Amara Lakhous: Writer, Dreamer, Immigrant

Bianca Miccolis ’21

Features Editor

 

Last Friday, the Italian Studies Department welcomed Algerian bilingual novelist Amara Lakhous, for a lecture explaining “why immigration is the most exciting experience in life.”  Lakhous’s talk was unlike most discussions and associations with immigration. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of life as an immigrant, he sought to convince his audience that immigration is a positive experience and a pinnacle of democracy.  Through his argument for immigration and anecdotes about his life, Amara Lakhous encouraged Holy Cross students to follow their dreams and inspired them with his hard work that still allows him to chase his own dreams.

Amara Lakhous was born in 1970 in Algeria, the sixth of nine children.  Lakhous speaks five languages: Berber (his native tongue), Arabic, French, Italian, and English.  At age 23, he wrote his first book in Arabic, “The Bug and the Pirate,” which was published again four years later in Italian.  Since then, Lakhous published “Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio” (2006), “Divorce Islamic Style in Viale Marconi” (2010), “Dispute over a Very Italian Piglet” (2013), and “The Prank of the Good Little Virgin in Via Ormea” (2014).  His novels discuss issues of immigration in Italy and Muslim culture in Italy, topics that remain close to his heart and speak to his immigration experience. All of these books have been translated into many languages, including English from Italian and Arabic.  Lakhous studied philosophy at the University of Algiers and studied cultural anthropology at the University of Rome, where he received his doctorate. He currently teaches Italian at New York University.

In his conversation last Friday, he began with how he came to the decision that immigration is a positive experience. While studying philosophy in Algeria, he learned that one must have a definition in order to discuss a topic.  He defined immigration as the “action of coming to live in a foreign country.” This was an interesting introduction to his argument for immigration and he followed with his six reasons as to why immigration is the most exciting experience in life.

Reason 1: More Action

In explaining the positivity of immigration, he said that the definition contained three words of movement: “action,” “coming,” and “live.”  Lakhous related this to the human experience. When someone is happy, he or she likely acts and moves about, while depressed people prefer to stay inactive.  For Lakhous, he wanted to act, which encouraged him to actively seek a new life by immigrating to Italy and then, the United States.

Reason 2: More Lives

Lakhous described immigration as a metaphor for rebirth.  He said that we assume we are born once and die at the end of this life.  However, Lakhous suggested that immigration allows for rebirth and the symbolic death of the immigrant’s previous life.  He related this to his own life: in 1970, he was born in Algeria. In 1995, he immigrated to Italy; this was his second birth because he did not know the language; he was like a baby relearning how to live in a new culture.  Finally, in 2014, he immigrated to New York; again, he had to learn a new language and culture for the second time. According to Lakhous, he has had three lives and two symbolic deaths. The second part of the metaphor is the “death” of the previous life.  He provided the example of when he went back to Algeria for the first time after immigrating to Italy; he came back and his parents had converted his room into a guest room. This, of course, is one of the realities of immigration, but does not take away from the excitement.

Reason 3: More Freedom

Lakhous used a comparison of humans living  inside and outside of a cage. On the one hand, living inside of the cage means that one is protected by their language, religion, and culture: things that are predestined before our birth.  On the other hand, living outside of the cage means losing those protections; this can be risky for some, but exciting for others like Amara Lakhous. Immigrants choose to live outside the cage, which provides more freedom.  You have endless opportunity to learn a new language, culture, religion, and much more.

Reason 4: More Languages

For someone who speaks five languages and writes in two, more languages serves as a clear reason for immigration.  According to Lakhous, language is power. It created a special connection between him and his father during his childhood.  When Lakhous immigrated to Italy, he spent two months learning Italian so that he could fully immerse himself in the culture.  This allowed him to write a book in Italian, which was a rewarding experience because of the hard work that he invested into learning the language. While he has not written in English, he did the same when he arrived in the United States.  

Reason 5: More Dreams

Immigrants would not leave their country if they did not have dreams.  Immigrants, like Amara Lakhous, have choices and dreams that cannot be achieved in their original country.  In one of his books, he writes: “Human beings need dreams the way fish need water.” It is natural for human beings to have dreams; however, some are more willing to make them a reality.  Lakhous provided his six foundations of dreams:

  1. Find a big vision
  2. Have a good plan: dreaming is practical
  3. Forget talent, believe in hard work
  4. Transition hard work into passion
  5. Stay away from negative people
  6. Never give up

With this inspiration, he told the audience about some of his dreams.  At age 16, Lakhous read Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” which made him realize his dream was to become an Arabic writer; he achieved this dream at age 23.  In 1993, Algeria became too dangerous for Lakhous to achieve his dreams as he watched friends dying in civil war; he would not wait for this fate. When he moved to Italy, he had a dream of becoming a bilingual writer and began writing books in both Italian and Arabic.  He first wrote “Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio” in Arabic, but decided that he wanted to give his Italian characters an Italian voice. Thus, he rewrote the book to achieve this dream. Finally, his current dream is a work in progress: to become a trilingual writer, adding English to the list. He hopes to achieve this dream in the next few years.

Reason 6: More Democracy

Lakhous’ final reason is that immigration tests the truthfulness of a democracy.  According to Lakhous, respecting minorities is the best check for democracy. Immigrants usually move from poor countries to rich democracies.  These democracies’ constitutions contain rich language and wonderful rights for immigrants. However, according to Lakhous, democracies such as the U.S. and many European countries, violate their own constitutions in respect to immigration.  He hopes when he begins writing in English that he can speak on this topic in his novels.

Amara Lakhous finished his discussion with a few passages from his novel “Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet,” which summed up the immigrant experience that reflected his own.  At the end of the conversation, he reminded the audience that he is a novelist, but that he uses his life experience and ideas to relay his message in fiction.

 

Photo Courtesy of Magasinet Europa

 

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