In Laila Lalami’s novel, Immigrants Are Fully-Realized People—and So Are Racists
The author of "The Other Americans," on the extremely likable white supremacist hiding in your office cubicle
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Migration and all its ensuing discontentments obsess the work of Moroccan-American novelist and essayist Laila Lalami. In her debut, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Lalami offered us the fates of four Moroccans fleeing across the Strait of Gibraltar for Spain. The characters in her follow-up, Secret Son traverse the city of Casablanca and the boundaries of class. In her last novel, The Moor’s Account, a 2015 Pulitzer finalist, she elegantly imagined the journeys of Estebanico, the first black explorer of the New World, who was part of a real-life Spanish expedition to the Americas.
Lalami’s own trajectory began in the city of her birth, Rabat, Morocco. She moved to London for graduate school and then on to a PhD. in linguistics in Los Angeles, where she has lived for two decades. In her latest, The Other Americans, she explores immigration, in its many American iterations, through the mystery of a hit-and-run that takes the life of Driss, a Moroccan American immigrant.
I spoke to Laila Lalami about the white supremacist hiding in your office cubicle, the book that reminds her of Trump, and feeling like an impostor in is a sea of white faces.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: Your last novel, The Moor’s Account wandered the U.S. South and Mexico and told the epic story of Estebanico, the first black explorer of the New World. The Other Americans is mostly set in California, but offers a sweeping view of America with its nine narrators. How did the story come to you?
Laila Lalami: In the summer of 2014, I was on vacation when I heard that my father, who lives in Morocco, had taken very ill. It was this horrible, horrible scare but then he recovered. I’m very grateful, but the scare really brought home for me the fear that many immigrants have of being away from their loved ones. So that was the inspiration for having this woman come back home because something happened to her dad. In my story, he dies.
I also had a terrible bout of insomnia for a couple of years so I had one character have it too. Also that summer, there was a spate of hate crimes happening in the United States. The crime of a hit-and-run was interesting to me. You really would never know who did it. I thought that this element would help propel the story forward and the book took off from there.
JRR: I felt the geography of the police station–and later the Iraq of Jeremy’s flashbacks–quite acutely. I know you did some intense historical research for The Moor’s Account. How did you go about research for this novel?
LL: I learnt a lot about world building from the last book. You have to think about every detail and each one has to fit. Even though I didn’t intend on doing so much research for this one, I ended up doing quite a bit. I went on a ride-along with a sheriff’s deputy. I read a ton of books about the Iraq war. I talked to a district attorney. I spoke to a guy who was an expert on collisions to figure out things like what car would cause that kind of damage, where it would stop, and where it would it be able to make a left. I had learnt those (research) skills from the previous book and maybe I couldn’t help myself. It was fun to be able to do it with something contemporary and make the story more authentic.
JRR: Could you talk about place and why you decided to set this story in the Mojave Desert?
LL: I’ve always considered myself a big city person and the desert held no interest or attraction for me. Then about eight or nine years ago, my husband, who’s a huge hiker and into outdoors stuff, started going to the desert. I went with him one time and I was surprised at how much I responded to it. It’s so silent and so quiet. I really love that, especially because where I live is so noisy. Being there felt so freeing. I thought it might be interesting to set this book there because when people think of California, they think of the big metropolitan cities, LA or San Francisco but there is huge amount of space in between. It’s a California that’s not necessarily talked about a lot.
I’ve always been interested in what’s unseen. The landscape is one you don’t see all the time in fiction. Using the small town setting, I felt that I could play with the story, the characters, and have that sense of foreboding. For example, because it’s tiny community, the question becomes: what if it’s somebody that you know that committed the hit-and-run? It seemed like a very dramatically interesting place to do it.
JRR: Your characters embody different types of immigrants. Which one do you feel closest to? I read that you came to America as an adult.
LL: They all represent for me a different aspect of the dislocation experience, not necessarily an immigrant one. The characters include someone fleeing political strife, an undocumented worker, and someone who’s moved from D.C. to the desert. Everybody in the book has had some kind of displacement, which really does mark your life and your sense of belonging and identity.
I do feel kinship with Nora because she’s an artist and she’s just trying to make it. But I’m not her because she was born here. Maryam, the mother, I really connect with as well. She’s someone who came here as an adult, and 20 years later, she’s starting to have misgivings about it. I can empathize with that because when you immigrate at young age, you don’t really think about the longer-term consequences. For example, in my case, my dad got sick and we had to pack up and go in a hurry. Each of the nine characters has something that I feel close to but Nora and Maryam would be the two characters who are the closest.
JRR: Nora is an artist–not the family’s first choice of profession. Would you talk about the immigrant children’s choices in the book? Perhaps also what you’ve experienced in choosing your path and how your family responded to it?
LL: My parents still live in Rabat. When I announced that I was going to be a writer they were not very thrilled about it, not in the least because at the time in Morocco in the 1980s, writers were getting into all kinds of political trouble. This wasn’t something that they necessarily welcomed. It took them a lot to accept it and now they are obviously huge fans.
Here in the U.S., in particular, the children of immigrants have a lot of pressure. They feel that their parents have sacrificed so much for them so there’s a sense that they’re living their lives not just for themselves but also a little bit for their parents. In the book, Salma, Maryam’s oldest child, is so eager fit into that and becomes a dentist. Outwardly, everything is going perfectly for her, but she’s going through a lot of trouble. Nora, who while she’s professionally doing what she loves and enjoys, she’s constantly running up against her mother’s disappointment. It’s just a tough thing. I don’t care if you’re an adult, but to feel that you are disappointing your parents is never an easy feeling.
JRR: Salma’s section, which is in the second person, was so compelling and especially, that line that ends it, “This is where the plane took you.” To me, the stereotypical immigrant American dream seemed most rotten with her. Did you know what her struggle, which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t read the book, was going to be from the start?
LL: I knew there was something going on with her but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. When the time came to write her, I wanted to try something different and decided on the second person perspective. As soon as I did, I became interested in her own journey and how different she was from her sister, who was born in America. As I started writing, I was like “Ah, it’s so obvious, it’s right there!”
JRR: Nora has chosen her own route and manages to stand up to her mother but we also see her struggling as a woman of color in the music world. She suffers from a version of imposter syndrome.
LL: I don’t know if you’ve had this experience but I’ve had it multiple times. Multiple times. I’ll give you an example. Last summer, I happened to be invited to a very fancy arts dinner. I walk in and the entire room is a sea of white faces. Everybody is looking at you and they look at you very curiously. These people are not mean or anything but it really brings home for you how utterly uniform certain spaces are. I think one of troubling things that I keep coming up against, at least for me, as a writer, is that you have these artistic spaces that are supposed to be full of liberal, open-minded people, and then you show up and it’s really not diverse at all. You don’t feel included so it can be very isolating. It’s not easy. A field like musical composition is an extremely male-dominated world. And then, on the top of that, Nora is a person of color. Writing her experience of this did not require a huge leap of imaginative empathy, let’s just put it that way.
JRR: I felt like A.J. was a white supremacist lite type. You offer us insight about his childhood and his abusive father. I had sympathy for the younger version of him.
LL: Portrayals of racists, particularly in popular media, are always very cartoonish. The racist becomes a monster and it’s very difficult to perceive him as a human being. In a way that’s dangerous because human beings contain that monstrosity. It’s very easy to look at the Neo-Nazis in the news now and think that they’re monsters. Of course, they are. But I’m much more worried about the one that you don’t see on television, the one that’s working next to you in your office who is extremely likable. But then one day they say something and you’re like, wait, what? It comes out of nowhere. To me, this is what is really scary because it’s very complicated and it’s not caricatural. And it can come at anytime.
With A.J., I wanted him to have that personal history. Just because he’s a racist doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a path or he doesn’t have a family. He gets to tell you another story. Also no one says, “Oh yes, I’m a racist and I’m a bad person.” It’s always: “Well, no, you have to hear my side of it.” He has his own reasons for doing what he’s doing. In capturing that character, particularly in the first person, I let him speak in his own voice and let the reader make the judgment.
JRR: Nora’s mother Maryam has a lot of hopes for Nora but she also wants Nora to find a sense of “home,” something Maryam says she herself given up on. Would you talk about this a little?
LL: For Nora, this is the only country she’s known so it is home. More than that, it’s this realization that there is no untroubled place. Everywhere is going to have its own issues. Staying in Oakland which is where she lives would not solve this. It’s patently untrue that the city is somehow much more open-minded than other places. Maybe on the surface, but it’s maybe not. I think she comes to a little bit of understanding towards her mother. She realizes that home is much more about people than it is a particular place.
JRR: Did you find writing this novel in this era of Trump more challenging because the issues with which you deal are very much in the news? You deal with intensities of America in your opinion pieces and essays too.
LL: I started working on this novel in 2014 during the Obama Administration. Don’t forget that in terms of immigration, Obama earned the nickname of “Deporter-in-Chief.” I just did an interview for the book where the reporter asked, “Is this Trump’s America?” I said, “No, this is America.” Trump has revealed a side of it but he is not the encapsulation of racism. Racism has been part of American history from the beginning.
One of the advantages of doing fiction is that it’s a long project that lasts several years. I pay attention to what is happening in the news but when I write fiction I use a very different approach. I suspend judgment. I’m really much more interested in people as people. I do try to separate fiction and non-fiction as much as possible.
JRR: I read your essay on how novels can help us get through the difficult era we’re in right now. Is there a book that you return to as comfort reading again and again?
LL: Comfort, maybe not, but there is a book that I think about a lot when I think about Trump: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. It is told in a communal voice and it talks about this head of state, a complete megalomaniac who comes up with the craziest edicts.
JRR: What are your favorite books about immigration?
LL: Let me just move to my bookshelves here. There’s Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea and Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God, which tells the story of a Chinese-Panamanian father, his German wife, and their American-born children. V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas has all the estate workers who come from India to the island. It’s so hard to pick just a few! I do like Jhumpa Lahiri’s first collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies and Ha Jin’s The Bridegroom. There’s the work of Sandra Cisneros. All of it. Then, of course, they are a number of Arab American writers who have written about this, like Randa Jarrar and Rabih Alameddine. There’s Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection of short stories, The Refugees, which more about displacement in general. And The Sympathizer is excellent.