Modern Conflicts, Enduring Fears: The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

By Alanna Weissman

91DGmiwp05L.jpg

Driss Guerraoui is killed in the first sentence of The Other Americans (Pantheon, 2019), but his life is the thread that ties together the acclaimed author Laila Lalami’s fourth novel. Through nine first-person perspectives, we see the many people whose lives he has touched—among them his wife and daughters, the detective investigating his death, his killer, and even the deceased himself—grappling with his hit-and-run death and the events that unfold thereafter.

Even though Driss’s death is the driving force of the story, the novel touches on a wide array of themes, such as family, identity, addiction, prejudice, migration, belonging, and home. Likewise, though set around 2014 in the Mojave Desert, the narrative reaches across place and time, to the war in Iraq, violence in Mexico, political unrest in Driss’s native Morocco.

“There is a sort of thematic unity to all of [the perspectives], and that is the theme of migration and identity,” Lalami said at an event at the Center for Fiction on March 27, the day after the book was released. “[The characters are] crossing borders physical and metaphorical.”

Most of the journey focuses on Nora, a musician and the younger of Driss’s two daughters. While grappling with her grief, Nora makes a connection with a war veteran as well as an unexpected discovery about her father, both of which challenge her preconceptions. And she’s not the only one—most of the characters, even those outside of Driss’s family, are experiencing a loss of some sort: a death, a move to an unfamiliar place, the end of a relationship, the revelation that someone they love isn’t who they thought they were.

Describing an acrobat troupe in Marrakesh, Nora says, “they each performed a solitary act, and yet the effect would only be achieved when viewed in unison.” Such is how the narrative functions: The diverse characters view the same events with varying perspectives, each centered around different elements of the plot. Lalami eschews easy caricatures—all of her characters are complex, flawed in some way—even as they give themselves the benefit of the doubt.

“The voice you use to narrate your own life, you are the hero of your own story,” Lalami said at the Center for Fiction. “The voice with which we talk about ourselves to ourselves is maximally empathetic.”

And many of those stories feel urgently contemporary: Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11, a Mexican immigrant’s fear of deportation, a veteran’s guilt over his role in Middle Eastern conflict, a white man’s racial anxieties. These are the eponymous other Americans, nine characters with distinct fears and desires in 21st century America. Though set before the 2016 presidential election, the themes resonate even more deeply now, as Islamophobic attacks increase in frequency (the book was released less than two weeks after the Christchurch mosque shootings) and political fights erupt over immigration.

It is impossible to enumerate here the many elements of this wide-ranging novel, but though many of the topics are dark, love, both familial and romantic, endures throughout, in all its fervor and complexity.

“I didn’t want to write a character that’s just grieving throughout the book and having no other emotions,” Lalami said at the Center for Fiction. “I chose to write about love, because I think love is necessary.”

Washington Square