Laila Lalami: ‘White supremacists target Muslims but the threat isn’t taken as seriously as other forms of terror’

The Moroccan-born author talks about finding her voice, who gets control of the narrative and how it feels to be a Muslim in America today

Laila Lalami ... ‘I was the person in the corner observing everything but who no one pays attention to.’
Laila Lalami … ‘I was the person in the corner observing everything but who no one pays attention to.’ Photograph: Jaclyn Campanaro/The Guardian

About three years ago, the Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami flew across the country from her home in California to Rhode Island to give a talk about who does and doesn’t get to tell their story. As she spoke, she noticed a young undergraduate – white, male – in the front row, sighing wearily.

“Is it upsetting to you to hear this?” she asked.

“Yes, because no one’s stopping you from talking about your story,” he replied.

“OK, consider what your average newsroom in this country looks like,” Lalami responded. “It is primarily white, it is primarily male and it is primarily straight, and every news story you read comes through that filter,” she said. He shrugged at her, neither arguing the point nor conceding it.

“Young men like him have not had the experience of not seeing themselves on screen or in stories, hearing perspectives that don’t include them – the ‘we’ is always them,” Lalami tells me. “So they have trouble understanding when someone says, ‘I don’t have that.’ The realm of their imagination is so narrow that they perceive it as a demand on your part to take control of the narrative when all you’re asking for is representation,” she says over a plate of brightly coloured macaroons in her apartment in Santa Monica, Los Angeles.

Throughout her career, Lalami has focused on giving a voice to the normally voiceless, including herself, a female Muslim immigrant in the US. She was an early enthusiast of blogging because, she says, “I had things I wanted to say, especially after 9/11, and nowhere to say them.” (Today, she contributes regularly to, among others, the Nation and the New York Times.) Her first novel, Secret Son (2009), featured a fatherless boy in a Casablanca slum. In The Moor’s Account (2015) – which won the American book award, was a finalist for the Pulitzer and longlisted for the Man Booker prize – she retold the true story of the disastrous Narváez expedition, in which a largely Spanish crew of 600 sailed to America in 1527, and only four survived. But whereas historians had previously concentrated on the three Spanish survivors, Lalami gives the narrative to the one person remaining about whom almost nothing was known, a Moroccan slave called Estebanico.

“When I read about [the Narváez expedition], it felt very much of the here and now that one person wouldn’t get to tell his story. All I have to do is pick up a newspaper and, for example, they’re talking about family separations, and it will quote the officials but how many of the families get to talk?” Lalami says.

She opens her new book, The Other Americans, with the sudden death of Driss, a Moroccan-American immigrant who has lived in the US for 30 years. The story of what happens next is told through the viewpoints of various people: Driss’s wife, Maryam, who has never adjusted to US life; an illegal immigrant called Efrain, who is terrified of attracting the authorities’ attention; a former US Marine suffering PTSD; and a young American man called AJ whose life hasn’t worked out as he expected. Driss and Maryam’s younger daughter, Nora, who was born in the US, repeatedly encounters minor instances of racism – at a music festival she is mistaken for a waiter instead of the composer she is – but AJ, who was her classmate at school, feels it is he who is seen as out of place in a country that is changing too rapidly: “It’s funny, everyone goes on and on about celebrating diverse cultures, but the minute you bring up white culture, the oh-so enlightened liberals turn on you and call you names,” he says. It is impossible to read AJ’s sections without imagining him in a Make America Great Again hat. The Moor’s Account felt like a product of the Obama era, given that it looked at the role immigration, and in particular a man of African heritage, played in the American story. By contrast, The Other Americans – from its title onwards – reads like a response to the Trump era.

Lalami is a small woman with a big laugh and she laughingly but firmly denies the book is simply a response to Trump, having started work on it in 2014. But she concedes that, yes, she did begin to see the story differently after the 2016 election. “Trump is the kind of man who strips subtext out of everything and just renders it as text. He’s made people much more conscious of, for example, what’s going on with immigration policy, which is why the same book can be read very differently before and after his election. It’s not like before Trump everything was wonderful and after Trump everything was terrible, but there’s no question in my mind that Donald Trump has certainly emboldened people.”

Just two weeks after Lalami and I meet in her apartment, 50 people are massacred in a mosque and at an Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. I email Lalami to ask if the tragedy surprised her:

“I wasn’t surprised in the least,” she writes back almost instantly. “Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been on the rise for quite some time, often stoked by politicians to win votes, whether at the local or presidential level. The white supremacist movement is finding new recruits online and the result is clear: white supremacists have targeted Muslims in New Zealand, Jews in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, to name just three examples … yet lawmakers aren’t taking the threat as seriously as other forms of terror.”


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