Building Alternative Communities: On Laila Lalami’s “The Other Americans”
By Michael Adam CarrollMarch 29, 2019
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
IN HIS BOOK Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community, Italian political philosopher Roberto Esposito analyzes the sociopolitical and etymological constructs of community. He concludes that, in today’s body politic, community has come to mean “property,” belonging to subjects joined together, delimited by borders. On the other hand, when traced back to its Latin roots in communitas, Esposito finds it defined by indebtedness and reciprocity, race and citizenship notwithstanding.
Approaching immigration from these definitions helps contextualize how mass media has easily constructed otherness out of immigrants, seen as outsiders who “invade” borders. In this sense, community functions as a collective imagination that guards nation, neighborhood, and personal space. It protects from difference: of skin color, culture, and opinion. It’s easier to demonize (and consume) than to sympathize from physical proximity. The latter requires true engagement with a person. Yet both produce anxiety and lead down distinct paths of either building walls or mending fences.
Laila Lalami’s latest novel, The Other Americans, explores this tension between our notions of what it means to be American and what it means to be Other. She challenges the exclusive nature of American communities by showing people as people first — their desires and flaws — and the complexities of a multicultural, multigenerational nation that is still wrestling with its own identity. In her writing of immigration and its impact on families, Lalami is more concerned with truth than with metaphor, avoiding flowery prose. The Other Americans thrusts her fiction into a league of necessary literature, along with Luis Alberto Urrea, Devi S. Laskar, Mohsin Hamid, and Valeria Luiselli.
This is Lalami’s fourth novel. Her previous, The Moor’s Account, garnered wide acclaim, including the American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award, while being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The Other Americans sees Lalami expand beyond the Moroccan experience, giving the reader a kaleidoscope of perspectives. From Driss, the victim of a hit and run and a Moroccan immigrant, to his American-born daughter, Nora, who dedicates years of her life to finding the guilty party. Other narrators include Nora’s mother and sister, her veteran boyfriend, as well as the undocumented Mexican man who witnesses the catastrophic event, the black female detective who investigates, and the white family in Southern California allegedly guilty of the manslaughter. In all, Lalami never loses the touch of human dignity in her cast of characters, allowing her to slip between points of view with ease.
This cast of diverse voices strings together an unsuspecting network of people into a makeshift community that suffers from the inside out. “My father was killed on a spring night four years ago.” So begins Nora’s recollection and this intimate story. More like vignettes than chapters, the nine narrators whisper their secrets to the reader, sharing in private a very public affair — the investigation of an immigrant killed by a driver at night who flees the scene. When the sole witness, Efraín, emerges yet doesn’t come forward, because he worries of how deportation could devastate his family, the reader sees him living in crippling guilt. Images of that night haunt him: “Perhaps memory is not merely the preservation of a moment in the mind, but the process of repeatedly returning to it.” It’s not that Efraín is undocumented, it’s that his political status prevents him from doing the right thing for someone else in his community, until he can no longer live with the weight of what he’s seen.
First- and second-generation immigrants in the story form parallel experiences, which underscore how, regardless of citizenship, the struggle continues for those branded as Other. For the parents, the first generation, they neither belong to their new “home” — the United States — nor to the place they leave behind. Driss is ostracized for opening up a small business, while Maryam, his wife, says, “the hardest thing about living in America [was] being so far away, it was like being orphaned.” Not only can they not return to Morocco without it being different from how they left it, but they also can’t rip their children from their lives in California. For Efraín, he stays in the States to provide for his extended family back in Mexico. He and his wife survive on an inconsistent income and live quietly to avoid drawing attention from those who do “belong” in their community.
While parents struggle with nostalgia and cultural obstacles, their children, even those born stateside — the second generation — feel American but are deemed otherwise. For example, schoolmates bully Nora for her surname, Guerraoui. They tell her it looks like an “eggplant” and “poop,” calling her a “poop-eater.” After 9/11 and now an adult, she’s “randomly” selected for screenings and pat downs by the TSA at airports. Her citizenship doesn’t matter, her darker semblance prescribing her Otherness a priori. In response, Nora, like so many in Lalami’s novel, seeks alternative communities throughout her life. She seeks a tribe, detached from cultural norms. Jazz music becomes the catalyst to her communal space where she can interact with likeminded people over a shared passion for the arts, despite their sexual orientation or race. Lalami captures the need for communitas of members that look after one another.
Though not receiving equal voice — and I think that’s the point, they’re decentered here — the white perspective balances out the immigrant story line in the novel. Its honest rage of feeling under siege comes across earnestly in Lalami’s hands. She shows white men attempting to protect the homogeneity of their social circles. When Nora’s boyfriend Jeremy, now a cop after serving overseas, enters a house to investigate a domestic disturbance call, an older white man bemoans, “This neighborhood is not what it used to be.” This comment, a trope threaded throughout the novel by white males, is a familiar way of saying not as white. White men here express a genuine kind of loss, claiming that their communities used to be peaceful and reasonable but no longer, because Others moved in.
It’s Anderson and his son, A. J., who anchor this conservative, socio-political belief system in the last quarter of the book. We’re first led to believe Anderson is responsible for Driss’s death. But, it’s revealed, A. J. was behind the wheel. Anderson was trying to protect his son, like any other father would, he says. Below this honest attempt at self-sacrifice lies an allegory for Trump’s America — the failed American Dream of the white middle class and the demand for its return, as if it were stolen property: Anderson watches as more and more tourists arrive, chain restaurants and a Walmart are erected, and immigrants like Driss open businesses next to his. Anderson and his bowling alley must compete with them all. At the same time, he takes in A. J., after his failed marriage and dog-walking business leave him in debt. Corporate America and immigrants alike, in Anderson’s eyes, thrive by stepping over people like him and his family.
If the novel suffers from anything, it’s that Lalami’s ambitious project of nine first-person narrators could leave readers wanting more. Jeremy’s backstory alone as a Marine veteran and his struggle to reintroduce himself into civilian life, which includes reliving his troop’s killing of women and children, could stand alone as a novella. Similarly, Coleman, the black woman detective, fights through racism in this Southern California town and deserves her own short story. In Driss’s chapters, he explains the love he found in the affair before he dies, an intriguing (and selfish) secret life to which too few pages are dedicated. Nora’s sister’s addiction and their mother’s distance plumbs the depths of grief, is another beautifully human story to be told. The Other Americans tries to show the domino effect that one decision can have on the lives of many. But, seen from a different angle, this uneven arrangement of voices in a single community helps make Lalami’s point of how chaotic and decentered representation continues to be for minorities and recent immigrants.
She captures this notion in the closing chapter through Nora’s thoughts on love: “[L]ove was not a tame or passive creature, but a rebellious beast, messy and unpredictable, capacious and forgiving.” The pursuit of love connects these nine characters, be it parental, romantic, or platonic. Because neither immigrants nor minorities, or even the white majority, find their likeness in the community, love builds a long-lasting tribe, a less obvious alternative to the social construct of homogeneous circles. It’s the last hope Lalami finds in an America that continues to divide.
Michael Adam Carroll’s essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Millions, and Romance Quarterly, among others. He earned his PhD from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
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