The Other Americans - Laila Lalami
Published: March 2019
Setting: California, US
Rating: 3 Stars
Late one spring night, as Driss Guerraoui is walking across a darkened intersection in California, he’s killed by a speeding car. 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; Efraín, an undocumented witness whose fear of deportation prevents him from coming forward; Jeremy, an old friend of Nora’s and an Iraqi War veteran; 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.
As the characters–deeply divided by race, religion, and class–tell their stories, connections among them emerge, even as Driss’s family confronts its secrets, a town faces its hypocrisies, and love–messy and unpredictable–is born.
Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan Immigrant living in Yucca Valley, a small town in the Mojave Desert, California is struck down and killed by a hit and run vehicle while on his way home from his Diner one spring evening. His family is forced to come to terms with the loss of their patriarch and in their attempts to reconcile this loss, set about chain of events causing ripples across the family and their small community. Through the characters and their narration, we get to learn and share in their secrets, their struggles, their fears and ultimately, what being American means for them.
The Other Americans is narrated by nine different characters and the story unfolds through these characters - Driss’ daughters Nora and Salma, the widow Maryam, Former Iraq veteran, now cop and Nora’s childhood friend and current love interest, Jeremy, the reluctant eye witness Efrain, the investigating cop, Erica Coleman, the neighbours, the Andersons and even Driss himself. Each character speaks in the first person in alternating chapters and while this gives the story a wide range of perspectives, the characters in some instances end up sounding the same and quite bland.
The beauty of this story however is in its deceiving quality. It presents as a simple Immigrant story, tracing the origin and experience of an Immigrant family in America, but beyond the surface, this book is really about identity – the American identity and whether there is a singular American identity. If it exists, is it realistic or attainable? It poses the question, what exactly does it really mean to be an American? Is it in the citizenship or is it pegged on race, behaviours, feelings, religion or politics? And if you don’t fit it into the ‘ideal’ American definition, does that then make you an ‘other’?
The characters - from the Caucasian family next door to the 2nd generation Immigrants to the undocumented Mexican, the Returnee war veteran and even the African-American cop, all seem to struggle to find their place in America – beyond race, class, politics and religion. They are all in search of the elusive American identity and to a certain degree they all battle with feeling un-American. Or as the title aptly describes it, as 'other' Americans.
Lalami was ambitious in having all 9 characters narrate this book in 320 pages. Some characters are left hanging and their stories inconclusive for example, what happens with Salma’s addiction? How did Coleman handle his son sexual preferences? There was so much depth in the characters that I felt each one could be a protagonist in their own book but the scope of the book did not allow for proper character development.
Reading the book, I could appreciate what Lalami was trying to communicate but i still felt removed from the stories and the characters. I could not fully connect with it. Maybe because I am African and didn’t quite relate with the American identity or maybe my own biases? Either way, the book does provide for an interesting read and offers an interesting and unique perspective on how we all define our identity.
I definitely recommend this one.