In honor of National Arab American Heritage Month, Southwest Asian and North African Society (SWANA) invited Laila Lalami, award-winning author and essayist, to discuss her newest book, “The Other Americans” in Kemper Auditorium on April 21. Themes that permeate her works include family, immigration, and community.
Lalami has penned five books, including “The Moor’s Account,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist and recipient of multiple awards including the American Book Award. “The Other Americans,” her most recent work, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award in Fiction.
Growing up in a family of avid readers, Lalami was naturally immersed in the world of books as a child. Reflecting on the effect of colonialism in Morocco, she noted that, during her formative years, she primarily read French literature and struggled to identify with the characters, communities, and cultures in those books.
“My earliest exposure to books and literature really came through French…[and] if the only people you see in books are French, in a child’s mind it would follow that the only people who belong in books are French. So [when] I was in middle school [and] I really became exposed to Moroccan authors, people like Mohamed Choukri, Fatema Mernissi…it was the first time in my life that [books] seemed in a sense relevant to my own daily life… And I think it was around this time that I made up my mind that I wanted to be a writer,” said Lalami.
Although her parents’ initially disapproved of her aspirations, Lalami continued to pursue English and eventually immigrated to the United States of America, where she obtained her PhD. While Lalami recognizes that immigration is an experience shared by many, she also emphasizes the diversity of experiences and perspectives on immigration. According to Lalami, her decision to write “The Other Americans” through the first-person perspectives of nine different characters aided her in transmitting this message.
“There is nothing strange about the experience of immigration. It’s something that I share with 40 million other people in this country… When you’re going through it, it doesn’t feel ordinary. It feels like it’s never happened to anybody anywhere, because it feels so difficult… But people move for all kinds of reasons, it happens everywhere around the world…and books are a good way to connect with other people to whom it has happened,” said Lalami.
Lalami continued, “[Immigration] is an experience that is common, but very different people are going to experience it in very different ways… And so in the book I wanted to show the father, the mother, everybody is having a different experience… The very act of narrating that story in the first-person renders it more visible and equally visible to all the other experiences of immigration.”
Yasmine Tazi ’24, Co-Head of SWANA, encouraged Lalami’s visit to Andover. She expressed how Lalami’s work resonated with her on multiple levels.
“I was smiling the whole time, my jaw actually hurt from smiling because she was incredible… She talked about…seeing reading Moroccan authors, or Arab authors in general, as a form of liberation. I think in that sense, she was also my form of liberation, because she’s writing about stories that are relatable for Arab Americans and for immigrants all around the world… I think even if I was not Moroccan and did not relate to some of these experiences, I would relate to other [things], like the characters, their inner sentiments, the family dynamic and all the other elements,” said Tazi.
Leena Rustum ’25, another Co-Head of SWANA, was also impacted by Lalami’s presentation. Building connections to her own family, Rustum was inspired by Lalami’s determination to pursue her ambitions.
“Her talking about how her parents were like, ‘No, you can’t become a writer, you have to become a doctor or an engineer,’ and her fight to still do what she loves and be a writer, that really resonated because a lot of children of immigrant parents still don’t know what they want to do. And I think having that freedom and having a person who’s so successful tell you, it’s okay to want something different from what your parents want, gives you that leeway,” said Rustum.
Despite the differences between Morocco and the U.S., Lalami recognizes areas of unity and remains optimistic about their relations. She recalled that, at previous events, her Moroccan and American audiences often exhibited a mutual curiosity towards each other.
“Every time I give a reading in the U.S., people ask me about the reaction to my books in Morocco, and every time I give a reading in Morocco, they ask me about the reaction of American audiences. And I always find that to be very heartwarming, because I think that despite what we may think about divisions between countries or [differing] perspectives, at the end of the day, people are curious about one another, and I find that to be a source of great hope,” said Lalami.
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