to reach Spain, cramped together on an inflatable raft rigged with an outboard motor. For the journey across the 8.7-mile Strait of Gibraltar, each has paid the smuggler who captains the craft an enormous sum, and the novel is actually a series of stories about four of the passengers that recount, in flashback, each of their decisions to attempt the dangerous crossing. There is Murad, a young man from Tangier with a college degree who scrapes by with tour-guide work; he dreams of "what he would do once he was on the other side, imagining the job, the car, the house," Lalami writes. "Other days, he could think only about the coast guards, the ice-cold water, the money he'd have to borrow, and he'd wonder how 14 kilometers could separate not just two countries, but two wholly different universes."
Also unemployed is middle-aged Aziz, who has long been shamed by the fact that his wife must be the family breadwinner. He hopes to earn enough in Spain to send for his family. The reverse of that story is Halima's, a cleaning woman in Casablanca who has fled an abusive marriage and brought along her three young children. Finally, there is Faten, a young, devout Muslim woman who wears the hijab, or traditional head covering that some of the stricter Islamic nations require by law for women in public. Faten's tale is recounted through the voice of two middle-class Moroccans, the parents of her friend, Noura. They were alarmed when Noura began to wear the hijab as well, and manage to use their connections to have Faten expelled from the university.
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits earned terrific reviews. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Masterson asserted that "Lalami has a gift for setting, and through skillful description and tight pacing, she puts readers on the boat…. We see the passengers huddled together in the tiny vessel, smell the vomit when one gets seasick, feel the fear when the boat's motor stalls. And when the smuggler orders the passengers out of the boat 250 meters from land, Lalami puts us into a moment of sheer panic." Asra Nomani, who reviewed it for People, called Lalami "a captivating storyteller" whose writing is marked by "subtlety and grace." A Publishers Weekly contributor also commended Lalami's debut as a novelist, especially for giving voice to the other side of illegal immigration, and lauded the story as one that "gives outsiders a glimpse of some of Moroccan society's strata and the desperation that underlies many ordinary lives."
Asked whether MoorishGirl.com had led directly to her book contract, Lalami told Abbott in the Publishers Weekly interview that she submitted a manuscript first to a literary agent, who then sent it onward. "I don't think my editor or the publisher had heard of my blog," she said. "That made me feel good, because it meant they were responding to the prose and the story."
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 2005.
Lalami, Laila, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 2005.
Booklist, August 1, 2005, p. 1964.
Chicago Tribune, November 16, 2005.
Houston Chronicle, January 15, 2006, p. 24.
Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1997.
Nation, June 19, 2006.
People, October 5, 2005, p. 53.
Publishers Weekly, August 8, 2005, p. 209, p. 211.
School Library Journal, December 1, 2005, p. 178.
MoorishGirl.com, http://www.moorishgirl.com (July 27, 2006).