Saturday, September 05, 2009

Beyond FICTION: SECRET SON by Laila Lalami

I’ve been reading Laila Lalami’s writings for a while now, first on her blog (originally called MoorishGirl), then via her short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, now in her first novel, Secret Son. And what strikes me every time—beyond her mastery of English, just one of the languages she speaks—is her lovely ability to make even the most melancholic characters memorable. Secret Son is full of men and women struggling with identity, entitlement and the price one pays for it, loss and the threat of loss…and their ties to each other make their individual stories all the more powerful.

While the men in Laila’s fiction are complex despite their sometimes straightforward class status and related goals, I am most captivated by her female characters. Despite adversity, it’s the women’s strength and wisdom that somehow resonate on the page. This excerpt is from a brief section in Secret Son regarding the main character’s half-sister, Amal:

“She knew the feeling well. After all, her race had been the biggest signifier about her in America. ‘Are there many Arabic women who go on to study in college?’ one of her TAs had asked. Amal did not know whether it would be too impolite to point out that Arabic was a language, not a people. ‘But you don’t look Arab,’ a middle-aged school registrar had said upon finding out that Amal was from Morocco—and she said it in a tone that suggested it was a compliment. … These words added up over time, like grains of sand in a glass jar, telling her she did not belong.”

While a reader never knows what drove a writer to pen a certain passage, I couldn’t help but hope after reading this that Laila—now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside—has learned in all her many moves to navigate such subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of contemporary prejudice. We Americans rarely even try to identify with fellow citizens who happen to be from different cultures. Maybe that’s why I consider Laila’s highly accessible and revealing writings so important—including her recent World Literature Today essay “So To Speak”—and why I’m already looking forward to her next book.