Books

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Authors like Lalami provide a gateway through which readers can hope to understand more about the driving forces in disparate global cultures.


Secret Son

Publisher: Algonquin
ISBN: 978-156512494
Author: Laila Lalami
Price: $23.95
Length: 308 pages
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2009-04
Amazon
Author website
Amazon

From the dingiest of slums to the elegance of privileged Casablancan society, Laila Lalami brings contemporary Morocco to life in her debut novel, Secret Son. Literature like this helps to form a bridge between different cultures, fostering understanding of the unknown and illustrating the similarities between all of us, whether we live in poverty or wealth, in a Christian, Islamic, or secular society. In the end, we’re all just trying to get by, and perhaps hoping for something that makes the next day worth experiencing.

Youssef El Mekki has been raised by his widowed mother in Hay An Najat, a slum of Casablanca. Though they have little except the roof over their heads, Youssef’s mother has raised her son to be honest and thoughtful, and even to dream of a life outside of the slum. Every week he goes to see a foreign film in the decrepit local theater, his sole luxury. Youssef dreams of a life with Hollywood endings, where heroes and villains are easily identifiable, as is the appropriate young woman the hero should end up with. Secret Son is rife with role-playing worthy of the silver screen, but Youssef is not as clever at identifying acting as he would like.

There are few possibilities for young men in Lalami’s Morocco, and even fewer for Youssef and his friends, with their bad address. Following a freak flood in the area, a group of Islamic extremists comes to aid the locals and surreptitiously gain a toehold in furthering their own agenda. Of the coming storm, Lalami writes, "It was raining a little more steadily now, and the clouds hung low, shrinking the horizon in all directions." For young men with few prospects, the possibility of belonging to the Party, as it is called, can be appealing when everything else is going wrong.

Drawn into a student protest inspired by pending bus fare hikes, Youssef finds himself in the middle of the action though he doesn’t believe that the protest will accomplish anything. Ribs broken by police simply for being in the wrong spot at the wrong time, Youssef can’t go to a hospital for help.

Seeking assistance from the Party when there is nowhere else to turn, Youssef becomes a tool when his photo is suddenly snapped as evidence of police brutality and though he is assured that his identity will be concealed, his words are twisted in the accompanying article and his face is identifiable. The Party leader’s "words were like a labyrinth in which Youssef was losing his way. His anger blinded him; he could not find the exit on his own and instead began to take each turn that presented itself without question." A constant theme through Secret Son is that of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of being out of control of one’s destiny.

Struggling to carve out his own opportunities and escape the slums, Youssef yearns to fit in with one or another of the student groups on campus during his first year of university. A wealthy young woman named Alia catches his eye, and he longs to be seen as the person he is rather than the location he calls home. Youssef’s friend Amin warns him, "'Everyone should know the size of his teapot.'" Amin means that there is no use hoping to fit into a lifestyle one was not born into, and the possibility of social mobility is an illusion.

Youssef believes his prayers have been answered (even if he is something of an unobservant Muslim) when he discovers that his father is not dead after all. A wealthy businessman, Nabil Amrani has a family and an opulent lifestyle, but no son to call his heir. Nabil takes Youssef out of the slums and offers him many of the things he has dreamed of, without considering how he can acknowledge Youssef as his own flesh and blood in a conservative society.

Granted all the opportunities he has been craving, and the easy money he covets, Youssef’s landscape is transformed overnight from one where cigarettes are purchased individually from the corner shop to one where a job, plentiful food, and easily-impressed young women are easy to come by. Youssef still feels himself an actor playing a role, however, as he attempts to fit into Nabil’s world.

The loss of control now that he has handed himself over to his father, who wants a son to be proud of, makes Youssef nervous but he remains hopeful. Nabil is accustomed to running his life and business as he sees fit, and doesn’t consider Youssef’s life so far.

Youssef felt helpless ... he was his father's creature, waiting to be trained before it could be shown to the world. Yet he was ready to put up with all of it if, in the end, his father kept his word. There was no reason not to believe him.

Lalami’s story of a young man torn between family members and betrayed by the God for whom he is finally tempted to sacrifice everything is tender even as it is horrifying. The author possesses a keen sense of careful phrasing and precise language as she scripts the events that shape Youssef’s passage into manhood.

Paul Yamazaki of City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco writes that Lalami’s “carefully wrought characters allow us [to] lift the veil of media headlines and gain a greater empathy and understanding of the competing protagonists in today’s sundered world.” Authors like Lalami provide a gateway through which readers can hope to understand more about the driving forces in disparate global cultures. Like Youssef’s, our human needs are so very basic: enough food to live, and a family (in whatever form) to accept us as we are.

Lalami blogs about writing in her third language, North African literature, and her experience as a Muslim living abroad on Laila Lalami.com.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.