The Other Americans: Tackling immigrant identity with love
Driss Guerraoui, an elderly immigrant from Morocco, had become the victim of a fatal hit-and-run with only one witness.
Efrain digs his phone out of his pocket to call 911, but he never makes the call. The sole witness to one immigrant's death is another - undocumented and terrified that a phone call to the police could have him deported.
When Nora hears the news while having drinks with her roommate in Oakland, she rushes back home to California's Mojave desert. At her father's wake, Nora encounters a friendly face from the past - Jeremy, an old high school classmate. But a lot has changed since she left her small desert hometown years ago - Jeremy is now a veteran of the Iraq war, a revelation that threatens to tear apart the new-found intimacy that brings them together in a time of crisis.
Laila Lalami, herself an American, though born and raised in Morocco, has followed up her Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Moor's Account with an engaging novel which delves into the lives of immigrants who came to America seeking a better life - but instead encountered the difficulties of a post-9/11 world, the mystery of one man's death, and the vagaries of love.
The Other Americans is composed of short chapters alternately related by a cast of characters - Nora; her mother Maryam and sister Salma; Jeremy; Coleman, the detective tasked with investigated Driss' death; neighbour Anderson and his son AJ, a high school classmate of Nora's; and Driss himself.
These chapters are deftly woven together in an account of the weeks and months following the hit-and-run. Some of the voices in the novel are incredibly well-drawn - such as Nora and Jeremy's - while others suffer, often from being less central to the plot.
|There wasn't anything I could do. All I saw was a man falling to the ground|
While few chapters are devoted to Efrain, Lalami expertly renders the tragedy of an undocumented immigrant's guilt over his inability to provide a witness testimony to Driss' death.
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Never is Lalami's novel more timely than in this account of a father of two American citizens, paralysed, unable to grant justice to an American daughter of immigrants. It speaks to the fear of thousands in a country in which few cities resist the power of immigration authorities to tear apart families.
However, the words of another pivotal character appear caricatured as Lalami attempts to address the brutality of racism in America, and one wonders if it might not have been more successful to have shown the devastating consequences of the racism of an all-the-more common type - that of a white man who does not believe he is racist, yet nonetheless discriminates and perpetuates violence against non-white bodies - rather than that of a character, who, by the end of the novel, sounds more like a card-carrying KKK member.
Where Lalami really succeeds is in her treatment of the titular issue - what it means to be an "Other" American: non-white, an immigrant, undocumented, or a first generation son or daughter of immigrants. She also produces a subtle portrait of Arab-Americans which is all too difficult to find elsewhere.
To be an "Other" American is to be forever in conflict; it is the neverending sense of non-belonging; it is the confusion of not knowing where home is.
|I had long ago learned that the savagery of a man named Mohammed was rarely questioned, but his humanity always had to be proven|
This conflict is vividly articulated through the story of Nora and her relationship with her parents, a classic story of a first generation American diverging from the traditions of her parents' homeland and struggling to please parents who expected something altogether different from their lives in a country which demands financial struggle and total assimilation.
When her father dies, Nora is hit with the full force of the fragility of the immigrant experience. Remembering the arson of her father's diner days after 9/11, she wonders if the death of an Arab Muslim immigrant could ever really be an accident in America.
Lalami delicately traces the scars of 9/11 and the Iraq war on Muslim and Arab American life, events which forever changed the lives of the Guerraouis and thousands of others. She manages to take a well-worn issue and treat it with the elegance and love which resonates throughout the novel.
The conflict of love
While The Other Americans has largely been marketed as a story of immigrant America, the real beating heart of the novel is the relationship between Nora and Jeremy.
Lalami's prose is most crisp and elegant in her vivid portrayal of love, which, like immigrant identity, is depicted as a conflict, a battle between leaving and staying, between knowledge and uncertainty. While some of the characters feel archetypal or even stereotypical at times, Lalami's story of familial and romantic love in all its agony, comfort and confusion is the most honest and devastatingly realistic aspect of the novel.
|He wasn't the sweet kid I knew in high school; he had fought in a brutal war, a war I hated|
It is in love that the novel's characters must learn to deal with the sides of each other they cannot understand - their lifestyle choices, infidelity, addiction, and violence - and it is in love that Nora chooses to find transcendence from the inescapable tragedy of her father's death.
The Other Americans often feels like a novel struggling to transcend the bounds of genre. Despite Lalami's tight prose, it fails to complete this journey. While a thoroughly engaging read, The Other Americans ultimately fails to weave together various genre strands, often feeling hampered by the central murder mystery.
What Lalami's novel does do is transcend the bounds of plot. Although the central mystery of the death of Driss is predictable, as were other plot points, this predictability did not halt my engagement with the story of Leila, her family and Jeremy.
Although the novel has drawn in readers based on its plot, it is a mark of a well-written novel that it needn't matter than the mystery of Driss' death is easy to solve. Rather than being a plot-driven novel, The Other Americans succeeds as a study of love and identity in America.
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Mel Plant is a journalist at The New Arab.
Follow her on Twitter: @meleppo