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Author Laila Lalami on the power of stories and being ‘The Other’

In her latest novel, 'The Other Americans,’ Laila Lalami tells a timeless — and timely — tale of immigration.

Growing up in Rabat, Morocco, author Laila Lalami loved “Adventures of Tintin” comic books and identified with Tintin, a young reporter who solves crimes.

“It’s only as an adult that I realized I wasn’t Tintin. I was the native in those books,” Lalami told a crowd of more than 300 at the Skirball Cultural Center. “Some of the representations are extremely racist. Stories are so powerful. They can make you root for your own oppressor.”

Lalami joined the Los Angeles Times Book Club Tuesday night to discuss “The Other Americans,” a novel that explores themes of immigration, grief and family.

A black-and-white childhood photo of Lalami burying her head in the French comic appeared during a video introduction of the author and her work. During a conversation with Times reporter Lorraine Ali, Lalami said an underrepresentation of cultures in movies and other media motivates her to incorporate Moroccan characters in each of her books.

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Ali pointed out that “The Other Americans,” Lalami’s fourth novel, isn’t about being Moroccan, but about unraveling a crime story.

In the first sentence, a Moroccan immigrant and restaurant owner named Driss Guerraoui dies in a hit-and-run at an intersection in a Southern California desert town. The novel follows nine characters connected to Driss, the father and husband of a Moroccan immigrant family who made a home in Yucca Valley, Calif. His two adult daughters, widow, a police detective, an immigrant from Mexico, neighbors and a daughter’s high school friend take turns narrating their lives and moving the plot forward to reveal whether Driss’ death was an accident or attack. Their interior dialogue also questions American identity and the expectations that come with it.

When asked how she managed to wrangle all those viewpoints into one story, Lalami responded by paraphrasing another Los Angeles writer. “Ray Bradbury has this saying, ‘Take a leap and build your wings on the way down.’”

Lalami said she initially wrote the book in the third person, focusing on two characters: Driss’ daughter Nora and her friend Jeremy. But her editor asked whether she might be shortchanging the story’s minor characters. Lalami then wrote 50 pages from different first-person perspectives as an experiment and decided to rewrite the book this way. It took about four and a half years to complete “The Other Americans.”

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“If we knew how difficult it was to write, none of us would be writers,” Lalami said.

One of the characters had insomnia because Lalami had insomnia while working on the book. “Why should I suffer alone?” she joked.

On Tuesday night, three guest speakers took the stage to read passages from the novel they connected with the most. Aida Ylanan, from the Times data desk, shared from a chapter told from the perspective of Driss’ widow, Maryam — a grocery store scene that reminded Ylanan of her Filipino parents and the challenges of communicating through a foreign language. She also shared a colorful map created by Data Desk Editor Ben Welsh tracking the narratives of the book’s nine characters.

Los Angeles author Steph Cha, who will release her novel “Your House Will Pay” in October, read a passage in which Driss’ daughter Nora recalls seeing her father’s doughnut shop set on fire after 9/11. Cha said she connected with Nora’s “Americanness” and “second-generation sensibilities.”

Times Director of Editorial Events C.J. Jackson talked about the awkwardness of the characters in the novel. He read an excerpt from the perspective of Jeremy, Nora’s high school friend, as he stepped into the Guerraoui family’s home for the first time.

Lalami told the audience her next project is a nonfiction book, “Conditional Citizens,” which starts with her U.S. naturalization ceremony. The book will explore the relationship between state and individual throughout 20 years and how citizenship is determined through background, race and gender.

The next Los Angeles Times Book Club event will take place in September. The book selection will be announced soon. For updates, sign up at latimes.com/bookclub.


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