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April 22, 2009

Book Notes - Laila Lalami ("Secret Son")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

Long an admirer of Laila Lalami's blog, I was impressed by her 2005 short fiction collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. As a matter of fact, when I started the Book Notes series she was one of the first authors that came to mind.

Lalami's splendid debut novel is out this week, and Secret Son immerses the reader in contemporary Morocco. Young Youssef experiences both his country's poverty and wealth as he searches for his identity amid family, religious, political, and friend conflicts.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"The culture and politics of contemporary Morocco are well displayed in this beautifully written tale, with the talented Lalami deftly portraying Youssef's struggles for identity, work, and family. A brilliant story of alienation and desperation that easily transports readers to hot, dusty Casablanca; highly recommended."

In her own words, here is Laila Lalami's Book Notes essay for her novel, Secret Son:

Secret Son: A Playlist
Laila Lalami

I listened to a lot of music while writing my novel Secret Son; it served as a soundtrack to the events I was narrating; as a distraction when I needed it; and even as a source of inspiration whenever I was stuck. The book is set in Casablanca, Morocco, and is about a young slum-dweller named Youssef. On the day he graduates from high school, he finds out that his dead father is not the respected schoolteacher Youssef believed him to be, but rather a wealthy businessman who is very much alive. Youssef enters his father's sophisticated and corrupt world, setting off a chain of events with disastrous consequences. Part thriller, part allegory, the novel explores the myriad choices we make every day, and the way in which they can affect the world around us. I put together this playlist based on music the characters listen to in the book:

"Bent Bladi" – Abdessadeq Cheqara

Abdessadeq Cheqara was a famous violinist and oud player from the northern city of Tetuan. He formed his own orchestra of Andalusian classical music in the 1940s and toured the country extensively with it. He popularized the song “Bent Bladi,” which nowadays is so ubiquitous that it is played as a finale to many concerts of Andalusian music. Watch Cheqara perform some of his songs.

"Ahibbik" – Abdelhalim Hafez

My main character hears this song while he’s on a bus, as he is on his way to meet a girl on whom he has a huge crush. The Egyptian crooner Abdelhalim sang “Ahibbik” in his 1967 movie Ma`budet al-Jamahir, in which he costarred with the singer/actress Shadia. At the height of his popularity, Hafez was probably bigger than Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby put together. He sang more than 250 songs, played throughout the Arab world, and starred in a number of romantic movies. His usual role was that of a man of modest means, tested by various temptations. In Ma’budet, Abdelhalim plays a young singer who falls in loves with an established musical star. You can watch Abdelhalim perform this song here.

"Les Bourgeois" – Jacques Brel

I love Jacques Brel’s voice and his beautiful lyrics, especially in pieces like “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” But I picked “Les Bourgeois” because it shows another side of his work—his lifelong devotion to satirizing the bourgeois life. In Secret Son, one of the main characters, a journalist who is harassed by various people, drums his fingers along to a Brel song. Watch a 1964 live performance by Jacques Brel here.

"Blad Schizo" – Hoba Hoba Spirit

One of my characters refers to Morocco as “Blad Schizo” (Schizo Country), which is a direct reference to this song by Hoba Hoba Spirit. Their music blends American and Carribean and Moroccan music, both in terms of the melodies and also in terms of the instruments they use. This song appears in their 2005 album by the same name, and describes a character who has to navigate various dualities in Morocco. Watch the video on YouTube.

"Issawa Style" - H-Kayne

When it was released in 2006, "Issawa Style" immediately became a huge hit for the hip-hop band H-Kayne. I was in Morocco that fall and the song was everywhere, so I thought I would include it here. It appears in their album H-K 1426. Watch the video on YouTube.

"Wehrane, Wehrane" – Cheb Khaled

Halfway through the book, my character Youssef listens to this song, which somehow feels appropriate because it's about a man who is exiled from his beloved Wehrane (Oran) and from his home and his family. Cheb Khaled is dubbed the king of rai—not without reason; his voice is penetrating and his lyrics beautiful. Have a listen here.

"Piano Concerto #2" – Rachmaninoff

Whenever I get stuck or can't seem to get started, I turn to this piece by Rachmaninoff. I have listened to this so often in the last couple of years that it practically evokes a Pavlovian reaction in me. Whenever I hear it, I feel like sitting down to write.

Laila Lalami and Secret Son links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
video trailer for the book

The Internet Review of Books review
Library Journal review
Malcolm's Round Table review
Moroccan About the World Around Him review
POD Book Reviews & More review
Time Out Chicago review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist by the author for her short fiction collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
Maud Newton post by the author
The Nation articles by the author
The National profile of the author
Page 69 Test for the book
Powells interview with the author
Yacout interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists