Faculty Profile: Laila Lalami

 Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami

Associate Professor
Creative Writing

College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

E-mail: laila.lalami@ucr.edu

To call UC Riverside Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Laila Lalami a prolific writer is simply an understatement. Whether it is working on a novel, polishing literary criticism or political essays for any one of a number of national publications, or posting to her popular blog, lailalalami.com, the Morocco native is almost always writing.

Lalami’s love for writing began in her formative years in Morocco, but her career was almost derailed by familial expectations before it got started.

“I grew up in a book-loving family so I think I naturally gravitated towards books. I started writing when I was about nine years old, but in those days in Morocco the idea of taking up writing as a career was unthinkable. My parents drilled in me that I had to do something “sensible,” something that would help me earn a living after school,” she said.

She earned her B.A. in English from Universite Mohammed V in Rabat, her M.A. from University College, London, and her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Southern California, then began her career as a linguist for a software company. Writing stories and essays was a hobby pursued solely in her free time. But the pull to devote herself to her writing full time became too strong to ignore, and in 2005 she released her first book, a collection of short stories titled Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. The book has since been translated into Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Norwegian. She recently finished working on her second book, a novel called Secret Son that is due to be published in April 2009.

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits touches on a theme familiar to many Americans: illegal immigration. However, this collection of short stories tells of young people making a harrowing journey by boat from Morocco to Spain, all in search of a better life. While the stories take place half a world away from Southern California, Lalami says there are common themes.

“Spain is the largest recipient of immigrants in Europe, and the United States is the largest in the Americas; voters in both Spain and the United States consistently cite immigration as a concern; politicians in both countries try to get elected on platforms of ‘getting tough on immigrants,’” she said. “Yet people from both Morocco and Mexico continue to risk their lives for the sake of a better future; both are undeterred by high fences or tighter controls; and the two countries both have their own immigration problem to deal with because of the influx of would-be immigrants from the rest of the continent. The reason for these similarities is simple. Immigration is a process that is as old as humanity itself; people have always sought to better their lives by starting over someplace else.”

For her new novel, Lalami did a great deal of research and interviews to provide background for her characters, but then set the research aside to allow her to focus on the creative aspect of writing. “I wanted to inhabit my characters’ lives fully, and, in order to do that, I had to let go of the research.”

While Lalami’s North African upbringing influences both her writing and her teaching, she uses her full life experience to “inform her work.”

“In all my classes, I include a lot of reading materials because I believe that good writers are also good readers. But my choice of texts is informed by my reading experiences. I include not just American literature, but also selections from African, Arab, European and Asian literatures,” she said.

Lalami credits her blog-writing experience for helping her broaden her reading taste. “It has connected me with a number of readers and writers.”

Lalami said she doesn’t have a favorite class, but that one of her joys has been working with “wonderful students who brought in a fresh perspective on some of the reading materials I assigned, and who turned in interesting creative work.”

“Our program tries to help students become better writers,” she added, “Some students come to us with prodigious talent, but need guidance in getting their stories or poems into shape; others take our classes because they love to read, and maybe they’re curious about what we teach, and later discover an affinity for and love of the craft of writing.”

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