In the opening of The Other Americans, Laila Lalami’s fourth novel, a man is killed in a hit-and-run collision. The victim is Driss Guerraoui, an immigrant and small business owner who, after fleeing political unrest in Casablanca, eventually settles in a small town in California’s Mojave Desert to open a business and raise his family. His immigrant story is one his younger daughter Nora, a jazz composer, considers with mixed feelings. “I think he liked that story because it had the easily discernible arc of the American Dream: Immigrant Crosses Ocean, Starts a Business, Becomes a Success.” And it’s this clichéd American-immigrant narrative that Lalami sets out to deconstruct in her book.
The Other Americans grapples with a host of complex issues facing American immigrants today. And although it’s a murder mystery—focused on finding Guerrauoi’s killer—it’s also a provocative commentary on migration, identity, assimilation and bigotry. Lalami, a Moroccan American immigrant, has a PhD in linguistics and is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Her novel The Moor’s Account was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and she writes a column about human rights and foreign policy for The Nation.
I spoke with Lalami over the phone recently. She shared with me her tricks for how best to depict racist characters; her fears about being an immigrant and an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies; and her upcoming nonfiction book, Conditional Citizens, which examines the relationship of nonwhite citizens to America through Lalami’s own personal immigration story. It’s a natural next step for an author keenly aware of how the language we use to talk about people’s origins has the power to deprive them of, or provide them with, a place to call home.
— Anjali Enjeti for Guernica
Guernica: How did the idea for The Other Americans come about?
Lalami: My father got sick in the summer of 2014, a month before The Moor’s Account was published. I was told my father was dying. It was a very scary experience, but it was an experience that I think is familiar to most immigrants, which is this fear that you’re going to receive news like that. I flew back to Morocco, hoping to get a chance to say goodbye. Modern medicine is a miracle—he did recover. But it was a horrible scare, and I was shaken by the whole thing. I came back thinking it would be good to do a more intimate story about a family coping with this kind of fear [of a parent’s death].
Then I began to think about the motivations for the hit-and-run. The same summer my father got sick, there was a spate of hate crimes by white nationalists. So the story became more than just a family grieving the loss of their father, but also a mystery centered around why this immigrant was killed. And I thought the story could be a way of marrying grief and racism together in the same story.
Guernica: Your depiction of racism and xenophobia in this book is subtle.
Lalami: Generally, for me, as a person of color, I’m less worried about the racist who is overt, and who speaks out about it, than I am about the racist next door—the one who speaks politely, but ultimately is taking actions that can be just as damaging on a societal level. I also don’t think a white nationalist with a tiki torch is an interesting character. Narratively speaking, you almost have to bring it down a notch to make it believable and interesting.
So I wanted the characters in The Other Americans to speak in quieter ways. I was also very much struck by how these racists think about themselves. No one says, “I’m a villain. I’m a racist.” The [so-called] guy next door views himself as a victim of circumstance, because someone else is getting ahead at his expense. He doesn’t see himself as a racist. In writing the book, the trick was how to write the racist as he would talk and think about himself, while somehow leaving enough room through subtext for the reader to understand what was going on.
Guernica: The book captures so well the gaslighting that happens to the victims when a racially-motivated crime is committed. That is, the white antagonist argues he would have treated a white person the exact same way, or that the problem isn’t racism but a personality conflict.
Lalami: Well, this has happened before. There were three students in North Carolina [Deah Shaddy Barakat; his wife, Yusor Mohammad; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha] who were killed in 2015 and the guy who shot them, a white man, said it was a dispute over parking: they weren’t parking where they were supposed to. News reports were trying to be as accommodating and sympathetic as possible, to make their deaths about that one thing (parking) and not the other (racism)—as if the motivation can’t be racism if there’s another, different reason for the shooting. And the shooter shot the victims at point-blank range, outside of the parking dispute. He went and knocked on their door and shot them.
Guernica: The Other Americans tackles the elusiveness of the so-called American Dream. Can you talk a bit about this?
Lalami: As you know, I’m an immigrant myself. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years, when I do events, is that people will—not unkindly—suggest that I’m “doing well.” It’s something that’s always mystified me, as if there are different classes of immigrants, and the immigrants who “make it” work harder than those who don’t “make it.” As if success is entirely determined by an individual’s effort, irrespective of society’s structural inequities. I’ve always been very suspicious of that notion. It’s very dangerous. It’s an idea that I think makes people feel guilty when they’re not successful. Like if you’re poor, it’s your fault because you didn’t work hard enough. I think that’s particularly true of immigrants, because there’s this view of them as either a criminal crossing the border or as a Fortune 500 CEO.
Immigrants are just ordinary people, which means their chances of “making it” are determined by what’s happening in society. I wanted to explore this with the family in The Other Americans. Oftentimes, parents like Driss have political reasons for immigrating to the US. Driss starts a business. He finds success, and ironically, he goes from being a Marxist to a capitalist. The wife, Maryam, wanted to move to the US to keep the family together. She was worried the husband would be put in jail. But she realizes she can’t keep her family together—each of them live in their own little worlds. The oldest daughter, Salma, becomes a dentist, but that wasn’t really what she wanted. And the youngest daughter, Nora, becomes an artist, which is not really something the family values. So the process of immigration has all these ripple effects on this family.
I think immigration is something that can change your life forever, and it can change your children’s lives and even your grandchildren’s lives. Children grow up without grandparents, without the reservoir of family stories, without the language and culture. This is a loss that is passed down.
Guernica: Your last book, The Moor’s Account, was a 2015 Pulitzer Prize fiction finalist. That was a sweeping historical novel. The Other Americans is much smaller in scope. Can you talk about making the transition from writing your last novel to this one?
Lalami: I was exhausted by all the research I had done to write The Moor’s Account. It had taken me five years, and I thought I needed a break from the 16th century. I wanted to do something set in contemporary times. The Moor’s Account is an epic tale, and for the next book I wanted to something more intimate in scope. What stands out to me, now that I’ve finished this new one, is how much both stories have in common. At their core, they’re both stories about people who have been uprooted. In The Moor’s Account, a slave is taken to Spain and later on to Florida, and finds himself swept up in adventure and conquest of the new world. In the case of The Other Americans, it’s set here, and it’s set now, but it’s about characters who cross borders in just the same way, but for different reasons. This book centers on the death of Driss Guerraoui a Moroccan immigrant who came to the United States because he found himself in political trouble back in Morocco. His wife wanted to leave Morocco, and so he leaves, too, even though he doesn’t want to. They move to this small town in California, and all the characters there have also been uprooted—whether it is internally, within the United States, or from another country.
Guernica: Both the books are about leaving home–
Lalami: And finding it.
Guernica: The Other Americans is told from the point of view of several characters. Did you know early on that you’d take this approach?
Lalami: It happened organically. In the first draft, there were two main characters—Nora and her love interest, the police officer Jeremy—and the draft was written in the third person. But I realized something wasn’t working: I had this mystery to move forward, but it’s hard to do from the point of view of Nora, who’s not at the scene of the crime. So then I thought, at the very least, I’d add the detective. Yet something still wasn’t quite right. So I sent it to my editor, and his only feedback was that I was shortchanging the other characters, and they were also interesting. And then I thought, If I add the points of view of these characters that were already in the story, then I can keep the mystery going. It becomes a bit more propulsive. At this point I had four drafts, and then I wrote another four or so drafts. It took four years to write the book.
Guernica: When The Nation introduced your column to readers three years ago, you said, “I’m thrilled to be joining The Nation staff as a columnist, particularly this year when the presidential elections have thrown into stark relief deep divisions in how Americans see themselves and their country.” I’m wondering if you could have ever imagined that Donald Trump would become president, and that you’d someday be writing a column about such horrors as the Muslim Ban and the Zero Tolerance Policy?
Lalami: Here’s what happened. At that point—in February 2016—Trump had entered the race and there were, I believe, sixteen Republican candidates. In December 2015, he had announced the idea of the total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. He had also talked about the wall, but at this point he was still not polling that high, and was still considered the buffoon of the sixteen candidates. But was what was interesting was that, even though the other Republican candidates condemned him for his bigoted statements, Trump jumped in the polls. It was downright fascist, and yet all these people thought this was a good policy proposal. They were interested and wanted to hear more.
Trump was basically removing the mask. Instead of presenting racism under the guise of euphemism, or providing plausible deniability for voters, he basically just told it exactly like it was. He was making his racism completely plain and completely overt, and that’s what was getting him more support. That was really scary to me. That’s why I gave that particular quote in February 2016 to The Nation. Even then, I didn’t think Trump would win. I thought, ultimately, everyone would reject him. To give the keys to the White House to a man who is seriously, clearly, and obviously a con man and a racist and a sexist—it’s incredible.
But then he did win. And what’s funny is that, even after he won, people said our other American institutions would hold him back. And you look at what’s happened with the Muslim Ban, and—well, no they didn’t. Somehow Trump got to have his version of the Muslim Ban.
Guernica: It’s an increasingly hostile environment for journalists and critics who speak out against the current administration. You’re very critical about the Trump administration, especially on Twitter. Do you ever worry about your safety?
Lalami: I absolutely do worry about my safety. As time goes by, I’ve had to take all kinds of measures. I no longer receive mail at my address; packages get sent to my publisher and my agent instead. I’ve had stuff sent to my university address. Someone tried to break into my email address. Luckily, it was caught in time. There are so many examples of that. I do have to take precautions with security, as a preventative measure. Because I’ve seen the hate I get through social media or through messages, but also, I’ve seen what happens to other people. Nowadays, if you publish regularly or are a semi-public figure, it makes sense to have security measures in place, particularly for women.
Guernica: I read an interview where you once said about writing, “Fear sits beside me. Doubt is my daily bread.” Now that you’re four books in, is the writing coming any easier?
Lalami: Last week I had to write a piece, and I told my husband I had no idea how to do it. He laughed and said that I say this every single time. Facing that blank page—it does not get any easier. You still have this voice that says, Oh my God, where do I start? This is where experience helps. My job as a writer is to create the conditions so that I stare at that blank page long enough for the words to come out.
On the days I teach, I don’t try to get any writing done. On the days I’m not teaching, I still have school drop-off. But afterwards, I turn off the Internet and work for four to six hours every day. So just doing it on a regular basis is how it all gets done. The doubt and fear is always there, but the routine takes care of that. The discipline basically takes care of the emotions. When people ask how I wrote this book, the answer is, one word at a time. As long as you can keep the word count going up, that’s all you can ask for. Some days, it might be 100 or 200 words. Sometimes, it can be a thousand. When you look at a book and it’s 400 pages, it’s very easy to be discouraged. But if you only have to worry about this one page in front of you, it does get done.
Guernica: Do you regularly go back to Morocco?
Lalami: I usually visit my family in Morocco every couple of years. We’re on the West Coast, which makes travel to Morocco such a drag because it’s so far. In the US, you don’t get huge amounts of time off, except in the summers. But I do go, and am planning to go back again this year. I try to go back every other year, even though the trip is difficult. A lot of people in this country have parents and grandparents close by and take the notion of family for granted. Many of us have family across the world.
Guernica: You’ve lived in the States now for almost three decades. What place feels more like home for you—the US or Morocco?
Lalami: For me, it’s not a simple answer. If home is understood as a place, then I would say the answer is easy: it’s wherever my family is. If it is interpreted as a country, then that answer becomes more complicated. I was born and raised in Morocco and now I’m a citizen of the United States, an experience that has given me the opportunity to observe life from two vantage points. Much of what I write is concerned with border crossing, internal migration, and identity formation. The experience has also affected the way in which I’m perceived and perceive myself. Historically, citizenship in the US has been rooted in whiteness—at the founding of this nation, for example, only propertied white men could vote. This is why, even today, people who aren’t white are usually referred to with a hyphen, e.g. “Native-American” or “African-American” or, in my case, “Moroccan-American.”