Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits review and some Author Blarney
Her book, a collection of stories, written in straightforward prose, transports the reader into a mint tea suffused part of the world where many of the citizens work yet still live in what I think of as unmenacing poverty, though some, aspiring to better their lot, are ferociously attracted to the 'greener grass' of Spain. Utilising the framework of a perilious journey to be undergone in a rubber boat across the Straits of Gibraltar--a framework which works because it unites each characters dual stories (a 'before' story in Part One and an 'after' story in Part Two)--Lalami introduces us initially to her 'actors' through the eyes of Murad, a man who has paid much for his passage.
Among his fellow travellers is Faten, a devout Muslim--befriended by the sophisticated and wealthy Noura, a girl who takes up wearing the hijab much to her westernized parents horror--who will make it to Spain and a life of prostitution; Halima, a wife whose drive is to escape and divorce her abusive husband; and Aziz who leaves behind a pragmatic wife and dreams of making enough money in Spain to return and found a viable business in his homeland.
After I'd finished her book, the thought occurred that, while I read pretty extensively, I read the work of British, Irish and North American writers in the main. While Lalami is born and raised in Morocco and her book is not translated, nevertheless, the book's setting prompted me to consider what I'm missing by not actively seeking out literature that has been translated into English. In any event, I consider myself fortunate to have come across this book of colorful stories. On a few occasions, I will say I found myself so intrigued by a major secondary character that I found the story's conclusion a tad abrupt because of my need to know more, but such is the author's prerogative as the creator of her characters. The power of these stories lies in their universality:they show us that humanity has the same needs and problems, no matter whether we are rich or poor, or whether we stem from the sophisticated West or the sunwashed medinas of Morocco, and that the crossing of treacherous straits in pursuit of our dreams does not inevitably meet with success or happiness.
Laila, thanks for taking the time to stop by my blog and
answer a few questions about your first book.
Thanks for having me.
DMN: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits examines the lives of four Moroccans who decide to flee their homeland in search of a better life in Spain. What served as your inspiration for these stories and how did you set about doing research?
LL:I don't think my characters' decision is so much a question of flight as it is a quest to improve their lot. There's something of that in all of us, I think, but few of us have had to contend with the particular circumstances that compel my characters to decide to leave. The first time I heard about the boat trips across the Mediterranean was in the 90s, and I thought it would be interesting to write a story about one such trip. But then I realized that writing about the trip itself was a little like trying to look at a painting with my nose up against it. I had to step back and think about the characters's lives before and after. So that's how the book came about.
DMN: Of the various characters in the book, I found myself most drawn to Faten because of her curious blend of assuredness and desire to please, particularly her
desire to please her flatmate in the final part of her tale. Is there one character in the stories with whom you feel a particular affinity and, if so, could you elucidate?
LL: I'm fond of all my characters, even the boat captain (an earlier version of the book had more back story about him and how he ended up in the business of smuggling people.) But I suppose if I had to pick one, it would be Murad. He was the first character I came up with, and the one who stuck around the longest.
DMN: I found that you seasoned your prose with just the right amount of Moroccan to give the stories great texture and vibrancy without interrupting the 'fictional dream' or pace. As a writer from a foreign country too, I also had the similar task
of conveying to the reader the feel of the native language and culture without bogging down the narrative. Was it difficult for you to decide on how much idiom or Moroccan to include in order to reach a necessary or correct balance?
LL: I tried to follow my instincts, to represent the internal thoughts and dialogue of my characters as best as I could. Sometimes, there were words that simply wouldn't work in translation, so I used Arabic. Other times, I chose to use the vernacular to make a point.
DMN: What do you hope people will take away from your book when they reflect?
LL: First, I would hope that they enjoy reading the book. And of course I hope it engages readers. I've been told that my book is political, which sort of surprised me, as this wasn't my goal at all when I wrote it. I was mostly interested in the characters. But I suppose we live in an age when class is so rarely addressed seriously than when it is, it becomes a political statement. Anyway, I have no illusions about changing anyone's mind about anything. I just hope that people get to see the world through my characters' eyes, for a little while.
DMN: Algonquin Books is the publisher of your first book. How did this come about?
LL: In the most traditional of ways, I suppose. I found a literary agent (Stephanie Abou of Global Literary Management) and she sent out my book to several
publishers, including Algonquin. We had some serious interest from several of them, but Algonquin was the most enthusiastic.
DMN: Is it fair to say Morocco is comprised equal part Christians and Arabs and that the cultures live harmoniously? What is the economic situation in Morocco now? Do people still attempt to cross the Straits illegally?
LL: Ethnically speaking, the vast majority of the Moroccan population is a mix of Arab and Berber. The dominant religion is Islam, with small Jewish and Christian
minorities. As far as illegal crossings, yes, they still happen, despite all the drownings. In fact, the majority of would-be migrants these days are non-Moroccans, who travel hundreds of miles through the desert from sub-Saharan Africa, on foot, in order to get to Tangier. They live in hiding or get odd jobs until they can cross. Until people have something better to live for in their own countries, they will
continue to try their luck elsewhere.
DMN: I read that you attended university in England at one point. Where and what did you study, and how did you find student life in the British Isles?
LL: I studied at University College London, for a degree in Linguistics. I was very bookish and somewhat of a loner, but I enjoyed London tremendously.
DMN: You have now begun work on a novel. What differences or unexpected challenges, if any, have you encountered between writing 'Hope' and your new work?
LL: It's tough, man. I'm working on a very difficult chapter now, so it's been excruciatingly slow. With short stories, I found getting the first draft down
somewhat easier, though I revised fastidiously.
Laila also runs the literary blog Moorish Girl.
[technorati: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Laila Lalami, Morocco, Algonquin books,Moorish Girl]
Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits profiles the lives of four very different individuals, all bound for Spain as illegal immigrants. Under the cover of night, Lalami’s characters cross the Strait of Gibraltar together in an inflatable raft after more traditional means of emigrating to Spain from Morocco have proven unsuccessful. Alternating between the past and present day, Lalami tells each passenger’s story and describes the events leading up to his or her decision to leave Morocco for Spain. A land of possibility and a place to reinvent themselves, Spain offers each of these individuals a chance to rewrite their otherwise bleak, predetermined destiny.
Larbi Amrani works for the Moroccan Ministry of Education and is horrified when his daughter Noura begins wearing the hijab and following teachings of the Qur’an. Larbi blames Faten, Noura’s new friend, for the change in his daughter. Faten is a member of the Islamic Student Organization and has been very influential in Noura’s decision not to attend NYU. When Noura tells her father that she no longer wants to study in America but wants to help out at home by becoming a middle-school teacher, Larbi decides to take matters into his own hands and uses his position in the Moroccan Ministry of Education to have Faten expelled from school.
No longer allowed in school and no opportunity for work, Faten secures her spot in the raft bound for Spain. With no credentials to her name, finding a job in Spain proves to be just as difficult as finding a job in Morocco, and Faten soon enters a life of prostitution, fantasizing about what could have been. Empty promises and several conversations with one of her regular customers force Faten to realize that the only person that can truly help her is herself. Longing for old traditions and determined to bring some sense of normalcy back into her life, Faten prepares a traditional Eid holiday meal signifying what she hopes is a new beginning.
Desperate for a divorce that her alcoholic, abusive husband refuses to grant her, Halima Bouhamsa and her three children also make the fourteen-kilometer journey to Spain in the raft. Forced to jump out and swim the remainder of the way to shore, Halima, her children, and the others in the raft are intercepted by the Spanish Guardia Civil and deported back to Morocco. Now jobless and homeless, Halima borrows money and rents a room in a slum outside the city of Casablanca. Unable to find janitorial work, Halima becomes one of hundreds of day workers struggling to survive and provide for their families. Halima’s luck begins to change, however, sparked by her husband Maati finally agreeing to a divorce. Halima is filled with hope, elated that her future now holds some promise.
Wanting so much to make a living and provide for his young wife, Aziz Amor boards the raft for Spain in search of work. After being deported the first time, he spends a few months in Tangier hustling before attempting to emigrate again. The second time he is successful and over the course of five years manages to find enough work to rent himself an apartment in Madrid and send some money home to his family. Finally returning to Morocco for a visit and hoping to bring his wife, Zohra, back to Spain, Aziz finds Casablanca a depressed city, riddled with unemployment, poverty, and backward customs. After an emotional reunion with Zohra and his mother, Aziz paints a rosy picture of Spain for family and friends, neglecting to mention his invisibility in the eyes of native Spaniards. Failing to convince Zohra to return to Madrid with him, Aziz leaves for Spain again alone.
Feeling inadequate as man of the house now that his father is dead, Murad lets himself be convinced by hustler/smuggler Rahal that he can create a better life for himself in Spain. Selling some of this mother’s jewelry to come up with the twenty thousand dirhams necessary to guarantee his place in the raft, Murad sets off for Spain with Faten, Halima, and Aziz. After being deported by the Guardia Civil, Murad returns to his mother’s house in Tangier but is humiliated and refuses to be seen in public. Murad spends several listless months moping around his mother’s house then jumps at the opportunity to help manage a gift shop specializing in traditional Moroccan wares. Happy to be working again, it slowly dawns on Murad that all of his daydreaming and living in the future have made him unaware of the past slipping by.
Vividly depicting the turbulent experiences of four young Muslim immigrants, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is Lalami’s stellar first work. Although two of her characters do succeed in emigrating to Spain, Lalami portrays their lives as not much better than those characters whose attempts at emigration failed. Faten makes it to Madrid but leads a life she is ashamed of; Aziz, who also makes it to Madrid, lives a life of isolation as society is reluctant to accept him. Halima and Murad, both deported back to Morocco, initially fall on hard times but are eventually able to make peace with what life has in store for them. Beautifully written, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits will leave readers yearning for more from this talented novelist.