How to Belong in America

The Pulitzer finalist Laila Lalami’s latest novel traces the story of one immigrant family and the seemingly inexplicable tragedy that ruptures it.

Manny Carabel / Getty / Matt Artz / Unsplash / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Other Americans begins with blood. In the first pages of the Pulitzer finalist Laila Lalami’s new novel, a Moroccan immigrant named Driss Guerraoui is struck by a vehicle one evening while leaving the diner he owns, near California’s Mojave Desert. The car speeds off, its driver either unconcerned—or, worse yet, satisfied.

Through the perspectives of nine alternating narrators, including Driss himself, Lalami threads together an account of the slain man’s journey to America and the life he toiled to build after his arrival. The first character introduced is Nora, Driss’s American-born daughter, who moves back to her hometown after her father’s suspicious death. Her thoughts are crisply relayed, her grief overwhelming in its clarity: “My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland,” the novel opens. “Whenever I think about that moment, these two contradictory images come to me: my father struggling for breath on the cracked asphalt, and me drinking champagne with my roommate, Margo.”

After Nora’s initial recounting of the news, Lalami introduces her other narrators—among them, Jeremy, an old school friend of Nora’s, who is white; Efrain, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who witnessed the hit and run; Maryam, Driss’s wife; and Coleman, the black woman detective working Driss’s case.


The Other Americans is, on its face, a novel that traces the story of one immigrant family and the seemingly inexplicable tragedy that ruptures it. But through her many characters’ specific and overlapping perspectives, Lalami also questions the feasibility of any centralized American identity. None of the novel’s narrators, even those who are citizens, ever quite measures up to the expectations they feel their immediate community, or their country, has of them. They are too loud or too brown or too soft. Too different. Nobody is ever enough.

Thankfully, the distinctions between their reasons for feeling like outsiders are still important: Lalami doesn’t conflate Jeremy’s unease in some hypermasculine spaces, for example, with Efrain’s all-consuming fear of deportation. For readers with their own experiences of immigration, whether direct—such as Driss, Maryam, and Efrain—or via family, like Nora, perhaps some of Lalami’s core considerations will be familiar. As Nora and the other characters unravel the real story of Driss’s killing, Lalami weighs heavy questions: Will America ever live up to the dream it sells would-be immigrants around the world? Is it possible to belong in a country that so readily kills people like you? Who is sufficiently American?

These are difficult considerations, and a less skilled author might have produced an overly didactic text in the hope of exploring them. But Lalami largely avoids this impulse by imbuing her characters with a vitality that bridges the gaps between their identities and their interiority. They occupy a range of different social positions, but Lalami’s characters most often read like people, not avatars of representation. They are funny, cantankerous, and affecting. They keep secrets from one another, and, most thrillingly, from themselves. Her characters speak with distinct cadences. Together, the narrators sketch out a vision of a community shaken by Driss’s killing, and a family whose life in America always existed against a backdrop of similar violence.

One of the novel’s most poignant successes is how deftly Lalami builds a sense of inexorable terror as the characters recount their lives before Driss’s killing. His death was not, the book suggests, an isolated incident. Early in the text, Nora describes having witnessed a fire at the donut shop her parents opened when they first arrived in the United States after fleeing political violence in Casablanca. In the days following 9/11, the young Nora had ridden to work with her father to escape the onslaught of post-attack news:

We turned onto Kickapoo Trail to find Aladdin Donuts burning like a stack of hay. In a single motion, my father jumped out of the station wagon and pulled out his cell phone, just as Mr. Melendez at the 7-Eleven across the street came running toward us. “I called 911,” he said. He told us he’d been changing the paper in his cash register when he heard the sound of screeching tires. He’d thought nothing of it until the smell of smoke came drifting in through the doorway, a mix of gasoline, ash, melting plastic, and caramelizing syrup. Years later, a whiff of smoke, even if only from a beachside barbecue, can still conjure up my memories of the arson.

It’s a devastating image, an encapsulation of how easily some immigrants’ American Dream™ can be wrested away by people who believe in a singular vision of Americanness. Driss, and Nora for that matter, could have easily died in the attack on the family’s shop. The Other Americans references 9/11 often, the attack a bellwether for rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. The book was published in March and written well before then. But it’s a particularly jarring read now, in the days following the New York Post’s dangerous decontextualization of U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar’s comments about Islamophobia, as well as after the mosque shootings in New Zealand that left 50 Muslim worshippers dead last month. The threats facing the Guerraoui family, and people like them, are evergreen.

Throughout the novel, Lalami’s attention to contrast and contradiction is stunning. Her prose is incisive and lived-in, as though culled from decades of listening in on private conversations between older family members. In this, Nora’s chapters are the strongest. Through her voice, readers most clearly feel the central tension of the novel: the Guerraouis’ deep desire to belong to a country that vilifies people like them. (It’s worth noting that not all immigrant families depicted in the book hold particularly romantic views about the country; Lalami’s story lines will impress upon readers that the pursuit of safety is often a far more common motivator.)

For Nora, the fear stoked by the attack on her father’s shop, and by the deepening culture of anti-Muslim bias in California, has tainted even the most joyful California endeavors: trips to the beach. It’s easy to see, then, how a child traumatized by the experience might, years later, come to resent her parents’ investment in the country she’s beginning to see as a threat. Still, it’s no less heartbreaking when Nora explains this dissonance to Jeremy when he comes to visit the family after Driss’s death:

“I knew something terrible would happen. You remember his business was arsoned after September 11th? They never found out who did it. And then he put up a huge flag outside his restaurant, like he had to prove he was one of the good ones. I told him over and over that he should sell. But he refused, he loved it here. God only knows why.”

The novel does answer some of Nora’s questions, through Driss’s voice. After the donut-shop arson, Driss had worked to establish a sense of rhythm and safety for his family that the political upheaval of Casablanca denied them. He labored to establish his new diner as a friendly, all-American outpost. That he was later killed outside this flag-flying establishment is as much an indictment of his new community’s xenophobia as it is a personal tragedy.

To the extent that The Other Americans is a mystery or procedural, the novel does offer an answer to its central case, a nudge toward some small amount of justice. Even so, the book’s conclusion about American identity is a far more tenuous one than this legal resolution: For people on the country’s margins, particularly immigrants, no gesture of patriotism will ever be enough.