Laila Lalami is a Moroccan-born novelist. She is the author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Secret Son, The Moor’s Account, and most recently, The Other Americans. She teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and lives in Los Angeles. Before joining the Zócalo/UCI Forum for the Academy and Public event, “Can Decolonization Explain Everything?,” she sat down in our green room to talk French curse words, her lack of culinary prowess, and her best writing advice.
Where is one place you like to go in all of Morocco?
Probably Tangier. Over the years I’ve tended to go back there more often than the other cities. I have a lot of nice memories of it. It’s because of its location—Tangier is in on the Mediterranean and on the Atlantic. For whatever reason, it’s a city I have kept returning to, for different reasons.
If you were making a decolonization stew, what three ingredients would you throw in?
I cannot cook to save my life! People think that I’m being cute when I say that. But really, I’m the type of person that if I say I want to cook, my husband and my child start looking for menus for what they’re going to order. Just the idea that anything should be a stew is extremely stressful to me! So, nope: I won’t be making a decolonization stew. I realize it’s a huge disappointment because I’m Moroccan so a lot of people expect they’re going to get—it’s such a great cuisine. That gene has completely skipped my generation.
What is some advice you give to your students at UC Riverside?
The advice I give the most often (I don’t know if they want to hear) is to read. Read voraciously, and read eclectically. Read sustained narratives, not just websites and short stories and articles, but works that require long and deep engagement. And do this as a practice; actually take notes about the text. Developing that reading is the single thing that has helped me in my writing. More than anything else, more than other forms of instruction.
You’ve spoken about how unsettling it was that after 9/11 Arabs and Muslims in America had to demonstrate their allegiance. But what is something you can pledge your allegiance to?
Each other. No one is going to survive anything on their own. When you take a look around and you see climate change, the pandemic, and this brutal neoliberal world we live in—you’re not going to make it on your own and you’re going to depend on others. So if I had to pledge my allegiance to anything it would be to each other—to people, not to concepts, not to institutions, not to nations.
What is one of your favorite words in Arabic?
Hanan. I don’t know if there is a clear translation for it. It’s not kindness and it’s not care, it’s something in between.
One of your favorite words in French?
They have such great curse words, is the thing. I hate to tell you. Con—there’s no real equivalent; sort of “what an idiot!”
What do you find beautiful about the world?
Children. Because they’re always the thing that gives me hope, the younger generation. They are the reason that anything changes in the world.