Floating along on the Santa Ana winds into the Mojave Desert is award-winning author Laila Lalami’s “The Other Americans,” a novel in which a Moroccan-American family attempts to move forward with life when tragedy strikes and harmful secrets begin to unravel. Driss Guerraoui, an American originally from Casablanca, Morocco, is killed in a hit-and-run one night after locking up his diner. His wife, Maryam, and daughters, Salma and Nora, are left to deal with his affairs after his death, each coping with the event and its aftermath in their own way.
When we meet the Guerraouis, they’ve already achieved their American Dream. After moving from Morocco to California, setting up a successful diner and standing on their own feet, the family should be living without worry, but that isn’t the case. It turns out that the American Dream is not the end of the road, that their surname is too difficult to pronounce, Nora’s Moroccan eggplant lunch doesn’t look right to her kindergarten classmates and their presence in the country is problematic to certain people. After September 11, their first business, Aladdin’s Donuts, is burned to the ground. Despite the trouble, Driss and Maryam continue to work hard and their children continue to propel themselves forward in pursuit of a bright future, but the road isn’t easy.
Moving between characters, from Nora, his youngest daughter, to Maryam, his widow, the police officer who went to school with the victim’s daughter, the detective working the case and the undocumented witness to the death, first-person narratives account for the connection between the lives that are caught up in the tragedy. From snippets of their lives in Casablanca to their future in California, readers get a sense of the Guerraouis. They had left Morocco to escape trouble and found it in California anyway.
Lalami is a phenomenal storyteller, her characters and prose paced and insightful as she delves into complex yet ordinary characters who come from different backgrounds. She deals with prejudice and Islamophobia, the treatment of veterans and being forced to grow up too fast. Her novel deals with the struggles of being undocumented and financial constraints. And she does not shy away from difficult situations, laying bare that life is complicated but must go on.