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About the Book: The Other Americans

Late one spring night, Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant in California, is killed by a speeding car as he walks across a darkened intersection. The repercussions of his death bring together a diverse cast of characters: Guerraoui’s daughter Nora, a jazz composer who returns to the small town in the Mojave she thought she’d left for good; his widow Maryam, who still pines after her life in the old country; Efrain, an undocumented witness whose fear of deportation prevents him from coming forward; Jeremy, a former classmate of Nora’s and a veteran of the Iraq war; Coleman, a detective who is slowly discovering her son’s secrets; Anderson, a neighbor trying to reconnect with his family; and the murdered man himself.

Driss’s family confronts its secrets, a town faces its hypocrisies, and love—messy and unpredictable—is born. Timely, riveting, and unforgettable, The Other Americans is at once a family saga, a murder mystery, and a love story informed by the treacherous fault lines of American culture.


April Rocha

Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She is the author of four novels, including The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Her most recent novel, The Other Americans, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award in Fiction. She has received fellowships from the British Council, the Fulbright Program, and the Guggenheim Foundation and is currently a full professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Her new book, a work of nonfiction called Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, was published in September 2020.


Author Interview Questions

I was born and raised in Morocco. I fell in love with books at a young age, probably because both of my parents were readers. One of my earliest memories is watching my mother and father, sitting on either end of the sofa, each with a book in their hands. I’ve been writing stories since I was nine years old, but I didn’t try to publish until after I finished my doctoral degree, started working for a software start-up company, and realized that I needed a creative outlet more than ever before.

My first book, the collection of short stories Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005), is about a group of Moroccan immigrants who cross the Mediterranean on a lifeboat. My second book, the novel Secret Son (2009), tells the story of a young man from a Casablanca slum who discovers the identity of his real father, leading him on a journey that has devastating personal and political consequences. My third book, The Moor’s Account (2014), is based on the true story of the first black explorer of America, a Moroccan slave known as Estebanico, who was part of the Narváez expedition to Florida in 1528. My most recent book, The Other Americans (Pantheon, 2019), is about the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant in California, which sets off a chain of events that reveals a family’s secrets, a small town’s hypocrisies, and the ties that bind people together.

LA Times in the author interview section credit Dania Maxwell and the Los Angeles Times, Copyright 2019 LA Times in the author interview section credit Dania Maxwell and the Los Angeles Times, Copyright 2019

Two reasons. The first is that I fell in love with the landscape of the high desert from the moment I started visiting it, about ten years ago, and I wanted to recreate it in fiction. The second is that I wanted to set my story in a small town, where it would be harder to solve the hit-and-run and where the effect on the community would be more salient.

I came to the United States in 1992 as a foreign student and became an immigrant by chance, after I met and married an American. I think the experience of immigration, even under the best of circumstances, splits a life into a Before and After. Immigrants leave behind families, friends, and communities to whom they’re still attached even if they never see them. That absence leaves a mark. In my fiction, I often explore migration—why we leave our homes, how we make new homes, the ripple effects of these decisions.

Migration is one of the oldest themes in literature. The earliest stories we tell ourselves—Adam’s fall from Eden, Moses’ flight out of Egypt, Jesus’ birth as a refugee, Muhammad’s hegira to Medina—are stories of exile, immigration, cross-cultural encounters, etc. But every generation needs to hear these stories told anew, in new contexts, by new storytellers.

The novel tells the stories of nine different characters, revealing how their opinions of the hit-and-run are limited by their perspectives, desires, motives, and ambitions. Their secrets are entrusted to the reader, even if they are never revealed to other characters, and that serves to underline the idea that individual perspective is constrained.

All kinds of people influence my work—my family, my friends, even strangers with whom I have conversations at the coffee shop. But in terms of writers, the novelists I go back to most often are: James Baldwin, J.M. Coetzee, Marguerite Duras, Graham Greene, and Toni Morrison.

It’s a collection of essays on the theme of national belonging. We like to think of citizenship as a great equalizer: after all, we all carry the same passports. But our encounters with our government—whether at a police stop, a border checkpoint, in the voting booth—are still partly determined by race, class, gender, or national origin, which is to say they’re determined by accidents of birth. The rights, protections and liberties of American citizenship are not yet available equally to all; instead, a great many of us are what I would call conditional citizens, rather than equal citizens.


Immigration: A Journey of Emotions
Micaela Guthrie

Immigrating to a new country evokes a myriad of emotions: happiness, excitement, wonder, trepidation, and doubt to name but a few. Another common emotion some immigrants may experience as they forge new lives in new lands, where customs can be quite different from those of their homelands, is fear. This may be fear of apprehension for those without documents, or fear of not belonging for those who do have documents. This primal emotion informs and influences the interactions many immigrants have with their community at large, whether that be neighbors, law enforcement, fellow students, or colleagues. At times it may even be within one’s own family.

In Laila Lalami's The Other Americans, fear colors the actions and decisions of many of the characters. Whether it be Nora not wanting to draw attention to herself at school for fear of bullying and racism, or Efrain not wanting to call the police to share what he witnessed the night of Driss’s accident for fear of being deported, fear is a lens through which Nora and Efrain often view their interactions with society...

For many immigrants, especially in times of divisiveness, this fear can be all encompassing and overwhelming. Fear in the context of interacting with law enforcement once stood as an obstacle preventing immigrant crime victims from reporting crimes for fear of being removed. This led to the enactment of the U Nonimmigrant status to provide temporary protection, in the form of deferred action and a work permit, to victims of qualifying crimes. To qualify, a victim needs to assist in the detection, investigation, or prosecution of a crime and have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of being the victim of the crime. Allowing for crime victims to emerge from the shadows and seek justice is an integral part of the healing in allowing their stories to be told and their voices heard.

However, even with certain provisions designed to encourage the interaction between immigrants and members of the criminal justice system, a sense of distrust still exists. Trust in the judicial system is at times met with the fear of being judged on the basis of nationality or race and not on facts. As Nora poignantly notes, if it had been her father who had been driving, would a man named Mohammad receive the same benefit of doubt as a white counterpart?

Fear, however, when addressed, examined, and confronted, can often give way to its counterpart: hope. As immigrants navigate their way through life, relationships and experiences can kindle a new sense of self in one’s interactions with society. In The Other Americans, many of the main characters move through fear to hope, a switching of emotions and lenses through which the world is examined. This switching from fear to hope rings true for many immigrants. Hope to feel like one belongs, and hope that their chosen home embraces them as one of their own.


Micaela Guthrie is an attorney with the Bend Immigration Group (BIG), LLC. She earned her law degree at Washington University and has dedicated her legal career to the practice of immigration law. BIG's four attorneys speak Spanish fluently and are committed to working with Central Oregon's Latino and immigrant populations, including many DACA recipients and mixed-status families.

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Unbelonging in Post-9/11 America

9/11 challenged American amnesia about the US’s history of destructive meddling in the Middle East on the heels of British colonial rule, 1 Priya Satia, “How WW1 Gave Us Drones,” July 30, 2014, CNN.com, https://www.cnn.com/2014/07/28/opinion/satia-airpower-drones-wwi/index.html disrupting the complacency of the post-Cold War neoliberal order. It was uncanny watching the resulting war on terror unfold as I wrote a book on the British invention of aerial policing in the Middle East after World War One—a system that they unblushingly owned was grounded in “terror.” 2 Priya Satia, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008).

While covert aerial warfare insulates many Americans against awareness of this war without end, as it did Britons in that earlier era, other Americans have been inescapably caught in its dehumanizing gaze. For 9/11 changed what it meant to be American, reawakening atavistic binaries well after the civil rights movement had won that argument (if not yet the reality). Sweeping arrests, spying on Muslim communities, deportations, unrelenting media demonization, blacklists, hate crimes, the infamous Muslim ban—all this domestic accompaniment to the war on terror bred fear among minority communities. Where I once felt confident in my right to belong, however limited my actual experience of belonging, I grew insecure as the state reintroduced disparate categories of belonging based on race and faith. I worried about speaking my mother tongue in public, wearing Punjabi attire in public, my gorgeous, bearded brother—my everyday life as a South Asian-American existence had suddenly become suspect. ...

 9/11 challenged American
Photo Credit: Steve Castillo

These were not idle fears, even for someone with socioeconomic privilege. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) blacklisted my three-year-old because of his beautiful name, Kabir, a name of Arabic origin referring to the fifteenth-century Indian poet-mystic Kabir, whose ecumenical religious preaching makes him dear to Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. How darkly ironic that such a name would entangle a toddler in a bigoted security apparatus incapable of conceiving of syncretism. As we traveled home to San Francisco from Delhi via Singapore and Hong Kong, Kabir endured special screenings and pat-downs, including vigorous search of his mini Spiderman backpack. I remember his bewildered protest: “But I’m not a bad guy, Mama.”

It took much bureaucratic hassle to convince the DHS that Kabir was not a terrorist. They then moved him to a list of once-blacklisted Americans—a roster of individuals who sound like they might be terrorists but are not (as if the penchant for violence is an immutable trait unrelated to shifting context, to history). He is required to use a special seven-digit pin number to fly—I wonder how it will mark him when he is a young man, perhaps with a beard? The DHS institutionalized the renewed post-9/11 presumption that not everyone in the homeland is equal; that there are real Americans, and “other Americans.”

The category of “terrorist” has become so synonymous with Muslim (and those who read as Muslim) that the Republican Senator Susan Collins immediately assumed Iranians were behind the January 6 attack on the Capitol. That event was connected to 9/11, but in a different way: White supremacists and veterans of America’s war on terror were prominent among the attackers. Like most terrorizing acts of violence in the US, including mass shootings by men toting military-style firearms, this one was perpetrated by white Americans committed to racist and bigoted ideologies that were encouraged after 9/11; it was also enabled by a security state obsessively focused on plots being hatched abroad. 3 Farhad Manjoo, “Finally, a President Acknowledges White Supremacists,” New York Times, Jan. 22, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/22/opinion/biden-white-supremacy.html This culture and political crisis are part of the global wreckage of the terrorizing war on terror.

The solution is not to expand our definition of “terrorism” to include violent white supremacists; we have witnessed the dehumanizing effect of that word, its silencing of conversations about causes and politics and licensing of violent policing tactics that harm historically marginalized minority communities. Moreover, we have laws to prosecute such violence—if the security state’s law enforcement agencies can recover from their long complicity in distinguishing between real and “other” Americans. 4 Moustafa Bayoumi, “No, We Do Not Need New Anti-Terrorism Laws to Combat Right-Wing Extremists,” The Nation, Jan. 11, 2021, https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/capitol-domestic-terrorism/

Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History and Professor of History at Stanford University, where she teaches modern British and British Empire history. Her award-winning books include Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, and Time's Monster: How History Makes History. Satia also writes frequently for popular media, such as Time, The Nation, Washington Post, The New Republic, and Slate.com

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Also Read: Top five

Even a global pandemic could not keep A Novel Idea down! Things looked different for the selection team this year but the outcome—finding a great book for the community to read and discuss together—remained intact. Community Readers began meeting in January 2020 to curate a list of possible titles for A Novel Idea 2021. With only one in-person meeting under our belts, we began meeting virtually in March. Getting comfortable discussing books via Zoom and reading mostly in digital formats pushed the team to develop new skills. This year we added a diversity audit to our process to ensure that we are looking at books that represent a wider variety of voices and lived experiences. As a result, our top ten included books by the most diverse group of authors we’ve ever considered. The books that round out the top five include a wide variety of topics, themes, and genres, all worthy of your time. We hope that you’ll read them all!

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
Set in Odessa and Midland Texas during the oil booms of the '70s, this haunting novel is full of dust, oil, anger, racism, love, and rage. Debut author Elizabeth Wetmore takes turns following an interwoven cast of female main characters. In a land that glorifies roughnecks and oil workers this story focuses on the women. The novel starts with violence and heartbreak, leaving the reader and characters to pick-up the pieces over the next 300 pages.
Graham Fox, Community Librarian, Redmond

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
A split-second decision during the Los Angeles unrest in the 1990s leaves a young black woman dead and two families bound together by the violence. Flash forward to present day when another shocking crime hits L.A. and the two families are forced to face down their shared history. This is a suspense-filled novel is about murder, repentance, and ultimately forgiveness.
Liisa Sjoblom, Community Librarian, Downtown Bend

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế As a librarian, it's a blessing when you read a book that you can recommend to a wide range of bibliophiles. This has been that novel for me lately. With its lyrical prose and perfect plotline, I've been telling book clubs and adult readers interested in reading more #ownvoices all about it!
Rya Fennewald, Community Library, Downtown Bend

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
As undocumented citizens, Castillo’s family lives with the unknown every day, under the threat of deportation, all while simply attempting to live fully. Topics such as ICE, Dreamers and DACA, assimilation, undocumented immigrants, and migrant workers are removed from harmful stereotypes. Castillo’s story humanizes an often-overlooked experience.
Sami Kerzel, Community Librarian, Sunriver

This year we’re including the books that comprised the remaining top ten. We had to let some outstanding books go this year but wanted to make sure that readers had access to those titles as well. For a complete list of all books we considered, please check out the Bibliocommons list here: https://dpl.pub/novelideareading


Rounding out the top 10

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