To kick off each school year, FIT’s honors students discuss a “Summer Read,” chosen by Yasemin Celik Levine, executive director of the Presidential Scholars program. This year’s book was The Other Americans by Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami. The novel, about a hit-and-run of a Moroccan immigrant that affects diverse residents of a small Mojave Desert town, is part murder mystery, part love story, and part family drama.
The students talked about the book in virtual roundtables. Two weeks later, Lalami met with an online group of about 150 students and faculty for a reading and question-and-answer session.
Lalami, herself an immigrant from Morocco, began writing the book in 2014, to grapple with the intergenerational ripple effects of moving 6,000 miles away from her family. With its themes of racism, the immigrant experience, and the aftershocks of military combat, the book is extraordinarily timely, even though she wrote it before Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy.
She wrote the first draft from three different perspectives: a Moroccan-American daughter mourning the loss of her father, a white cop and Iraq war veteran who falls in love with her, and a Black detective attempting to solve the hit-and-run. Lalami’s editor suggested adding more voices to capture the sentiment of the community, so she expanded the chorus to nine. “I realized that all of these characters are struggling with the same sense of otherness,” she said.
All but one of the perspectives are written in the first person, and Lalami worked to differentiate those many “I” voices. For Maryam, the victim’s wife, Lalami wrote in rambling run-on sentences; for Jeremy, the cop and Iraq vet, she read recent war novels to pick up military jargon and spent a day with a deputy sheriff to help understand the character’s life and speech.
“I approach the work with great humility,” she said. “I do not assume I know each character.”
Lalami’s previous novel, The Moor’s Account, a fictional memoir of a Moroccan slave who accompanies an early Spanish exploration of America, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Though the topics of her books are quite different, her goal is the same: “Fiction is a lie, but if I’ve done it right, I’ve shown you the truth.”
Lalami’s most recent book, Conditional Citizens, a work of nonfiction published September 22, traces her own path to U.S. citizenship and asks what it means to be an American.