From Mohammédia, Morocco, aspiring author Mohamed Ali Lagouader has discovered the art of transcending borders and reaching out to an international audience through publishing his novels and poetry online. Jillian York catches up with Lagouader and speaks to him about his writing, reading and dreams in this interview.
Mohamed Ali Lagouader was born and raised in Mohammédia, Morocco. In his youth, he wrote poetry in Moroccan Arabic, later switching to French, and then to English after receiving his B.A. in English from the Faculty of Letters of Mohammédia, Morocco (he also holds a diploma in translation from The King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Tangier). After receiving several rejection letters for stories and articles, Mohamed decided to work on his first novel, The Poet. Mohamed was told by some British publishers, however, that the market for North African literature in English was too small and that, were he to have written his book in French, he would have received a more favorable response.
Instead of giving up, Mohamed decided to publish his stories online. He joined forums, posted poetry, and eventually, received a great number of comments and feedback on his writing. His stories can all be found online at his blog, and his poetic comments can be found on many blogs, including Global Voices.
Jillian C. York: What do you enjoy reading?
Mohamed Ali Lagouader:Right now I am reading British Novelist Richard Adams’s Watership Down, for the fifth time, and Medieval Andalusian Writer Ibn Hazam’s Tawq al-Hamama (The Ring of the Dove, which is about love and lovers –as you may know), for
the third time.
It may shock many readers, but the truth is I’m no great reader myself. I have never had a bookcase or personal library in all my life. Although
I read hundreds of thousands of pages, most of my readings were (old) newspapers, magazines and booklets –rather than thick books. In fact, very seldom did I purchase new books from bookstores. I
had many friends who had a maddening quantity of books (that they didn’t read), so I was happy to borrow from them books and publications that I read at home. Also my younger brother, who is an
avid reader, used to bring home something to read.
But I would say that when I do read something, I usually read it from cover to cover –unless it’s really boring. I also read the landscape and almost everything I can see––as part of this amazing “Open Book” of God’s Creation. And that includes, among other things, the names of streets and shops that I notice when I’m travelling by bus, by taxi, etc. or when walking through an unfamiliar neighbourhood.
As a student, I was lucky to read books by great (mostly Western) writers. But if I had to single out just one that I really liked so much, it would be The River Between by Kenyan Writer Ngugi wa Thiongo. I was also lucky to read the Holy Koran, part of the Hadith, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima”, Ibn al-Muqaffae’s Kalila Wa Dimna, and a book that I miss up to this day, which was written by a Lebanese unknown writer: “The Story of Faith as Perceived by Science, Religion and Philosophy”. The book was in Arabic, and that’s one of the best books I have ever read. (I lent it to someone who never returned it to me.)
JCY: Who are your favorite authors?
MAL: I have no favourite authors as such, to be honest. However, I liked Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway, to mention just two. I was entranced when I read Annabel
Lee at the age of 20. I loved reading The Old Man and the
Sea, a year later. But it was French Science-Fiction Writer Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des Singes (Planet of the Apes) that marked a turning point in my writing career. Before reading this book
(in 1984) I had written mostly poems in Moroccan Arabic, but from that day on I tried my luck with fiction writing. I should also mention Moroccan Medieval Poet Sidi Abderrahman El Majdoub, the only writer who has ever had a direct impact on my
thinking. His famous “Diwan” (which is only 30 or 40 pages long) was one of two books that influenced not only my writing but also my personality. The other book was a biography of Muslim
Warrior Khalid ibn al-Walid .
I am very sensitive to poetry, especially Arabic poetry. So in this respect I would rank Al-Mutanabbi and Antarah ibn Shaddad as my favourites.
JCY: What inspires your writing?
MAL: It depends. For example, in the Spring of 1992, I read chapters from a book in Arabic called “Al-Sira Al- Hilaliya”. “Al-Hilaliya” is a series of tales about legendary heroes from the Arabic history. What I liked most in the volume I read was the way prose alternated with verse without breaking the flow of the story. In fact, the poetry propelled the plot in just the same way dialogue did. And I liked this style so much that I decided to emulate it. Thus came to me the idea of writing “The Poet”, which is my longest novel.
I once heard in a TV story about Sudan that some populations there would have to stay patiently on one side of the river until it subsided and became passable. I was struck by this piece of information and thus the idea of crossing such a river became the central part of the plot of my story, “The Philosopher”. As to the idea behind “The Tailor”, it simply came from within home. One of my sisters is a (modern) embroiderer, and she always has magazines featuring traditional (mostly Moroccan) dresses, which I used to glance through. But these, you know, were just “ideas”. I mean, there’s always something fermenting in the “sub-conscience”, so when something suddenly triggers off a story or a poem, it only unveils what was hiding in the background (i.e. feelings, thoughts, etc.) The triggers often come in the form of first lines of a story or poem. In the case of “The Philosopher” and “The Tailor”, the triggers nagged me as I was biking on the outskirts of my hometown of Mohammedia.
Another example is my short piece “The Evil Eye”. As I was coming back home from a walk in the woods, I saw a woman grazing a cow. I then suddenly found myself asking a curious question: what if this woman lost this cow? (I am accustomed to seeing dead cows around my neighbourhood). Thus came to me not only the idea of the story but also the trigger: I wrote the whole story in less than three hours and posted it on the Web on the same day.
As to poetry, I really just don’t know how poems come to me––although I could –if I wished– write a poem as a creative writing exercise without
any sort of inspiration.
However, I can say that the first poem in the series of my French poems (I mean, Là-bas)was inspired by a young Malian poet I heard speak on RFI about his hometown, the Malian spiritual center of Tambouktou.
JCY: How has posting your stories online affected your writing?
MAL: Oh, online posting has been an absolute Godsend for me. First, I have found a growing audience. Secondly, I’ve got the feeling that there was sort of a need for my fiction, especially among Muslim forum users. But, interestingly enough, most of the feedback I got on my stories came from non-Muslims, such as this comment: “Excellent language! I marveled from the beginning to the end. I would love to read other works by you. You have such a unique language and style that is well distinguished from others. I can see you getting far with your works. God bless you.” And this one, “I thought this was a marvelous piece. Your writing style kept me engaged and the logical reasoning of Yetto was very amusing. It was unlike anything I've really read before and even the alignment (though a technical error) interested me! Great piece of work! Keep writing!”
JCY: Who is your audience?
MAL: Well, as I enjoyed works by writers from different parts of the world, I bet my readers too will be from different backgrounds and cultures. My fiction may have an Islamic tinge and flavour, but –judging by the feedback I referred to earlier– I’m confident it will appeal to readers irrespective of their faith or nationality.
JCY: What do you hope to achieve, as a writer, in the future?
MAL: Getting one’s work into print is every writer’s dream and I’m no exception. Meanwhile, I am delighted that more and more people are viewing my stories on the Web and enjoying them.
Posted by Jillian York