Reading The Other Americans by Laila Lalami makes you wonder if art still has the capacity to save us.
Reading The Other Americans by Laila Lalami makes you wonder if art still has the capacity to save us, and if that’s too grand a notion, whether it can create an empathetic response in those who need it most. The novel deals with immigration, race, who gets to call themselves American and how that title is valued differently by those born with it and those who have to earn it. With a structure that recalls Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a film about the changing nature of story when perspective shifts from character to character, Lalami has crafted a novel of the current historical moment told through mostly first-person accounts of her characters that are meant to show the commonality of our capacities for fear, love and brokenness despite any differences in skin color or nation of origin. But this is also a book of secrets where readers are implicated as confidants to infidelity, abuse and the elusive truth of each character. This implication fuels the compulsion to consume the book quickly and possess all the answers to the emotional mysteries and motivations. Plot is a lesser concern here. This is more a story for emotional identification, catharsis and tears.
Where Lalami’s previous novel, The Moor’s Account, received great acclaim as a sweeping, historical epic set in a lush America during the infancy of colonialism, The Other Americans is more reductive. Set in a small town in California’s Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree, the story places her characters in a stark reality where all they can deal with are themselves. It is the kind of place you find on a road trip after hours of looking at desert, when the full gas tank you started with is almost empty. The heat and the barrenness breeds melancholy. The people who live in the place were either born there or came looking for somewhere they could settle and build something for themselves. This latter motivation drew Driss Guerraoui, a former philosophy student in Morocco who escaped state violence in the ‘80s, emigrated to California with his wife, Maryam and opened a donut shop.
Initially, memories of the life that could have been in Casablanca occluded reality in the desert, but Driss came to love Joshua Tree and the life he and Maryam forged for their daughters, Salma and Nora. His presence looms over the novel both as benevolent patriarch and as a memory that haunts his family. The victim of a hit-and-run accident, Driss’ death catalyzes the novel, driving Nora to points of obsession to prove her father’s death was more than it seems. The solving of the crime is left to the professionals, but Nora’s amateur efforts reveal a different image of her father. She discovers a humanity in Driss that is reflected in her own flaws, and she struggles between that reality and her idealization.
We readers have the advantage over Nora because we get to hear from Driss, Maryam, Salma, Coleman, the Black detective transplanted from DC Metro overseeing the investigation, Jeremy, Nora’s former classmate who grew up to be a cop and veteran of the Iraq War, Efraín, a Latino immigrant who witnesses the accident, Anderson, the old man who owns the bowling alley next to Driss’ restaurant, and his son, A.J., Nora and Jeremy’s former high school bully. Everyone speaks, their voices and rationales changing the meaning of events. Lalami proves a mastery of this multiplicity, and her characters often surprise when their wants are revealed. Yet, all these perspectives come to serve a story that Nora drives. She believes her father was murdered because of his last name and skin color. This is not meant to be a profound mystery but a device to enter a larger discussion about race and immigration. That conversation ends exactly where it’s meant to with white people afraid of the changes around them and radicalized youth taking lives because they think it is their privilege. The desert becomes a metaphor for America, barren despite its promises of beauty.
Sometimes the book feels too on-the-nose: the arson of the donut shop after 9/11, Efraín’s fears of coming forward given his legal status, Jeremy’s war buddy who can’t hack civilian life. But we are living in a moment where subtlety is a lost cause. The book is excellent, but there is a sense of futility in its motivations. Lalami provides a perspective on race and immigration and has started a conversation with at least nine voices in her novel, but who is she talking to other than people already taking part in that conversation. You can’t help but think of all the awful people captured on cellphone videos spewing racist and xenophobic bile and wondering what it would take to get them to read just the beginning of this book with the hope that they might experience some empathy. The great project of the 21st century seems to be showing white Americans that if you believe in equality there can be no other Americans. Just Americans. But, in a country devoted to ignorance and illiteracy, the worst place to honor that fact is in a book.