Laila Lalami “The Other Americans”

Laila Lalami is a Moroccan writer known for her fiction and non-fiction writings. She’s a renowned French-Arabic writer, and her novel The Other Americans written in 2019, years after her initial writing success, raised my interest in her work.

Like her previously written works, The Other Americans centres around the story of impoverished or immigrant Moroccans. The key difference between The Other Americans and her previous work is  the tone of the novel; where stories like the Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits come off as hopeful coming of age novels, The Other Americans takes on a darker, tragic tone focusing on “the effects of violence on the human psyche.”1

It opens with the hit and run murder of a restaurant owner and Moroccan immigrant living in California, Driss Guerraoui. Lalami utilises third person narrative to tell the story, which allows the audience to  experience different perspectives each character has about the murder. I enjoyed this means of narration because we can also explore themes around class, race and religion as each character comes from a different background and experiences the hit and run differently. 

One particular line from the book that stuck out for me was: 

“Perhaps memory is not merely the preservation of a moment in mind, but the process of repeatedly returning to it, carefully breaking it up in parts and assembling them again until we can make sense of what we remember.”2

Memory drives the story forward, and as people interact with memories we find that it’s a lot more subjective than you might think.3 When you retell a story, you find yourself leaving out or altering details unintentionally, and if your friend was there, they might be quick to add or correct you. Human beings crave moments and experiences that bring them joy and happiness. The closest thing to reliving that “moment” is replaying the memory preserved by the mind. But because it is a memory of the moment and not the moment itself, it may not be a true representation of the memory but rather a fragmentation of it. 

This is why we find the narrative from each character is fragmented; the murder was witnessed by an undocumented Mexican immigrant, Efrain Aceves, who did not step forward as a witness out of fear of deportation, despite his wife encouraging him to tell the authorities what he saw the night of Driss murder. As a heavily policed and harassed minority group in the US, his reluctance to go to the police is informed by his own experiences and distrust of an institution  that doesn’t always serve and protect the most vulnerable. 

We are also introduced to Driss’ daughter, Nora, a jazz composer. Then there’s Driss’ wife and Nora’s mother, Maryam, who misses her home and life in Morocco. Jeremy, an Iraqi war veteran and an old friend of Nora. Coleman, a detective who begins to unravel her own child’s secrets while investigating the case. And Anderson, Driss’ neighbour, manoeuvring through his family issues. 

The reader gets the perspective of the murder mystery while also getting to know the character’s personalities because the overall story is presented in fragments, so it doesn’t give a ‘complete picture’. The reader finds themselves wondering how they may react at that moment when placed in the same circumstances as our characters, illustrating the successful use of visual imagery on Lalami’s part to paint the scene. 

Although it seems like a surface-level murder mystery, The Other Americans is an ode to the real-life experiences people face in times of struggle and how that interacts with past trauma. I think this is why she chose to narrate the story the way that she did; we’re delving into the experiences these “other” Americans are facing beyond the narration of the murder. We’re getting to see these “other” Americans get ignored by general American society. Despite them living there, sharing similar experiences, it will never be home for some of them. Their “otherness” will never allow them to be accepted, neither as immigrants nor forgotten war veterans.45

Footnotes
  1. Forna, Aminatta. “The Other Americans by Laila Lalami Review – the Political Is Personal.” The Guardian, 29 Mar. 2019, www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/29/the-other-americans-by-laila-lalami-review. Accessed 16 Nov. 2021.
  2. Lalami, Laila. The Other Americans. New York, Vintage Books, A Division Of Penguin Random House Llc, 2020.
  3. Freedman, Ariela. “Theories of Memory: Developing a Canon.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 32, no. 1, Dec. 2008, pp. 77–85, 10.2979/jml.2008.32.1.77. Accessed 31 Jan. 2020.
  4. McKelvey, Tara. “Are US Veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam Treated Equally?” BBC News, 1 July 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48779253.
  5. Asad, Asad L. “Latinos’ Deportation Fears by Citizenship and Legal Status, 2007 to 2018.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 117, no. 16, 21 Apr. 2020, pp. 8836–8844, www.pnas.org/content/117/16/8836, 10.1073/pnas.1915460117. Accessed 19 July 2020.