Laila Lalami On Writing “Secret Son”

Laila Lalami On Writing “Secret Son”

Laila Lalami

Writer Laila Lalami

Some of you may have heard of Laila Lalami, some of you might not, however here at Farafina we like to celebrate our family of friends, authors, writers, book readers, and Laila just so happens to be one of them.  Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She studied Linguistics at Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, University College London, and the University of Southern California and her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship. She was short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing (the “African Booker”) in 2006 and for the National Book Critics’ Circle Nona Balakian Award in 2009. Her debut collection of short stories, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was published in the fall of 2005 and has since been translated into into six languages. Her first novel, Secret Son, was published in the spring of 2009. She is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside.

Secret Son has just been listed on the longlist of the Orange Prize (congrats!) and below, Laila in her own words gives us a look behind the scenes of writing the book.

About the Book

I remember clearly the day I began working on the manuscript that became Secret Son. I was still revisingHope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, but I longed to try my hand at something new. At the time, I was living in Portland, Oregon. It was raining. (Of course, it always rains in Portland, so this was a wholly unremarkable day.) I took my notebook into the dark living room, sat by the fireplace, and started writing. I had a blurry image in my mind of a young man; hands stuffed in his pockets, he was walking home to the shack he shares with his mother after watching a movie at a nearby theater.

Book CoverI followed that image and others like it, pixel by pixel, for the next five years, finding out more about this character as I went along. Youssef El Mekki—for that turned out to be his name—was shy, bookish, gullible, by turns sensitive to others’ feelings and oblivious to them. Early on in the novel, he finds out that his long deceased father, whom he believed was a poor, respected schoolteacher, is in fact Nabil Amrani, a wealthy businessman living in the same sprawling city of Casablanca. Youssef sets out to find Nabil and, much to his surprise, is welcomed into his father’s liberal, sophisticated, yet highly corrupt world.

The story of the illegitimate son has been told many times, and with the increasing liberalization of social mores it may seem to some readers to be quaint, or even outmoded, but in Morocco, where societal constraints still retain some of their power, the story of Youssef is at once believable and ordinary. Believability, however, was not an overriding concern for me. What mattered more to me was the emotional weight of the novel, whether it had the ability to move me both as a writer and as a reader.

Because the main story was set against a background of Islamic fundamentalism and corrupt liberalism, I thought at first that those thematic concerns would be the main driving force in the book. Eventually, though, I came to see that in fact the novel was about other things altogether. It was about belonging, about the complications and difficulties of individual identity in an increasingly messy, sectarian, and global world. Youssef has to negotiate competing allegiances of family, society, and ideology, and I think I was interested to see whether he would reach any definitive answers.

Secret Son is also about truth. None of the main characters in this novel are exactly who they seem to be—Youssef El Mekki is not the son of a schoolteacher; Amal Amrani is not living the life her family thinks she does; Rachida Ouchak is not exactly the orphan she has told her son she was; and Nabil Amrani is not the upstanding husband and father he has always pretended to be. Like all of us, Youssef relies on appearances in order to learn things about the world around him, but his perceptions of the world are, by definition, limited. Ultimately, he learns it is dangerous to believe that the truth is simply the sum total of one’s perceptions.

Of course, as in some of my earlier work, Secret Son explores issues of class. The novel chronicles Youssef El Mekki’s rise in society, from the slums outside Casablanca to a penthouse apartment with a view of the King Hassan mosque. Shifting from poverty to wealth does not relieve him of his invisibility, however. He remains a secret, hidden away from the world. And in some sense he is still dependent on his father and can’t seem to reach a stage of complete independence.

It took me nearly five years to finish writing Secret Son, and although I am sometimes frustrated with myself for the glacial pace of my writing, I am very grateful for the opportunities that this book opened up for me. It gave me the chance to write from multiple points of view, including that of a young, urban male in Morocco; a sophisticated female expat in America; a middle-aged businessman; and a single mother.

I had to rely wholly on imaginative empathy to create these characters, though inevitably I share a few traits, feelings, or habits with them. Youssef studies English at a university in Morocco, as did I; his mother is an orphan who was raised in a French institution in Fès, as was mine; he is gullible, as, unfortunately, am I; he speaks French fluently, as do I; yet he never quite feels at home with the French-educated elite, and neither do I. Still, even these small personal details have been rewritten and shaped and edited to serve the needs of my story.

More importantly, Secret Son gave me the opportunity to grow as a writer, to tell, better than I had before, an engaging, complex, and truthful story. My hope is that readers find the same as well.


You can buy Laila’s books from and Barnes & Noble online.  In Nigeria unfortunately, you may have to order it.

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