Read African Writers: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, by Laila Lalami

hopemoroccoWe open on an inflatable boat, making the dangerous crossing from Morocco to Spain. Dozens of migrants are aboard, but we are introduced to just four: Murad, a college graduate who majored in English, Faten, who flunked out of school; Aziz, a married man; and Halima, who has brought her two children. The boat capsizes and the passengers must swim to shore.

Laila Lalami’s collection — Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits — then flashes back, with a chapter on what led each of these four to make the perilous journey; and then forward, with a chapter on what happened to each after the attempted migration. Some made it safely to Spain; some got sent back to Morocco. But in whichever locale, Lalami draws engaging, sympathetic characters and humanizes their motivations for migrating. Most central is the desire to work: “He knew, in his heart, that if only he could get a job, he would make it, he would be successful.” The fantasy isn’t just for money, but for purpose: “Aziz imagined that maybe one day he would be like them, have a car and a place to go to, instead of sitting idle at a coffee shop while his wife was at work.” I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Highly recommended, particularly in this time when refugees and migrants are at the center of many nation’s policy debates.

Here are some lines that I enjoyed:
  • On patience: “Halima wondered whether all the Lord ever wanted from His people was patience. Hadn’t she suffered long enough? She was sure that the Lord also wanted His people to be happy, but she couldn’t come up with a stock expression as a retort, the way her mother always did.”
  • On having a child veer toward fundamentalism: “What if he lost her to this … this blindness that she thought was sight?”
  • On economics: “What happened to your plans to study economics? … Look, you’ll be of more help [to your country] as an economist than as a schoolteacher.”
  • On the uncertain returns to adult literacy classes: “So far, the only use she had gotten out of the classes was that she could now read the rolling credits at the end of the soap operas she watched every night.”
  • On loving Western culture: “We’re so blinded by our love for the West that we’re willing to give them our brightest instead of keeping them here where we need them.”
  • On money: “That was the thing with money. It gave you choices.”

Here are some other reviews:

  • Joey Rubin, Bookslut: “Hope is not a tale of desperate immigration, nor of destructive encroachment. It is a tale of human potential; a story about the desire for improvement, and the difficulties inherent in the pursuit of such a dream — whether that dream be American, Moroccan, or just plain human.  However, we are lucky in this case it is Moroccan; it is a landscape Lalami knows quite well.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Less a novel than a set of finely detailed portraits, this book gives outsiders a glimpse of some of Moroccan society’s strata and the desperation that underlies many ordinary lives.“
  • Kirkus Reviews: “As her characters debate hot-button issues—How much Western culture is too much? Should women wear headscarves?—their individual points of view are presented so evenhandedly that readers are left to wonder which of these opinions are actually held by the Moroccan-born writer, who now lives in Oregon.”
  • Alan Cheuse, NPR: “This all works because the force of the subject matter carries the day.”
This is book #9 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

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