Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Interview with Laila Lalami, author of Secret Son

Here is the interview I conducted recently with Secret Son author Laila Lalami. She was kind enough to answer my questions about her terrific novel over email a couple of weeks ago.

Click here to read my review of Secret Son.

1. Secret Son is a short novel that packs a punch, and covers a lot of ground in terms of social and political issues in Morocco. Why did you decide to situate your main character, Youssef, the way that you did in terms of his position in Moroccan society?

I remember clearly the moment, six years ago, when I started writing Secret Son. I had this image in my mind of a young man, walking back home in the rain to the shack he shares with his mother, having just watched a movie at a nearby theater. I followed that image for years, trying to figure out who this man was by putting him in increasingly intense dramatic conflicts with people around him. The fact that various social and political issues come up in the novel is probably because these are big concerns of mine. In the process of writing about a troubled character I naturally tend to create a larger context for his personal troubles.

2. What role does religion play in contemporary Moroccan society and why did you make the choices you did about the characters' largely secular Muslim orientation? Were you writing with a Western audience in mind and if so did that influence the choices you made about how to portray Islam?

I would say that religion plays about as large a part in life in Morocco as it does in America, actually. In both countries, for instance, there are politicians who make God and religion a cornerstone of their agenda, and others who are more cagey about it, but there are very few dare to take God and religion completely out of their program. The difference, of course, is that in America state and Church are separate (or, rather, they are supposed to be) while in Morocco there is not as much of a separation. My characters vary in their religious commitments: Youssef and his mother are distinctly less religious than Youssef’s friend Maati or than the activists Hatim and Moussa.

3. What might the non-Muslim reader need to know about Islam to understand the social relationships in the novel? For example, what is a hadith and what role does it play in Islam? What is significant about whether one character drinks alcohol or not? Why did you choose to portray the conservative organization some of the boys join as slightly sinister?

I don’t think the non-Muslim reader needs to know anything at all about Islam in order to understand the social relationships in the novel. That is the beauty of fiction. Fiction takes inside the mind and hearts of characters who can be just like us or entirely different from us, and connect us through imaginative empathy. When a Japanese teen or Chinese mother or an Egyptian teacher is reading a novel by Philip Roth, they don’t need to understand the intricacies of New York society in order to feel a connection with the characters.

4. Youssef's relationship to his father's family is also about the relationship between traditional Moroccan society and Western European and American culture; how does the way this relationship play out reflect this theme? What does it say about a character, for example, that his French is good or bad? Why is this an important social signifier? What other themes were you exploring here and elsewhere in the book?

I think Youssef’s relationship with his father plays out on various levels—personal, social, and political. It’s the personal story of a young man who has an awkward reunion with the father he has never known, but also the story of what happens when Youssef’s eyes are opened to the opulence and corruption that exist within his society and at the stark class differences. For instance, fluency in French is one of several class indicators; the elite in Morocco often speak exclusively in French.

5. A large theme of the novel is the role of social class in determining a person's fate. Is there any hope for Youssef? For his generation or for young people of his social class?

There is always hope, but hope needs to be fed with constant work for social justice. I think what Youssef needs is a stronger stake in society.

6. Without revealing the ending, can you tell me why you decided to end the novel the way you did? I was so surprised when I read the galley that I almost wondered if I might be missing a chapter. Can you talk briefly about what you had in mind for Youssef?

I think that the novel ends when Youssef finally comes to term with his own identity; it is in some ways a tragic ending, but in other ways I think it’s also hopeful, because Youssef finally accepts responsibility for his actions and for who he is.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Really good questions! What a great opportunity to talk to the author - it really illuminated your review yesterday. It must be frustrating, though, I think, when you want to talk about the ending of a book so much but can't because of spoilers!

Zibilee said...

Great interview! I don't really know a lot about the social or political aspects of Morocco, but the description of the book and your cryptic allusions to it's ending have me intrigued. I am going to have to check this one out. Thanks!

Ali said...

Thanks to both of you for the interview!

Can we talk more about the reader's need to understand things about a character's background in order to connect with the characters? Because frankly, I sometimes have a hard time connecting to the New York culture in books, and I'm American. Definitely had a hard time connecting to the main character in Portnoy's Complaint, and decided not to read anything more Philip Roth after that. I also had a hard time grasping some of the decisions Youssef made, which I assumed was because of my own shortcomings in terms of knowledge of his culture and background, but if that knowledge isn't necessary...?

Ali said...

decided not to read anything more by Philip Roth after that...note to self: always preview comments before submitting.

Marie said...

Ali, I agree with you. And I actually disagree with Ms. Lalami that you don't need any insider knowledge of Moroccan or Islamic culture to fully understand what's going on here- which is why I asked her the question. I think connecting to the characters makes a big difference and often it's often possible to do that even when they're from a different culture.

Anna said...

Great interview! I agree with you, Marie, that it's hard to connect with characters or a story without at least a working knowledge of the culture or time period. Still, this one sounds like a great read.

Diary of an Eccentric