Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco, a place whose past and present permeate her writing. A novelist, short story writer, and essayist, Lalami is a unique and confident voice in the conversations about race and immigration that increasingly occupy our national attention. She is a regular contributor to publications including The Nation, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Magazine, weighing in on contemporary issues in the Arab world and North Africa. With “tremendous and powerful” language (Gary Shteyngart) and “carefully-wrought characters” (Paul Yamazaki), Lalami’s fiction confronts the questions of race, displacement, and national identity that she addresses so eloquently in her essays and criticism.
Her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was inspired by a brief article buried deep within a French newspaper. It mentioned, in just a few lines, that fifteen would-be immigrants from Morocco had drowned crossing the Straits of Gibraltar. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is a collection of intimate character portraits of a group of immigrants trying to escape Morocco for a better life in Europe. Lalami explores the overlaps between her own experiences and those of her characters, while offering up a lens through which to view today’s immigration issues. As hundreds of migrants continue to cross the Mediterranean for safer shores—many of them perishing along the way—Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits remains devastatingly timely.
“Lalami skillfully limns the dark recesses of the Muslim world and creates true-to-life characters. With subtlety and grace [she] explores the emotional complexities of the culture they’re trying to escape—one that bears more resemblance to ours than we may imagine.”
Lalami’s novel Secret Son revisits questions of identity and class. The main character is Youssef El Mekki, a shy, bookish young man living in a slum in Casablanca who discovers that his father is a wealthy businessman. When Youssef’s father welcomes him into a sophisticated, highly corrupt world, Youssef must renegotiate complex issues of family, ideology, and society. Lalami’s depiction of contemporary Moroccan life, “illuminating the social, political, religious and poverty issues facing its citizens—especially its still-hopeful young—is both sensitive and startling” (The Los Angeles Times). Secret Son was longlisted for the Orange Prize.
The Moor’s Account was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was longlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. It imagines the life of the first non-native person of color to explore America—a voice entirely absent from our history books. In 1527, a Spanish expedition to Florida met with disaster, leaving only four survivors, among them a Moroccan slave. Years later, the Spaniards wrote and spoke about their ordeal, but the slave—Mustafa al-Zamori, always called Estevanico—never shared his story. Finally, Lalami gives Estevanico a voice in The Moor’s Account, which Reza Aslan, New York Times bestselling author of Zealot and No God But God, calls “a beautiful, rousing tale that would be difficult to believe if it were not actually true.” Salman Rushdie dubbed The Moor’s Account “an absorbing story of one of the first encounters between Spanish conquistadores and Native Americans, a frightening, brutal, and much-falsified history that here, in her brilliantly imagined fiction, is rewritten to give us something that feels very like the truth.”
Her most recent novel, National Book Award finalist The Other Americans, is about the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant in a small California town. The repercussions of his death bring together a diverse cast of characters whose invisible connections—even while they remain deeply divided by race, religion, or class—are slowly revealed. It is at once a family saga, a murder mystery, and a love story, infused with questions about America’s treacherous legacy of violent discrimination. The Other Americans “confirms Lalami’s reputation as one of the country’s most sensitive interrogators, probing at the fault lines in family, and the wider world” (Financial Times). Hailed as “A powerful novel of intolerance and compassion, resilience and weakness, love and loss” by The Economist, the book was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and the Aspen Words Literary Prize, was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Fiction and won the Simpson Family Literary Prize.
Lalami’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Nation, where she is a monthly columnist. Her writing has been translated into ten languages. A graduate of Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, she also attended University College in London and the University of Southern California, where she earned a PhD in linguistics. Lalami has received a Fulbright Fellowship, a British Council Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was awarded the 2019 Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Prize. She teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.
In September 2020, Lalami will publish her next book, Conditional Citizens, a nonfiction book about belonging in America. Using her own journey from Moroccan immigrant to U.S. citizen as a starting point she explores the rights, liberties, and protections that are traditionally associated with American citizenship. Tapping into history, politics, and literature, she elucidates how accidents of birth—such as national origin, race, or gender—that once determined the boundaries of Americanness still cast their shadows today. Throughout the book, she poignantly illustrates how white supremacy survives through adaptation and legislation, maintaining a caste system that keeps the modern equivalent of white male landowners at the top of the social hierarchy. Conditional citizens, she argues, are all the people whom America embraces with one arm, and pushes away with the other. Kiese Laymon praised the book as “a blitz on the way the nation injures and titillates its most vulnerable. ”
Lalami speaks on immigration and borders, the Middle East and North Africa, Islam, Muslim women, and Arab uprisings. She also discusses race in America, especially forgotten histories, and exploration.