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.” Ilan Stavans, author of On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language and general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, dubbed The Moor’s Account “a mesmerizing reimagining of one of the foundational chronicles of exploration of the New World and an indictment of the uncontainable hubris displayed by Spanish explorers…a worthy stepchild of Don Quixote de la Mancha.”
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. She teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.
Lalami speaks on immigration, the Middle East and North Africa, Islam, Muslim women, and Arab uprisings. She also discusses race in America, especially forgotten histories, exploration, and cross-cultural encounters. Her next novel, The Other Americans, out in March 2019, is about the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant in a small California town. The Other Americans is at once a family saga, a murder mystery, and a love story, infused with questions about America’s treacherous legacy of violent discrimination. Lalami is also at work on Conditional Citizens, a nonfiction book about belonging in America.
For more information on Laila Lalami, please visit lailalalami.com.