Writers Reading: Laila Halaby

Laila Halaby

Excerpt from the novel Fila Perez,  Warrior

This is my story.

My mother passed onto me the shame my father handed her and I’ve lugged around this lumpy eyesore of a carry-on all my life, never managing to squash it into the overhead bin of everyday and hating her for the inconvenience. I never once raised an ugly word against the ghost man who graffitied her womb and gave her this burden.

Easy to get caught in our umbilical nooses, find our toes dangling just above the floor with breath in short supply. Easy to accept that yesterday is forever or get lost eyeing impossible tomorrows. Easy to lose this moment to history and fantasy.

This, now, is my story.

I was one of countless strangled sisters, pushed and pulled by expectations, tugged and yanked from east to west.

I came to light a crooked and shamed princess and was promptly buried under stacks of smelly mattresses. When the heroic prince came along, he didn’t save me; he kept me company while I picked off the layers of lies that were suffocating me.

The hero of this fairy tale is me.

This is my story.

Bastard. Woman. Warrior.






Smelling bad news in people and catching whiffs of their ugly deeds all seems normal now, another byproduct of growing up with mixed-up blood in an immigrant household with no time for hobbies. I could have played soccer or doodled or crocheted, but there was never room for extracurricular goofing off. Our house was always filled with stories of death and dying and Palestine resting sadly on people’s tongue-tips, or being spit across the room. In an immigrant’s mind, school and work are essential and hobbies are unnecessary, especially when your mother’s family has lost a country.

Impatience I get from my mother-of-definite-origins. The toe-tapping, can’t wait, can’t sit still, no-room-for-niceties impatience is proof I am American-born, American bred.

We’ve waited how many years to get our country back and you can’t even wait for the bus?” my grandfather likes to say.

Can’t live lightly inside a broken story, can’t play when no one ever gave you the rule book. My beginning was biblical, weighted with complications that began long before my birth in Salinas, California.

I am the opposite of inbreeding, the result of procreational outsourcing. My washed-out hues and simple features scream my mother’s inability to pick the best laundry detergent, suggest other foolish choosings that have led to a dilution in product quality. In spite of my name.

Filasteen Salama.

What’s in a name?

Just about everything in the eyes of my family. We may be immigrant poor, but we pull out names that race back across oceans and lifetimes, strap them across our chests like we’ve got a Miss America badge or a DNA Coach purse. Or the most up-to-date body armor.

My badge was always misspelled, my Coach handbag a made-in-China knock-off, and my Kevlar came already damaged by an IED.

If the unknown genes and fabricated fathers weren’t a promise of a crooked start, giving me an impossible name cinched the deal.

When I could no longer tolerate the friction between my stained concrete today and the constant infusion of impossible histories, I took American styled revenge and became superhero-strong by lying to strangers about my origins and chopping off my historic name.

I became Fila Perez, a could-be-anything, a statistic.

My newly invented persona made me Kevlar invincible.

For a while.

This is my story.


Laila Halaby is the author of a memoir in poems, my name on his tongue, and two novels: Once in a Promised Land and West of the Jordan (winner of a PEN/Beyond Margins Award). The recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, Halaby holds graduate degrees from UCLA and Loyola Marymount. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her family.