It’s the message that everyone dreads. When Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize nominee Laila Lalami was on holiday with her family in Wyoming five years ago, she received a text from her sister saying their father had been taken to hospital, seriously ill.
“She told me to return to Morocco to say goodbye – but that I might not make it in time. It was that kind of emergency, and it’s every immigrant’s nightmare,” she remembers with a whisper.
Drawing inspiration from real life
So Lalami started the journey home – she was born and raised in Rabat in the late 1960s – with some trepidation. She made it back to Morocco with her father still alive, and incredibly he began to recover – to the extent that Lalami eventually felt able to go back to her family in the US. "But I really brought back with me the fear that at some point I will get that phone call again, and it won't end in the same happy way," she says. "It was that fear I wanted to write about because it was such a powerful emotion – and that's how The Other Americans began."
Her new novel is a hugely accomplished portrait of a 21st-century America; suspicious, lonely and troubled. In a small Californian town on the edge of the desert, restaurant owner and Moroccan immigrant Driss is killed in a hit-and-run that appears to have no witnesses, save for a Mexican afraid to come forward thanks to his own fear of deportation. Driss's composer daughter Nora returns home to pick up the pieces, coming into the orbit of Iraq veteran Jeremy, an African-American female detective, a bowling alley proprietor and, of course, her grieving mother. As Lalami puts it with some relish, Driss's death is "a bit mysterious", possibly less an accident than a hate crime, and the potential murder investigation binds together all these disparate voices.
“Each of these characters would be easy to caricature,” says Lalami. “They are stock characters in the media – the immigrant, the veteran, the Muslim, the disgruntled white man. We see these people but we don’t question the human beings behind them. One of the things fiction allows for is the ability to see things in the specific and not the generic, and that was my job with this book. As an immigrant, too, I can look at things as an insider and an outsider.”
The current political climate in America
All Lalami's novels have celebrated nuance; 2009's Secret Son featured a Muslim boy coming of age in Casablanca, set against Islamic fundamentalism and corrupt liberalism. "It's about the complications and difficulties of identity in a messy, sectarian and global world," she explains. The Moor's Account, too, gives the 16th century conquest-of-America narrative to a real-life Moroccan slave who never got to tell his story. "It was a story from history but it felt very much of the here-and-now," she says.
Lalami thinks novels can be a corrective, pointing out that the people who narrate the story of America to itself every day in the press and on television are, on the whole, white men. “What would happen if you broke that and heard from multiple perspectives about what is happening?” she asks.
And what's happening to the US is one of the key themes of the book. It's been called a powerful response to the Trump era, but Lalami started it way "before he came down that escalator at Trump Tower and called Mexicans rapists".
"Look, Trump represents everything that is terrible and vulgar and hateful and bigoted about the US," she says. "But he's the result of what's happening in the US, not the cause of it. So the book doesn't present a picture of Trump's America, it's just a picture of America."
'Rights are never guaranteed'
In the decades, perhaps even centuries, to come, it seems likely that 9 / 11 will play a key role in that American narrative. The attacks on the World Trade Centre are referred to in The Other Americans as a turning point more than once, the moment where the wars fought in distant lands came home. Lalami thinks that for a particular generation of young Americans, it was life-changing in terms of their feelings of alienation from their own country – but she remains convinced that anti-Muslim sentiment existed before 9 / 11. And Lalami should know – she became a US citizen just a year before. "There was a spike of hate crimes after 9 / 11, but we've seen other spikes that are not connected to 9 / 11, but other controversies, some of which were completely fake."
She mentions the famous whipping up of public opposition to the supposed Ground Zero Mosque in 2010 – which was not only not at Ground Zero, but wasn't a mosque. It was an Islamic cultural centre two blocks away that hoped to improve inter-faith relations. "In the US that summer, everybody became obsessed with this idea of a Ground Zero mosque, because it was before the midterms," she recalls. "It proved to me that you didn't need a 9 / 11 to have these sentiments in the mainstream."
And yet by then, the US had elected its first African-American president. For all its concerns about the direction of both the country and the beliefs of its people, The Other Americans is a quietly hopeful book, a plea for understanding and love despite the divisions.
"Well, I have to have hope because I have to get up every day and live in this country," she laughs. "I do know that change is possible, but if you look at the history of the US, it's very slow and it never happens without struggle. Slavery didn't disappear because we all sat down and had a nice chit-chat over tea about who has the right to be considered a human being and who should be considered property. It was drawn out. It was violent. The same with civil rights, the right to vote.
"Rights are never guaranteed, they are questioned and they have to be constantly protected. I am working in many different ways for change and progress, not in my art necessarily, which is separate, but as a citizen. It's not easy."
It is interesting that Lalami considers her writing to be part of a separate struggle when it seems The Other Americans is so sure of its politics. "Well, all I hope for any of my stories is that people see the world though the eyes of my characters," she says. "That is enough and that is everything."
The Other Americans, published by Bloomsbury, is out now