Anjali Enjeti in Guernica:
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.