Twelve year old Leila knows little more of the world than the view from her family’s mud-brick hut on the steep slopes of the Atlas Mountains. Her greatest hope is to marry the son of the village shopkeeper, to bear his children and to live like all the women who came before her.
Leila’s dreams are destroyed in one night when three strangers take her in payment for her father’s debts. Thus begins her long journey into silence: the silence of a child sold to a brothel in a distant city. The silence of a young woman passed on to a judge who exploits her as his servant. The silence of a barely literate woman who suffers years of rape, beatings and hunger.
Leila survives by clinging to memories of her mountain village and the love of her mother. When she meets two educated sisters who are determined to improve women’s lives she gains her first glimmering of hope — and the courage to take her freedom. After a harrowing escape she slowly reclaims her life through the love of a family facing their own search for healing. Set in modern-day Morocco, Leila: The Weighted Silence of Memory is a journey of rebirth and a testament of one woman’s struggle to find meaning in her own humanity.
“Leila is brave, compelling fiction that speaks many truths about a subject fraught with silence and denial. Moments of human connection, hope and resistance punctuate Leila’s descent into increasing domination and despair. The nuanced characters are true to their context, and while the setting may be unfamiliar, the tactics and justifications of Leila’s oppressors, as well as the physical and emotional scars they cause, exist across religions and nations that have substantial economic and gender inequality. Leila struggles to make sense of her situation and exercise her limited autonomy in her own way, but variations of her physical and emotional scars remain permanently with enslaved women across nations and religions, even if they are fortunate enough to find a space to start healing.” Paul Leighton
Department of Sociology, Eastern Michigan University
“Hold onto your heart for it will surely break as Heather Neff deftly takes you on a heart wrenching, yet ultimately satisfying journey from self loss to self love. Your travel guide is Leila, a woman child who lives in a world where women have little value except to serve and service men. Stolen into servitude because of the sins of her father, she suffers physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Even when she is physically free, her spirit remains enslaved by the ghosts of her pasts and fears for her future. Leila finds acceptance and appreciation through a woman who takes her in and helps her see an inner strength that is far more valuable than her uncommon outer beauty. Neff, a supremely gifted writer, captures the reader with words so engaging it is as if you’re being held hostage by this sorrowful tale as it blooms into a story of hope.”—Cassandra Spratling, The Detroit Free Press
Essaouira, Morocco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Perched on the northeastern coast of the African continent, her white walls enclose a pearl of Moorish architecture comprised of winding alleys and cobbled streets. The mighty Atlantic beats out a rhythm against ancient rocks that once welcomed ships from around the world, and the blue sky nestles against her elegant minarets and turreted houses under the equatorial sun.
This is a city that gives rise to tales, both fanciful and sorrowful. “Leila: The Weighted Silence of Memory” is such a tale ⎯ born in a single moment, captured in a fleeting photograph and grown over decades of memory. I visited Essaouira in 1985 and observed a cloaked woman walking across the sands, her skirts billowing even as her hooded face remained in shadow. A photograph of her figure, set against the restlessly approaching waves, haunted me until I copied it as a painting on a wall-sized canvas. For two decades this painting has hung in various rooms in my home and I thought daily of Essaouira and the unknown woman walking by the sea.
“Leila” is at once the simplest and most difficult book I have written. The events in Leila’s life rolled almost effortlessly from my mind to the page, yet the story is so dark that I have little memory of actually writing it. Her will to survive seems very familiar to me, for it is not unlike my own. However, as her story unfolded it became increasingly and painfully clear to me that nothing I have ever experienced can be compared to her suffering, and I genuinely feel that writing this book gave me a greater appreciation of the privileges and advantages I enjoy in my own life.
Leila’s cruel fate is the fault of a culture that, it seems to me, turns its most vulnerable members into prey. A lack of education, of professional opportunity or the chance for financial improvement leaves untold millions of men and women like Leila at the mercy of those who would exploit them. This is not, therefore, simply a novel about modern-day slavery ⎯ it is a novel about the kinds of physical, emotional and sexual exploitation that we cannot ignore in the world today.
This is not a story about Morocco. It is not about Islamic culture. It is about illiteracy and the desperation of the poor and the oppression of women. It might have been set in any number of cities, embedded in the traditions of any of our world cultures. “Leila: The Weighted Silence of Memory” takes place in Essaouira because of a single moment that haunted me until it found its place in these pages. I hope that, at the least, you find it meaningful. In the best of all worlds, I would hope that you enjoy this tale, too.
With warmest greetings,