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Migrant State Of Mind: A Q&A With Novelist Laila Lalami

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There’s a disconnect between how people imagine their families and how families are in real life,” Laila Lalami tells me. Her new novel, The Other Americans, takes place inside that gap: Nora, the Moroccan-American protagonist, is struggling to make sense of herself and her family in the wake of her immigrant father’s death in a mysterious hit-and-run. Nora has been living in the Bay Area for many years, and upon returning to her small hometown in the Mojave, realizes that life has continued outside of the big city: high-school friends have returned from Iraq, neighbors’ businesses have collapsed, and her family has begun to accumulate secrets. In order to discover what really happened, late one night in the middle of the desert, she has to rely on old acquaintances and new faces, including a detective transplanted from DC and an undocumented witness hesitant to come forward—each with their own family to protect.

This is Lalami’s fourth book; in addition to being a novelist, she is a professor of creative writing at the University of California-Riverside and a Nation columnist. The Nation spoke to her about new novel, family, migration, and the complications of being an American.

—Nawal Arjini

Nawal Arjini: I wanted to ask about the setting of the book—I was fooled into thinking you’d grown up there.

Laila Lalami: I didn’t even go to the Mojave until 9 or 10 years ago! I always thought, I’m a big city person—whether it was in Morocco or going to school in England, or here in L.A. I never thought the desert would hold any pull for me—and yet, when I started going there, something about it really spoke to me. I fell in love with it. I love the landscape. I love the silence.

Na: So many “immigrant novels” take place in the city, but you use a small town in the desert as a microcosm of American society.

LL: There’s this lie that only in places like LA or NYC or San Francisco are people encountering people of different races or backgrounds or ethnicities. If you travel for any length of time in the central valley of California, you see these huge communities of immigrants. It was interesting to complicate the idea of these rural spaces that people think are isolated and monoethnic.

As I started working on the book, I realized that almost every character I was creating was somebody who had been displaced, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. For example, the detective finds herself in this small town (she’s from Washington, DC), and is forced to adapt.

NaDo you think there’s a difference in the way people of different backgrounds interact in the country versus in the city?

LL: In smaller cities, there’s opportunities for observing and having more personal interactions, because it’s the one guy you’re always buying your gas from. It’s a little more long-term; those encounters are rarer, but it’s the same people. That scale interested me.

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