To Leave... And To Return: An Exclusive Interview With ‘The Other Americans’ Author, Immigrant Novelist Laila Lalami

Forthcoming in Al Jadid, Vol. 23, No. 76, 2019
By 
By Bobby Gulshan
Author Laila Lalami photographed by April Rocha.

 

Laila Lalami’s new novel, “The Other Americans” (Pantheon, 2019) tells the tale of a hit-and-run, and how the death of a Moroccan immigrant reverberates through the lives of the inhabitants of a California desert town. The novel skillfully blends elements of an immigrant story with a crime mystery and even a romance. I had the opportunity to interview Lalami and talk to her about her writing process and the themes she explores in this novel and some of her other written work. (This has been edited for clarity). 
 
One of the things that struck me was the choice to write in first person for all of the different characters. Can you talk to me about what drove that decision and what challenges you faced?
 
Originally I had wanted a break from the first person, because my previous book, “The Moor’s Account” was in first person, and it was this long project in this very specific historical voice, which was sort of exhausting research-wise and also voice-wise. I wanted, with this next book, to do something different, so I started writing it in the third person, actually. There were the three main characters: the woman whose father dies, her love interest, and the detective. But I found that it was very difficult for me to move the story forward and to include the minor characters and all of the nuances while staying neutral in the third-person. So I eventually, after a couple of years and something like three drafts, gave up and started writing it in the first person. And that is when  the book really opened up for me, when I realized that this thing I had kind of been avoiding and dreading was the thing that made the book more exciting for me to write and more fun for me to read, so I embraced it wholly. 
 
It sounds you like a found place that was more intimate and personal. I haven’t gotten around to reading “The Moor’s Account” yet, but it sounds like a very different book. 
 
It’s massively different. In terms of the scope, “The Moor’s Account” is more of an historical epic, it’s just much bigger. “The Other Americans” is much smaller in scope. It’s focused on the nine characters, and they are going about their ordinary lives. Although the trigger is the death of this immigrant, other than that you hear, for the most part, ordinary concerns about ordinary people. There’s love and there is hate and envy and competition and sibling rivalry. In that sense they are very different. On the other hand, they do share similar concerns. All of my books have focused on characters that are displaced and having to start over in some place new, and how the new landscape shapes the person you are and the person you become.
 
Memory plays a large part in the book. There is a wonderful line spoken by Nora in the book, “How strange is the work of memory, I thought, what some people remember and what others forget.”
 
This is a book that takes a single event, the death of Driss in a hit and run, and makes it obvious from the moment it happens that it is in the past. People are remembering things about him. It’s a book that really questions how we remember one another on a personal level, but also on a public level. You can take an event, like the Iraq war – which figures in the book – and people even today are shaping it and remembering it and contextualizing it in very different ways depending on their views. So history itself is an argument, and we are still litigating it many different ways. In the book, this happens with personal memory; it gets re-cast and reshaped as the characters tell their stories. 
 
In the case of Nora, she remembers her father as being supportive, always having her back, supporting her music, but she had him on a pedestal. Of course, after he dies and the many layers are peeled back, she realizes that he was a flawed human being. Her memory is reshaped by that. 
 
I think that is one of the things that drives the story, seeing different perspectives. And the reader gets to see the exact same scene sometimes from different character’s perspectives. Another thing I noticed: there is a blending of genre. It’s mostly a work of literary fiction, but there is also an immigrant story, there is a bit of a romance, and there is also a mystery dimension.  
 
Originally it started as the death of the immigrant, so I had some intention to write an immigration story. But as I began, I really wanted it to be a story about returning home and I wanted to make sure it remained engaging, so it sort of grew organically out of that. Frankly, it was fun for me, because I had never written a mystery before and I didn’t know if I could do it. It was a very different kind of novel from anything I had ever done and I like to learn new things, so it gave me an opportunity to learn how to build suspense and create a mystery and I had great fun in writing that. 
 
You mentioned the idea and theme of returning home. In the case of this particular book, Nora is coming home to Mojave and Jeremy is returning from the war. Can you talk a bit about this theme?
 
In this book there is a lot that has to do with leaving home and returning to it. I think it’s because I myself am an immigrant. I came to the U.S. as a foreign student 25 years ago and I had no idea when I arrived in Los Angeles that I would be living here today. So I think that the decision to stay has really complicated the idea for me. It’s either about returning or leaving. In this book, it’s a bit about both.
 
I know it’s probably a complicated question, but what does “home” mean, how do we define it?
 
It’s a question that comes up a lot. I guess it depends on if you define it as a physical space or an emotional space. If it’s a physical space, I’m not attached to one specifically, because I have moved so much over the course of my life that I don’t necessarily feel a particular attachment to a specific house or even location. But if we think about it as an emotional space, for me home is wherever my family is and that’s where I feel home. So it is a more complicated answer than it would be if I had been born here and lived here all my life, but for me it becomes a bit more complicated. 
 
One interesting aspect in this book is that on the one hand, you have the particular experiences of the individual characters, and on the other hand, a more general human experience that underlies all of the individual experiences. 
 
I would say that in the book, each narrator is really wrapped up in their own experiences and limited perspectives. They are deeply aware of their emotional pain, and less aware of others. If there is a commonality, it is there for the reader to see, since the reader can see all nine perspectives, and the reader gets to see and consider what they all have in common. It’s not something that the characters themselves apprehend. There is some understanding between some of the characters, but it is not available in all directions to all nine characters. 
 
One last question. In terms of responses you may have gotten so far from the book, what has been the response from young Arab-Americans or Moroccan-Americans? And how important do you think it is to write about and represent these experiences?
 
I have, in fact, heard from a number of readers, some who have come to my readings. At almost every stop on the tour, I have had either Arab immigrants or Arab-Americans come and express some joy at seeing an experience that is familiar to you. White Americans take that for granted in that they just have to turn on the TV or open the newspaper to see that. That isn’t something that everyone has, so these kinds of stories can be very affirming.
 
As far as representation, it’s an interesting word. It conjures up some kind of necessity. For me, I write what I know. I’m Moroccan so I write Moroccan characters. I write in the specific, not with the burden of representing an entire Moroccan immigrant experience, but just those of my often very-flawed characters. I write in their specificity, with their unresolved conflicts and flaws, and that is how I expect to have any hope of reaching readers and showing some kind of truth that resonates with them.
 
The interview, conducted by Bobby Gulshan, is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 23, No. 76, 2019.

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