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9 First-Person Perspectives Give Voice To 'The Other Americans'

Mar 24, 2019

Laila Lalami's new novel The Other Americans is told from the perspective of nine different narrators who have one thing in common: They've all "had the experience of dislocation," Lalami says.

The book begins with a Moroccan immigrant who is killed by a speeding driver in a hit and run. The narrators include the dead man himself, his wife, his adult daughter, a man who witnessed the crash, an Iraq war veteran, a detective, and others. The first-person accounts form a mosaic of race and class in America.

"It just seemed to me that it was impossible to capture the complexity of the immigrant experience through just the one perspective of the man who dies at the beginning of the book," Lalami explains. "By conveying it from these different perspectives, my hope was that readers would get different ideas about immigration."

Lalami, who was born in Rabat, is an immigrant herself. In May 2018, she appeared on NPR's Weekend Edition to talk about what patriotism means to her. Lalami explained that, for her, patriotism required a constant questioning, and re-evaluation.

"One of the things that struck me about America when I started living in it is how easily Americans accepted the idea that their country was the best country in the world," she said. "What does it really mean for America to be the No. 1 country in the world? Does it mean that it has the best health care system? Does it mean that it has the best educational system? Does it mean that it's achieved the most perfect record on human rights ever?"

She said that her patriotism called for ongoing effort to make the U.S. "a more perfect union."


Interview Highlights

On wanting to tell a different kind of immigration story than the ones that are often told on the news

I think we're often shown [immigration] in the news almost exclusively as a law enforcement issue. So, for example, there's so much talk about border crossings and we hear about national emergencies — and immigration is really a natural ordinary human experience. It happens every day.

There are 40 million immigrants in this country and their experiences are very varied. But one thing that they do have in common is this periodic experience of living their lives in the particular, but then seeing it reflected to them in the generic.

On what she meant when she wrote after the travel ban: "America embraces me with one arm, but it pushes me away with the other."

We hear constantly about these ideals — like America was built by immigrants. On the other hand, you also hear about various "bad hombres" across the border ... where immigrants are portrayed as people who are coming here to "steal jobs" and so on. So these dual portrayals ... it can be difficult for immigrants on a daily basis.

On the man killed in the hit and run at the beginning of The Other Americans

His name is Driss Guerraoui. He's somebody who moved with his wife in 1981 from Morocco to California. The reason that they decided to uproot their family was because he had run into some political trouble at home and ... his wife felt that he was in danger and they wanted to seek safety. So they moved to California where they started a business and seem outwardly to be a perfectly happy and successful family and then the book opens with this suspicious accident.

On the different perspectives readers will find in the book

One of the narrators is the wife. ... She wanted to move here because she wanted to keep her family together — and maybe she succeeded and maybe she didn't succeed. Another narrator is the witness to the hit and run ... and he's an undocumented immigrant and that creates a sort of moral dilemma for him: Should he come forward and say what he has seen, and, in doing so, basically risk his own safety and his own family's safety?

There are certain disagreements that can be bridged and there are other disagreements that cannot be bridged. I cannot, for example, compromise with someone who wishes that I would disappear from this country. - Author Laila Lalami

On Driss' adult daughter, Nora

The victim's daughter Nora is essentially the main character. She's the one who is forced to return home to this small town that she thought she had left behind for good. And she's really living truly with the ripple effect of her parents' decision to move to the United States because she's born here. She is in this place, but not exactly of it, because she's constantly reminded that she's different as she's growing up. So it really is about also the children of immigrants.

On whether the book is designed to help heal division

I think in the book there are certain disagreements that can be bridged and there are other disagreements that cannot be bridged. I cannot, for example, compromise with someone who wishes that I would disappear from this country ... I don't think that the book offers that as the possibility at all. But I think that we can learn from hearing from others. And as long as those others are treating us as complete human beings, and see us in our all of our complexity, then I think that, of course, listening to one another is the first step.

Peter Breslow and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Laila Lalami's new novel begins with a crime. A man is run over in a dark intersection late at night. It's a hit and-run. The victim is a Moroccan immigrant, killed by a speeding car outside the diner he runs in the Mojave Desert. His death unspools the stories of a group of nine characters - the victim's daughter and widow, the detective assigned to the case and others. All the perspectives work to illuminate the mystery of what happened on that night but also how these people are connected to one another despite all the fractures that run through American life. The book is called "The Other Americans." And Laila Lalami joins me now.

Welcome.

LAILA LALAMI: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story centers around a killing. An immigrant of Moroccan descent, like yourself, is killed in a hit-and-run. Tell us about him and this family.

LALAMI: So his name is Driss Guerraoui. He's somebody who moved with his wife in 1981 from Morocco to California. And the reason that they decided to uproot their family was because he had run into some political trouble at home. And he thought - his wife felt that he was in danger, and he - they wanted to seek safety. And so they move to California, where they start a business and seem, outwardly, to be perfectly happy and successful family. And then the book opens with this suspicious accident.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this book is told through nine narrators. It's a sort of mosaic of race and class in America. And all these narrators tell their stories in the first person. We're seeing their experiences through their eyes. Why did you want to do it that way?

LALAMI: For something like this, it just seemed to me that it was impossible to capture the complexity of the immigrant experience through just the one perspective of the man who dies at the beginning of the book. And by conveying it from these different perspectives, my hope was that readers would get different ideas about immigration. For example, one of the narrators is the wife and her experience of immigration. She wanted to move here because she wanted to keep her family together. And maybe she succeeded, and maybe she didn't succeed. And then another narrator, for example, is the witness to the hit-and-run, who's...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Efrain.

LALAMI: Yes, correct. And he's an undocumented immigrant. And that creates a sort of moral dilemma for him. Should he come forward and say what he has seen and, in doing so, basically, risk his own safety and his own family's safety?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And among the other characters are Coleman, a black detective, Jeremy, an Iraq War veteran, Nora, the victim's daughter. And they're all bound together in this story of America at this moment and since 9/11.

LALAMI: Yeah. I mean, I think each of the characters in this book has, basically, had the experience of dislocation. And the victim's daughter Nora is, essentially, the main character. She's the one who is forced to return home to this small town that she thought she had left behind for good. And she's really living, truly, with the ripple effect of her parents' decision to move to the United States because she's born here. She is in this place but not exactly of it because she's constantly reminded that she's different as she's growing up. So it really is about, also, the children of immigrants.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And all these characters, they also seem to have this central theme, which is that they work hard. But they have had to work hard against prejudice, against the forces beyond their control. I mean, Driss came to America, built a life. But after 9/11, his doughnut shop was burned to the ground. And then he started over with a diner. It's this sort of, like, constant thing of trying to move forward and capture the American dream and then things taking it away.

LALAMI: Yeah. He's an interesting fellow because as a college student, he was very much, I would say, on the left side of the political spectrum. Things didn't quite work out in Morocco in the 1980s for that kind of student, and so he was forced to leave. But then he gets sort of seduced by the American dream and the idea of financial success. And the irony is that he's actually quite satisfied with his life before this car accident happens.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been outspoken about how you see America right now, especially after the travel ban. You wrote, America embraces me with one arm, but it pushes me away with the other. This book seems like a response to that. Is it?

LALAMI: I suppose so. I think it's a book that basically looks at the experience of immigration, which, I think, we're often shown in the news almost exclusively as a law enforcement issue. So, for example, there's so much talk about border crossings. And, you know, we hear about national emergencies. And immigration is, really, a natural, ordinary human experience. It happens every day. And there are 40 million immigrants in this country, and their experiences are very varied. But one thing that they do have in common is this periodic experience of seeing - of living their lives in the particular but then seeing it reflected to them in the generic.

What I mean when I say that America embraces me with one arm is that we hear constantly about these ideals, like America was built by immigrants. On the other hand, you also hear about various bad hombres across the border, so where immigrants are portrayed as people who are coming here to, quote, unquote, "steal jobs" and so on. So these dual portrayals are - it can be difficult for immigrants on a daily basis.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this book, though, you show a way that we can understand each other despite our differences. You know, Nora and Jeremy, the Iraq vet, they come together, for example. Do you think that's fiction, the way that you hope the world will be? Or do you believe that we can see past this moment of division?

LALAMI: Well, that's a very interesting question. I think in the book, there are certain disagreements that can be bridged. And there are other disagreements that cannot be bridged. I cannot, for example, compromise with someone who wishes that I would disappear from this country. Then I don't think that the book offers that as a possibility at all. But I think that we can learn from hearing from others. And as long as those others are treating us as complete human beings and see us in our - all of our complexity, then I think that, of course, listening to one another is the first step.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Laila Lalami - her new book is "The Other Americans." Thank you very much.

LALAMI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.