"Once there was and there was not"
Laila Lalami’s debut Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is an exquisitely written linked collection. I know Laila from her blog MoorishGirl. So I know this is her first book and I know the steps she has taken to get here, but even so, as I read this book, it was difficult to believe that it was a debut. The writing, to me, seems incredibly seasoned–clean, efficient, evocative. Essentially, I forgot that this was Laila writing within the first few words and, instead, fell into the world as it was written.
The protagonists of these stories are Moroccans looking for a different (I would say better life but I’m not sure that’s true–many of them, though anxious to get across the Strait of Gibraltar, are fearful of what life on the other side will hold) life in Spain. Ironically, the one person who actually makes it without being deported back to Morocco, does so at great personal expense. She makes her living as a protitute, leaving behind her morals and beliefs. She is, essentially, lost.
My favorite character is Halima, who tries to leave Morocco in order to save herself and her children from her husband. Instead, she almost loses everything, except that her young son saves the family from drowning in the frigid waters. It is because of this that she believes he may be special, but the truth is that it is she and her enduring hope which make her the special one–the survivor, the saint.
The book ends with another favorite character, Murad, the scholar, the writer. It is from him, the storyteller, that we learn the essence of this book:
His father started every story with “Kan, ya ma kan,” “Once there was and there was not.” The timeless opening line was fitting, it seemed to him, to the state he found himself in now, unable to ascertain whether the tales he remembered were real or figments of his imagination.
It is that sense of rebirth, creation, crawling from the water into a new world that proves itself unreal, only to be sent back and to begin again–to forget and to remember, but to always be present and to always hope, no matter what the consequences. And what we learn is that this book is not only about Moroccans looking to escape to a different life, but about all of us who have hopes, who wish to overcome. It is universal.
A beautiful debut. Read it.