Local author Laila Lalami was thrown under the media spotlight earlier this year following the release of her fourth novel.

Critics hailed “The Other Americans” as a richly layered exploration of American identity, immigration and race — and many of them noted that the novel, which follows the murder of a Moroccan immigrant in a small town near Joshua Tree, particularly resonated in the Trump era.

But the novel isn’t about Trump’s America, Lalami said. The Moroccan-American author and two-time Santa Monica Artist Fellow began writing “The Other Americans” in 2014, long before Trump ran for president, and the story is set in the same year.

“I think that reaction shows people are paying more attention to racial and ethnic divisions, but those divisions were there all  along,” she said. “Maybe those readers are paying more attention to them now, but that doesn’t mean that those divisions didn’t exist before.”

The book examines how people marginalized by American society — immigrants and people of color — construct an American identity. It narrows in on California, delving into the contradictions of a liberal and wealthy state that relies on working-class immigrant labor.

Lalami said the book reflects her own idiosyncratic view of California and America in 2014. What readers take away from the novel is up to them, she said.

“The goal of art is not to explain or console but to tell a story, and if you’ve done your job and told a story that is complex and full, then by necessity, that story is going to present an image that’s truthful,” she said. “When that happens, people are going to start seeing things in it and relating it to their own lives.”

Lalami, who has lived in California for 25 years, said she chose to set her novel in small-town California in part because the state’s large urban centers get more attention.

“We think of big cities in California as cosmopolitan, super liberal places — although I’m not sure that characterization is necessarily true,” she said. “The rural areas are just as interesting to me because I think in some sense they’re also microcosms of California. They have a richness and diversity to them that is very Californian to me.”

The town’s diverse cast of characters are still marginalized by white residents, however. More than a decade before Driss is killed in a hit-and-run, an arsonist burns his donut shop to the ground in the days following 9/11.

Although Santa Monica is a world away from the the book’s rural setting, Lalami feels the same intolerance bubbling under its surface.

“A lot of people here believe themselves to be living in a liberal bubble and can be very dismissive of people who live in rural areas of California or in places like the Midwest,” she said. “But I think that appraising eye that’s cast outward rarely turns inward and examines itself. This is the place that gave the world Stephen Miller, and it’s a place that can be extremely insensitive to class.”

Lalami moved to Santa Monica 10 years ago after living in several parts of Los Angeles. She came to the city to complete a Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Southern California after completing a master’s degree at University College London. Lalami was raised in Rabat, Morocco, in a working-class family of voracious readers.

She intended to return to Morocco after completing her Ph.D., but she remained in America after meeting her husband at USC, becoming a citizen in 2000. She has since become a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a noted critic and commentator, a Fulbright and Guggenheim fellow and a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.

Lalami said she became an immigrant by chance, but her novels tell the stories of immigrants seeking a better life or, in the case of her third novel, taken by force. The Moor’s Account, which was published in 2014, follows the true story of an enslaved Moroccan man who became the first black explorer of American in the 16th century.

Lalami’s next work, Conditional Citizens, will be nonfiction and build on her analysis of how the relationship between the individual and the state is determined by immigration, race and class.

“It’s about how those things affect whether you have access to the full rights, protections and liberties of citizenship,” she said. “These are things I’ve been thinking about for a long, long, long time.”


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