Escape From the Slums

In her powerful debut novel, Secret Son, Laila Lalami—a former blogger and acclaimed short-story writer—paints a portrait of a Moroccan family caught between their timeless aspirations for a better life and 21st-century excesses delivered via satellite TV.

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There would be time away from Morocco to finish her graduate studies, first in London, then in Los Angeles, but Laila Lalami was sure she would return to her native country and pursue a career in teaching, a predictable course for someone so successful in academics. That time of youthful certitude was almost two decades ago, and Lalami’s path since then has defied expectations, including her own, at every turn. “Life,” she says with her ready smile, “happens.”

Youssef’s new life in L.A. is beyond his wildest imaginings—designer jeans, Dunhill cigarettes, willing women, a trainee’s job at a luxury hotel—until it all disappears one morning.

Lalami, 40 years old, makes that observation in Seattle during her second national book tour, a significant milestone in these perilous times for the printed word, one sure to further her reputation as a rising literary figure in the U.S. and Morocco. Lalami’s first collection of stories in 2005— Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits—prompted a blaze of critical praise and mainstream press, including People magazine and USA Today. She has followed that now with a powerful debut novel— Secret Son—that returns to contemporary Morocco and paints an involving portrait of people caught between their timeless aspirations for a better life and 21st-century excesses delivered nonstop via satellite TV.

Lalami is a indeed a teacher, but a teacher of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, an hour east of L.A. in what Joan Didion once described as “a harsher California.” Lalami helps American students start down the tortuous path to literary recognition, although her unlikely passage there may provide more inspiration. Lalami’s vita could include: work for an American software start-up; an early venture into blogging (Moorishgirl) in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks; marriage to an American engineer, a daughter, and dual citizenship; prestigious writing fellowships, including a Fulbright; increasing international notice, including selection this year as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, a rare writer among the 230 notables from many fields, including Tiger Woods, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Lalami is still defying expectations, but many now belong to her readers. She is the first fiction writer from Morocco whose work, written originally in English, has been released in the U.S. by a major publisher. It is not much of a leap to believing she is the Moroccan writer, or at least the designated Moroccan writer for American audiences. That might not have irritated Lalami when she was an unknown blogger offering opinions in her little sliver of the Internet, but now she fiercely resists such presumption.

“There is a lot of writing today about Morocco but, because my books are written in English, I fear that mine will be the only books about Morocco that people here will read,” Lalami emphasizes. “I don’t consider my role to be the spokesman for Morocco—that’s a role I’m trying to avoid. My role, as I see it, is like any novelist’s role: to create the best characters I can in the most powerful drama. I hope that will touch readers, regardless of the setting.”

Secret Son starts out as a simple story. In Lalami’s straightforward prose, it tracks the aspirations of Youssef, a 19-year-old university student and film buff who is hoping education will provide a one-way ticket out of the Casablanca slum where he lives with his doting mother. There is familiar teen-parent conflict under their tin roof, exacerbated by her sudden revelation that Youssef’s father did not die when he was 2, as she had long insisted, but was instead a married man. This “unspeakable secret” unhinges Youssef’s fragile self-image.

The novel’s theme of determined upward mobility seems reinforced when Youssef tracks down his father, a prominent businessmen whose only child is a headstrong daughter named Amal, a college student in Los Angeles. Nabil is enthralled by the son he has always wanted, sets him up in his luxe downtown apartment. Youssef’s new life is beyond his wildest imaginings—designer jeans, Dunhill cigarettes, willing women, a trainee’s job at a luxury hotel—until it all disappears one morning. Nabil’s wife discovers his secret offspring and the chastened husband cuts him off, sending Youssef back to the slums. Secret Son turns darker in tone and more complex, a potent melange of the personal and the political, plus race, class and religion. The depressed former student falls prey to the revenge plottings of “the Party,” a fundamentalist Muslim group headquartered in the slums.

Lalami’s first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, had prompted a Moroccan reader to email: “How dare you write about immigrants?” Secret Son may spawn criticism for writing about residents of a Casablanca slum, because Lalami must have had an upper-class upbringing in Morocco, as suggested by her foreign studies, including a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Southern California. But Lalami’s upbringing was not upper-class and she feels more kinship with Youssef than his half-sister studying in L.A.

As the writer says, “Youssef and I share many things. He loves to read books, he’s taking a degree in English, he speaks it fluently. That allows him to go back and forth, an outsider passing to another world, but being mistaken for who he is not...

“Maybe, in some twisted way, I like to play with readers’ assumptions. Of course, I share some things with Amal, but she is so different from me in more important ways, especially her very privileged existence. I like to play with those differences and then take them to the limit in other directions.”

Secret Son is actually Lalami’s second novel. Her unpublished first novel was a traditional debut, a thinly veiled account of her own life. She has no interest in such storytelling any longer. Lalami is determined to avoid that, just as she strives to avoid many expectations on both sides of the Atlantic. As she explains, “I try to keep readers—whether from Morocco or the U.S.—out of my head because I worry about editing myself or, worse, censoring myself in order to satisfy them. What I try to do is write the kind of book that I myself would want to read.”

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John Douglas Marshall was the longtime book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March.