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Author Laila Lalami’s new book explores the experience of being an outsider

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now a new entry on the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

    Jeffrey Brown caught up with the National Book Award fiction finalist Laila Lalami at the Miami Book Festival. Her latest work of fiction, "The Other Americans," explores issues of immigration and identity, part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Laila Lalami, nice to talk to you.

  • Laila Lalami:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I don't usually start this way, but looking at the title itself, "The Other Americans," what does that mean? What did you mean by that phrase?

  • Laila Lalami:

    Well, the book starts off with the death in a hit and run of a Moroccan immigrant, and basically is told from the perspective of nine different characters, who, while they are all tied to this man in one way or another, also have the shared experience of feeling as though they are on the outside, either because they are immigrants, whether they are documented or undocumented or naturalized, or have moved from one part of this country to another.

    So, for example, the detective who's investigating the hit and run has moved from Washington, D.C., to this small desert town where the action takes place.

    And so all of the characters really share this experience of feeling as though they are other in some sense, and that's what tied the book together. I think that's why I picked the title.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But it begins as a kind of murder mystery at its heart.

  • Laila Lalami:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You have that style of writing, a kind of whodunit.

  • Laila Lalami:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But grafted on to that are much bigger themes.

  • Laila Lalami:

    I started working on this book in 2014.

    And my dad had gotten really sick. And I had to travel to Morocco to — and I really thought that he was near death. And, fortunately, he recovered, and he's fine now.

    But that experience really brought home for me some of the longer-term consequences of immigrating to this country more than 25 years ago. And I thought I might start the book really exploring that and exploring the grief of loss, which was the thing that scared me.

    And in order to do that, I thought that framing it as a mystery might keep me interested and keep me going in terms of writing the story and having sort of the propulsive energy to the narrative.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In what ways does fiction work or perhaps not work sometimes to explore big issues like this?

  • Laila Lalami:

    I think it works really well to explore these issues.

    I think one of the problems in writing about issues like this in nonfiction is that it's impossible to do it without taking sides. In fiction, when you write about themes such as exclusion or racism or discrimination, there is the possibility of showing different perspectives.

    And each perspective retains its own integrity in a way. So, when the wife is recounting this event, it's a story of grief. When the detective is talking about it, it's a crime story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Laila Lalami:

    When the daughter is talking about it, it's also a story of loss and missed opportunities.

    So it's just a different way of looking at story. And I really do believe that fiction allows the possibility to tell the truth in a way that nonfiction doesn't, because nonfiction is more interested in facts.

    And I think that there is a difference between facts and truth.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Mm-hmm.

    The main protagonist, the man who is killed — and he gets to tell part of his story too — he really talks openly about the American dream. And his daughter talks about him seeing — his living the American dream.

    So you are really exploring that. You're taking this head on.

  • Laila Lalami:

    He's an interesting character, because he had not intended on immigrating to the United States. He was a graduate student, in philosophy of all things, and got involved in…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In Morocco.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Laila Lalami:

    In Morocco.

    And got involved in different political events that caused him to want to leave. And he went from being somebody who's very much, I would say — I mean, he had, like, Marxist tendencies, to, when he arrived in the U.S., starting a business and embracing fully the idea of the American dream.

    And, of course, the irony is that, on the very first page of the book, when you open the book, he dies in this very mysterious hit and run, and we're not clear on what reasons there are behind it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How much of this comes from your own background, your own experience as an immigrant yourself?

  • Laila Lalami:

    In my case, I became an immigrant because I met an American, and we fell in love and we got married.

    And before I knew it, I was an immigrant and then later a citizen. And I have really spent a lot of time really reflecting on this experience and how it has changed my life.

    And I realized that this is something that ties me to more than 40 million people in this country, to a great number of people in this country. And each of them has a very different life experience, a different reason for why they're immigrating. And in the book, I tried to explore two or three of these experiences.

    Most of the book is the work of the imagination, but the nugget of what really got me started into it and the inspiration came from just the experience of being an immigrant.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And how much of it is tied to the politics of our time? Because I know you have — you also write columns and essays.

  • Laila Lalami:

    I do.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And you address these issues…

  • Laila Lalami:

    Yes…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … in that way, too.

  • Laila Lalami:

    Yes.

    So, to me, this is really a book that's more general about the experience of immigration in America. And I sort of leave my own political opinions about the here and the now to other work.

    So, I'm — I have actually a book of nonfiction coming out next year in which I talk a bit more about the experience of immigration from a nonfiction perspective. So…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But, in the novel, you chose to do something different.

  • Laila Lalami:

    Yes.

    I mean, in the novel, it's more about the private experience of immigration, speak a foreign language, which is what I'm doing right now, and especially when you first arrive in the country, and you mispronounce something, and somebody laughs, or you don't quite know the culture or some of the jokes that people are laughing about.

    And so this experience of being on the outside is an experience that I have had in my life, not just because I'm an immigrant, but also, for example, after I finished my Ph.D., I worked in tech. And, oftentimes, I was the only woman in the room.

    So, it's just like this experience of being on the outside is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. And I think — I think most of my fiction really is about the act of crossing borders and the implications that it has.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Did you feel that you had to wrap it up or tie it up in some way or resolve things, or…

  • Laila Lalami:

    Well, the characters are very much unresolved. And the book is really about the relationships between them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Laila Lalami:

    It's not as if they start out in one point and they end up in another point, where everything is perfectly sorted out in their lives.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Laila Lalami:

    It's not quite like that.

    It's really about how they relate to one another in the aftermath of this — of this crime.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Laila Lalami:

    We do find out who is behind all of it.

    But the book is really an opportunity to look at their relationships to one another.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the book is "The Other Americans."

    Laila Lalami, nice to talk to you.

  • Laila Lalami:

    Nice talking to you, too.

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