Hopes and dreams are the stuff of calculations, and conditional clauses; if I do x, then hopefully y will come my way. For the characters in Laila Lalami’s elegant novel Hope and other dangerous pursuits hopes and dreams have another more fundamental element – geography. All the calculations and aspirations of the characters rest on one condition first, achieving distance from their native Morocco (even the wealthy Larbi Amrani thinks in terms of his daughter studying in New York).
As politicians in Europe and the United States increasingly warn of the dangers of immigration, Lalami’s novel is a timely look at real lives affected on the other side of our borders. Born and raised in Rabat in Morocco, Lalami began the novel whilst working as a linguist in Los Angeles. The impetus came from reading a report relegated to the back pages of Le Monde about fifteen Moroccan immigrants who had drowned while trying to navigate the ten mile stretch that separates Morocco from Spain, or Europe from Africa. Just one of numerous articles that appear in the pages of Spanish, French, and Italian newspapers with tragic regularity.
Writing in the New York Book Review about the novel,Pankaj Mishra commented “Lalami focuses on specificity and distrusts large abstractions – the abstractions that have become of the greatest importance in understanding the diverse political and cultural choices of Muslims, who seem lately to have become subject to wilder generalizations than would be deemed intellectually respectable for non-Muslims. She offers no false optimism.”
Ms Lalami, who as well as being a novelist, respected critic and much-read blogger, is also assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, was kind enough to respond to our questions by email for the following interview:
The title of the book, like much of the prose of the book, is muscular, to the point, and yet poetic at the same time. It puts hope firmly on the agenda for discussion, while also implicitly ruling it out. Against this backdrop, moved by the book and in particular its ending, I find it hard to decide whether the book’s conclusion is optimistic or pessimistic. What made you choose the title?
I wanted a title that would contain both the positive and negative aspects of the immigration experience. Although they come from different cities in Morocco and although they are leaving the country for different reasons, my characters all share a deep hope of a better tomorrow. What intrigued me was the idea that they were risking their very lives for the sake of a better life. A very dangerous gamble. So I wanted a title that had both hope and danger in it, which is how it came about.
Let’s talk a bit about Faten, one of the characters who intrigued me the most in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. You approach her almost shyly, recounting her life, before crossing the sea into Spain, mainly through the prism of Larbi Amrani, whilst the other 3 characters are presented directly. What made you choose this approach, which works brilliantly but has the ever-present risk of upsetting the symmetry of the novel?
The character of Faten was probably the hardest to write. The issue of religious fundamentalism is constantly present in the news media and therefore readers have particular expectations of these kinds of stories. The Muslim headscarf is often associated with religious fundamentalism, which is itself connected to Islamic terrorism, so to write about a woman who chooses to cover and make her a whole, unique, complex character that defies readers’ expectations was not always easy. And it was also difficult because I am not particularly observant myself, so I had to really explore all that in her character. It’s true that choosing another character to tell the first part of Faten’s story slightly upsets the symmetry in the book, but I think that this choice works well on another level. “The Fanatic” is ultimately a story about hypocrisy. Presenting Faten first through someone else’s eyes and then through her own eyes helps me question the reader’s assumptions about her.
Milan Kundera, in his latest book of essays The Curtain, wrote of the novel as a literary form: “It refuses to exist as illustration of an historical era, as description of a society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of what only the novel can say”. Would you agree? In a multi-media age is there really anything that only the novel can say?
Absolutely. The novel is the only art form that enables a person to create a set of individual mental images and unique interpretations of a story.
There’s a great moment, towards the end of the book, when Murad is reading an undisclosed novel set in Tangier: “He’d caught himself editing the author’s prose – correcting an inaccurate reference and rewording the characters’ dialogue – but that wasn’t it. Something was missing”. Can we talk a bit about that missing something?
I suppose this is an experience I’ve had myself when I’ve read works set in Morocco, so I think I put it in Murad’s perspective. Much of what is written about Morocco isn’t necessarily written for Moroccans, so of course sometimes I find things that pull me out of the narrative.
Speaking at google, you talked about your background and how you came to write in English, and the distance it affords you as a writer. How important is distance for a novelist?
I think it can be quite important for those of us who live outside their ancestral homelands to retain a little bit of distance because it’s so easy to get homesick and nostalgic and put on rose-colored glasses. I try to write as if I were still living in Morocco (in fact, I did live in Morocco all of last year, but you see what I mean).
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is set firmly in Morocco (and Spain), but its themes translate worldwide, wherever the boundary between poverty and wealth is physically slight but realistically almost impassable. How important was it for you to ground the story with specific details that the Moroccan setting affords? For example, did you ever consider locating the story in a nameless context between north and south?
No. I wanted to be as specific as possible, to write about specific characters, facing specific challenges. If the themes translate to a universal dimension, then I think it is precisely because of specificity. What makes a person human in Casablanca is exactly what makes a person human in Madrid or Bogota or Lagos or Shanghai or New York.
You took Martin Amis to task soundly on the pages of Comment is Free for his pronouncements on ‘horrorism’. Is it a mistake for a novelist to stray from narrative into direct political commentary? For example, can you read and appreciate Amis’s novels in the same light, having read his recent forays into social commentary?
No, I don’t think it’s a mistake at all. I admire and appreciate the fact that he tries to write about the world around him; I just happen to disagree very strongly with his views. And of course that doesn’t mean I can’t read his novels on their own merits.
You’re an author and a blogger – as opposed to an author with a blog. What drives you to blog, and do you ever worry about the supposed risk that regular blogging reveals too much of a writer’s personality (thus adding certainty where ambiguity should, perhaps, reign)?
That’s an interesting distinction. I have been writing all of
my life, and have blogged for the last seven years. I blog because I like to have a space in which to record my thoughts and opinions about literature or culture or world events. It has been a (mostly) wonderful experience. It’s helped broaden my reading tastes, and it has connected me with a number of readers and writers. As for revealing too much of a writer’s personality, I don’t write at all about my personal life. It’s a policy I’ve had for a long time.
There is, it seems to me, a very pronounced split in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits along gender lines. All the characters have their individual struggles, but the two women Faten and Halima face undoubtedly harsher challenges and face them with more resolve. While both Aziz and Murad spend time drinking coffee and pondering their fate, both Faten and Halima face their futures head on. Would it be fair to consider the book a feminist novel?
Yes, I think so.
Finally, a less long-winded but perhaps more difficult question: What writers have meant most to you as a novelist, and why?
I always find it hard to pinpoint specific literary influences, because in some way everything that I read or experience or see influences me. Writers I have always admired include Mohammed Choukri, Driss Chraibi, Leila Abouzeid, Chinua Achebe, Tayeb Salih, J.M. Coetzee, Ahdaf Soueif, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and many, many others.