Then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1958 book, A Nation of Immigrants, brought to light a historical reality that few at the time had thought much about. Fewer than ten million out of 180 million Americans were foreign-born then. But by 1990, following the generous Immigration Act of 1965, that number had doubled. And today, the United States houses 47 million immigrants, about fourteen percent of the 344 million people in the country. Little wonder, then, that a torrent of books have been published in recent years highlighting the immigrant experience. And Laila Lalami’s deeply affecting novel, The Other Americans, is one of the most outstanding efforts in that genre. It’s also a brilliant example of a writer’s use of shifting perspective to dig beneath the surface for hidden truth.
Native resistance to immigration compounded by racism
The flood of immigrants to the United States who arrived in the mid-nineteenth century crowded into the cities of the East Coast. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia received the bulk of the new Americans. Of course, over time many gravitated to other places throughout the country. But the predominantly European immigration remained concentrated in the East. Not so with the newer wave of immigrants from Latin America and Asia welcomed by the 1965 Immigration Act. According to the Pew Research Center, “Nearly half (45%) of the nation’s immigrants live in just three states: California (24%), Texas (11%) and Florida (10%).” And, for the most part, these new Americans are people of color. As a result, an upsurge in racism has reinforced the native resistance to immigration. This grim reality is the backdrop to Lalami’s story about a Moroccan immigrant family in California.
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (2019) 300 pages ★★★★★
Finalist for the National Book Award
An American success story
Driss Guerraoui achieved the American Dream. An immigrant from Morocco, he and his wife Maryam built a small diner into a successful business in the Mojave Desert town where they had settled. The pair raised two daughters, one now a dentist with a thriving practice, the other an aspiring jazz composer living in Oakland. Then one night a hit-and-run-driver kills Driss on the road in front of his diner.
Shifting perspective to tell the tale
Lalami tells Driss’ story in rapidly alternating chapters, shifting the perspective from one character to another. First, daughter Nora, the musician. Then her friend from the high-school band, Jeremy, an Iraq vet and now a cop. Efraín, a witness to the murder who is undocumented and terrified the police would call in the INS. Maryam. Driss himself, speaking from the grave. Nora’s dentist sister, Salma. Coleman, the detective leading the investigation. And, finally, Anderson and A. J. Baker, the aging owner of the bowling alley next door to the diner and his son, men with a grudge against Driss. And all these characters harbor secrets, which gradually seep out as the story advances.
The Other Americans is at once a murder mystery, a family drama, a love story, and a gripping account of the immigrant experience in America. The book is a bestseller and has been widely and favorably reviewed. And it’s all well deserved.
About the author
Laila Lalami was born in 1968 in Rabat, Morocco. Her first novel was published in 2005. Ten years later, her third novel, The Moor’s Account, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Now, this book, her fourth, is a finalist for the National Book Award. She holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Southern California. She is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.
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