Watch the Video
Laila Lalami speaks at the 2016 National Book Festival.
about the author
Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She is the author of the novels Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award; Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize longlist; and The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. It was on the Man Booker Prize longlist and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, The Guardian, The New York Times, and in many anthologies. She writes the “Between the Lines” column for The Nation magazine and is a critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times. The recipient of a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.
The Reading from the Author
Resources & Discussion
Use the following readings and prompts to inspire student writing.
The previous reading was sourced from Dinarzad’s Children, edited by Pauline Kaldas and Khaled Mattawa
- What can you tell about narrator’s relationship to her mother on page one?
- How do their actions show this?
- What does she do with her father?
- Why doesn’t he swear her to secrecy?
- Why is the daughter more like her father?
- What is the the “shocker”?
- Why and how does she become her mother’s daughter?
- Are there other rites of passage the narrator shares with her mother? What are the events, rites she experiences with her father?
- What is the larger story about?
- What do you understand about the mother’s character by the end of the story?
Now You Try
Have you ever had a moment when you realized you have something in common with your mother or father? A talent? A habit (possibly annoying), a physical feature or personalty or emotional trait? When was the moment you realized this? Did it give you insight into the parent? Into yourself? Both? Consider the following:
- Was the moment you realized this a rite of passage or something less significant?
- Did it give you insight into yourself? Into your mother?
- What was the moment that you realized this?
- Was it a rite of passage?
- How are you like your mother or father? Think about positive and negative ways.
- How are you not like your mother?
- How are you not like your father?
Write a story showing a time you had an epiphany about your mother or your father and possibly about yourself as well.
It doesn’t have to be something you have in common. It should, through the epiphany and the shared experience, give insight into your parent’s character; Lalami begins with a rite of passage: ear piercing that precipitated the awareness. As with Lalami’s story of ear piercing, the details are very important.
The story should indirectly represent something about how you feel about that parent or the nature of your relationship with him or her.
Here are some suggestions about situations (rite of passage or shared experience) where you are alone with one parent and you learn something about one of them and maybe about yourself as well.
- Fishing, hunting, sporting events, camping
- Learning how to ride a bike, or drive a car, or fly a plane
- Going to church (something religious)
- Celebrating a milestone (birthday) alone with one parent
- Going on a trip with one parent
- Going to a concert or play or visiting a museum with one parent
- Having a conversation about something in parent’s past
- Talking about a book you have both read
A Photograph Northern Rhodesia 1929
The photograph is in black and white, but being old and faded, is actually shades of grey. I must imagine the browns, yellows, shades of green, a hazy blue sky, and the dirty white smudges that are clouds. My father stands with 20 Africans who have taken time off from prospecting and mapping, to pose in the bush. Back then the country was called Northern Rhodesia; now it is Zambia. The Africans in this washed-out photo are probably coal black with brightly contrasting teeth. Beneath the trees they stand in once-white shirts, and shapeless shorts, their bare feet in the dust of the veldt. Bark, perhaps dislodged by an elephant’s tusk, hangs in streamers from a tree, revealing the shiny, possibly light yellow inner ‘quick’ of the tree trunk. My father’s khaki shirt and pants, his pale brown tanned legs, his fawn socks emerging from dusty brown boots, combine with yet another brown shade that is his hat, to produce a blending of earth tones. I look closely, searching for a spot of color, but find none until my eye falls on a can of condensed milk. The writing on its label might be blue or red. I know my father’s smoky blue eyes, but they appear grey in the photograph.
I have the photograph of my father and the Africans hanging on the wall above my desk. He and his men were involved in a project that, over five years, geologically mapped what was then Northern Rhodesia. Stories and photos from his time in the wilds of Africa engaged my childhood imagination, so that crawling on my belly with a toy rifle, I stalked the cows in our Canadian pasture, approaching these water buffalo, elephants and rhinos from downwind. I learned the names of the birds and butterflies, collected skeletons, raised tadpoles, and snorkeled for hours in the lake, immersing myself literally in nature.
The photograph is from my parent’s African days, where before I was born, they lived in what for me became a setting filled with the excitement of adventure. Africa came alive with their stories.
My mother liked to tell of the morning she woke to find her two dogs creeping into the bedroom to press silently against the wall beneath her bed. Perplexed, she straightened up from her look under the bed, aware of a wet slurping sound coming from the veranda. In the bush with his men, my father prospected and mapped, leaving her alone with my oldest sister, then an infant. Getting up and tip-toeing to the door, mother looked into the living room where my sister lay under her mosquito net, asleep in her cot. A few feet beyond he cot was the screen door to the veranda, and lying across the threshold, sedately licking its front paw, was a large male lion. While she stood, eyes darting from her baby to the lion and back again, her heart pounding, her breath coming in gasps, the lion stood up and strolled to the edge of the veranda. It paused, looked about for a moment, then leapt down into the garden and disappeared. It was shot later that morning. When its body was examined, the hunters found a damaged paw and several infected teeth. The broken, tartar covered fangs stared from raw, swollen gums.
“Probably kicked by a buffalo,” explained Major Tuffton. The major was “an old hand” who liked to be in the know. He said that the lion had come into the small mining town in search of easy prey such as dogs, cats or goats. “Nothing really to worry about, my dear.” My mother didn’t think much of this “major” who was most often to be found in the club bar, sipping a pink gin. She added small human babies to his list, and had robust doors installed.
“What’s all this?” asked my father a few weeks later, fresh from the bush, and opening the new door. He had not yet heard the story of the lion. He was examining the hinges as it swung open and closed, open and closed. I imagine my mother standing nearby holding my sister, pleased to see him home, but perhaps glowering a little.
In the photo my father stands beside the Africans with his hands clasped behind his back. His men stand in two rows of ten, resembling a platoon. My father’s multi-pocketed bush shirt and wide hat add to this military impression. He is the squad commander, though I can’t imagine him barking orders. The shoulders of the men are bare in their singlets. They are muscular men, used to physical labor. Their hair is cut short and the two rows of heads appear at first glance to be evenly rounded, like marbles. I study them more intently and realize that they are in fact differently shaped. Their skin colour also varies. I have been guilty of lumping these men into a single, collective individual. My father referred to them as his ‘boys,’ and years ago, when he described his African adventures, I pictured exactly that – youngsters just a bit older than myself. I study these faces, which are of course quite different one from another, and try to imagine their thoughts.
These are not blank faces gazing at me across 75 years. There is tension in their expressions. I realize that almost every man is holding an implement of some sort. Perhaps there was a moment after the camera was set up when the older man with the scowl on his face snatched up the rifle. He stands with it cradled in his arms, his eyes on the camera, but with his head turned slightly sideways toward the man beside him. I think there has been a fight over who will get to hold this important item. I think the notion of holding something has been interpreted as an indication of status or rank. Two large men hold assegais and look happy about it. These long spears might have provided me with a “suggestion” of confidence had I been in that country of lions and leopards, but I don’t think it would have been enough.
One man has a prospector’s hammer, another, a long-handled shovel. Still another holds a sledge hammer. It is balanced on his shoulder and has a head that must weigh ten pounds. Two of the men are really little more than boys, perhaps fifteen? Neither has been able to acquire any sort of tool so they stand in the front row empty-handed, with disappointed faces. I imagine the scramble that may have taken place as my father set up the camera. There is a bicycle wheel contraption that measures the distances traveled. Two men have this in hand. They may have been wrestling for it, but in the photograph they hold it between them, their muscles bulging in the effort to have control. As the shutter opens, it is a shared item.
I have a rhino horn that my father took from the beast he killed. It is possibly worth its weight in heroin, and just as difficult and illegal to market. He hunted elephants as well, but I prefer not to think about them. It was a different time, perhaps with different values. I have a souvenir on my bookshelf. It stands where the morning sun filters through venetian blinds to stripe it, a tiny trophy. Larger than a chessman, slivered it would perhaps span two octaves of piano white notes, and it sits silent in the sunbeam. Cracks run along its surface tracing a web of black veins against the old, yellowing ivory. Its fractured end is jagged, and I marvel at the force that broke it. It was left in a tree, an odd tooth jutting from the black bark. The elephant who had hammered his head against the ironwood in a frenzy of bewildered pain and anger, had fallen to his knees, while my father, fumbling with cartridges, blinking through sweat and tears, reloaded in panic. A feeling of regret would deepen into remorse and then a fury of self-recrimination. I pick up the tusk tip and feel its cool smooth surface. Slumped in my chair, I am silent in the library. It fits comfortably in my hand, a sort of trophy.
My father never hunted anything on his return from Africa; indeed I suspect he may have had difficulty swatting mosquitoes. The Easter morning that I shot a rabbit in our garden was not a moment of triumph. I was fourteen and reported to my mother that I had done the worst thing in my life so far. My father stood nearby, solemnly nodding his head in a knowing manner. It didn’t help that a sister broke the silence hanging between us:
“The Easter bunny finally shows up, and you have to shoot him.”
In the photograph light splashes through the foliage overhead making a pattern of leaf shadows. The smells in this tableau I can guess at with even less accuracy than the colours. Perhaps the trees have a peppery scent. I suspect that washing was not a high priority amongst the men who stand silently for the duration of the photograph’s exposure. Does this silence erupt into a resumed argument over who will hold what? In the background, and beyond the trees where the camera has been set up, I can see the open space that stretches off to the horizon. It is dotted by thorn trees. I would like to say that there are silhouettes of giraffes and elephants dotting this panorama in the heat haze, but there is in fact no sign of life.
We made my father tell African stories over and over again. They had a “kitchen boy” called Saucepan. I marveled at this name, thinking it was nothing more than odd. Who had made it up? Another servant called Gibson had a daughter the same age as my African born older sister. His infant daughter had somehow rolled into the fire and died. As a child, I heard this story and wondered how it could possibly have happened. My mother explained that they lived with a cooking fire on the floor of their hut at the bottom of the garden. This sort of life was too foreign for me to properly imagine.
My mother once drove over a deadly poisonous black mamba snake in her open car. It must have been crossing the road in the twilight, but she hadn’t seen it until the snake was in the rearview mirror, writhing and twisting, arching up from the road. It stretched and thrashed its seven-foot body high into the air in the convulsions of its death throes. On another occasion, again in the early evening, she glanced back and forth from the road ahead to the side of the car where a cheetah raced along beside her, keeping pace with the car like a badly-behaved dog. Then, just as suddenly, it veered off into an opening in the bush. Heart racing I am sure, she pulled over to catch her breath before realizing that the car had an open top and that she was accessible in the gathering night.
“You know they have feet just like a dog,” she told me. “They don’t have retractable claws like a cat. The foot is just like a dog’s.”
My father’s adventures were both exciting and upsetting. After a friend had foolishly followed a wounded lion into tall elephant grass, my father and two Africans had run with his mauled body on an improvised stretcher for more than a day. They took turns at the ends of the stretcher, arriving at civilization and a clinic late at night. They were too late to save the man and my father reported that he was unable to walk on his swollen feet for several days.
As I grew older, I accompanied my father on various geological expeditions in Northern Ontario, the Yukon, and Alaska. I watched him tap at rocks with his prospector’s hammer and felt a twinge of guilt that grew with my inability to conjure up even the slightest interest in rocks. Instead of his inanimate, silent, rocks, my eyes followed the birds, the insects, the living things. I submerged myself in books of exploration, and in tales that took me into jungles where I faced danger and the unknown. Over the years I have taken every opportunity to travel in unfrequented places, to explore and to examine nature in its variety. A quirk in my own nature allows a feeling of disloyalty to linger in a place where an interest in my father’s rocks never developed.
I didn’t find rocks interesting in the slightest. My attention was on the butterflies, the snails, beetles and even worms. Even worms. When I eventually finished my PhD, my thesis topic concerned a worm, but rocks left me cold, and I felt guilt. My father was never concerned in any obvious way by my lack of curiosity in these inanimate lumps, but as a boy I was sure he must be hurting inside.
One afternoon, during the long summer of a ten-year-old, I decided to do some mining. Partly perhaps to please my father, and partly because once started I discovered it was rather fun, I chipped away all afternoon. I had discovered the first stone that actually held my interest. Something glinted in the sun falling on a stone protruding from the rock wall running along the boundary of our property. Approaching, I discovered a treasure trove of large nuggets, perfect cubes of iron pyrite, iron sulfide, or fool’s gold. These brass-coloured little cubes were irresistible, and for the first time I could feel the tug of geology pulling gently at my sleeve. But it was a very gentle pull, and didn’t persist beyond that afternoon, while I chiseled and hammered, pried and extracted dozens of pieces of fool’s gold from the rock. I placed them in a bottle, pretending it was real treasure, and somehow that jar of nuggets has survived. It sits on my library shelf amongst other bits and pieces that are tied by nostalgia to memory. I sometimes want to say, “Look dad, I’ve done quite well without rocks.” The accusing bottle stands there, representing my one short foray into my father’s passion.
My own biological appetite has taken me to wild places. I have been diving in the freezing North Sea, where through the murky water – visibility of about ten inches – I groped for sea slugs and worms. Assorted colourful coral reefs around the Caribbean were more hospitable. I have been all over South America, from the Amazon Jungle, out to the Galapagos Islands, and down to Ushuaia, the southernmost city on earth.
In the picture of my father, the African veldt of 75 years ago stretches out to the horizon behind the posed crew. I can see thorn trees and a bird I can’t identify sits in one of them. It is a view of the living world that was the Africa of the 1920s and the inspiration for my fascination with travel and adventure. My father has taken a moment from his rocks to stare into the camera, unaware of the passion he will kindle in his as yet unborn son. There is no way to tap into that time beyond the imperfect memories I have. No one remains to enhance story with added details from their recollections. The photograph remains, silent and fading.
On the day I mined the fool’s gold my dad looked at the hoard in my small hand, and smiled. I interpreted this as his satisfaction with my work.
“When iron pyrite is pulverized it releases a characteristic odor,” said my dad, rolling one of my larger nuggets between his fingers. “Shall we hit one with a hammer and smell it?” We did, and such is that reptilian portion of our brain, that connects the sense of smell directly with emotion, that when I tried this again a moment ago, connections were instantly made, and I was there at our back door, prospector’s hammer in hand on a summer afternoon in 1952.