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Laila Lalami: North Africa’s Literary Genius!


Although she has been labelled as the writer who is ‘doing for North Africa what Chimamanda Adichie did for West Africa,’ she is quick to disprove this. In her words,

“I don’t think a single writer can or should be given the responsibility to represent an entire literature.  This sort of labeling reminds me of the reference to Chinua Achebe as the father of modern African literature, a label he himself rejected. African literature is far too diverse to have a single father or mother, and I think the same is true of West African or North African literature.” []

Born in 1968 and raised amongst the lower-income class in Rabat, Morocco, Laila Lalami is the recipient of quite a vast number of awards, honors and fellowships in recognition of her superior literary prowess. And writing wasn’t her first profession either!

I was supposed to go to the Faculty of Medicine, but I somehow managed to miss the application deadline. I think my parents were expecting me to study biology — my older sister is a scientist — so when I announced I was doing English instead, they were worried about my future job prospects. By the time I started graduate school, I think they made themselves believe that linguistics was still the “sensible” way to go, so you can imagine their horror when I said I was quitting my job to write full-time. Of course, once they realized I wasn’t going to change my mind, they became completely supportive. ” Laila in a conversation with Cameron Martin on

The first Moroccan author to publish a book of fiction written in English with a major commercial press in the United States, Laila earned her B.A. in English from Université Mohammed V and subsequently received a British Council Fellowship, to study in England and completed a M.A. in Linguistics at University College London in 1991.


After graduating she returned to Morocco and worked briefly as a journalist and commentator. She eventually relocated to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, from which she  graduated with a Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1997.

Laila worked as a Linguist for an American software start-up; and in 1996, she discovered her true calling and vice versa! Following the 9/11 attacks, she started a blog -Moorish Girl- which she credited for introducing her to many more writers than she may have possibly discovered. The blog was her avenue for recording her thoughts on politics, literature and culture.

 In 2003, she received the Morocco-British Council Literary Prize for the Short Story, and went on to become a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Prize, the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Oregon Book Award- all in 2006.

Wonder why the awards were raining down in 2006? Laila released her debut collection of short stories, ‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits’, in 2005 and obviously stunned the literary world and incited a blaze of decisive praise and mainstream press, including People magazine and USA Today. The book has since been translated into six languages- Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Norwegian.

She was also awarded the Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and the Fletcher Pratt Fellowship in Fiction in 2006. A Fulbright Fellowship followed in 2007 and the world took notice in 2009 when she was appointed a Young Global Leader, by the World Economic Forum.


Other honors include the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, Finalist, 2009; the Orange Prize longlist, 2010 for her first full-length novel, ‘Secret Son’; the Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship, 2012; and the Elizabeth George Foundation “Women Authoring Change” Fellowship, 2013.

Laila has published literary criticism and political essays in The Boston Globe, Boston Review, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and elsewhere.

Currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, USA, Laila’s latest novel, ‘The Moor’s Account’ was published in 2014 by Pantheon Books.

Of her writing process, she says, “I write at a glacial pace, and revise constantly, almost obsessively.  I tend to pay very close attention to language because, although I am writing in English, my characters interact with one another in Arabic or French, and sometimes both at the same time, so I try to keep the nuances that come with speaking in each language.” []

This amazing novelist and essayist who grew up speaking Arabic and French, started to learn English at the age of 15 in high school, and went on to major in it!

Discover your purpose; fuel your passion; work your dream; that’s the life that lives fulfilled, don’t you agree?

Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya
Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya
5 Things You Didn't Know About Jennifer in 2015: 1. Her newest collection of short stories, 'The Curious Case of the Small Pikin & Other Stories' is available on 2. She ported from Blogger to WordPress and shares her uncensored thoughts on 3. She is an aspiring Filmmaker & Talk-show Host[ess] 4. She's a mother of two, wife of one and daughter of God. 5. She plans to travel around the world in less than 80 days... Now you Know! Find me on Twitter: @jennynkem

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