“This is a story about love and country, and I will tell it to you how I remember it, in strands that took me years to untangle and then thread together.” This promising first sentence opens Laila Lalami’s “Conditional Citizens,” a wonderfully readable series of essays touching on all the different ways American citizens who were born in another country, who have a nonwhite skin color, a non-Christian religion, a non-English language, or non-dominant cultural traditions are mistreated and disenfranchised in the land that once begged the world to give us its hungry masses yearning to breathe free.
The points Lalami makes are not new, but her perspective on them is unique, and the beautifully written personal stories she includes give “Conditional Citizens” a flair and warmth rare in a polemic about what’s wrong with America.
Lalami traveled from her home in Morocco to Los Angeles in 1992 to complete a doctorate in linguistics, planning to go home after getting her degree. This plan was derailed when she met a network engineer/grunge music fan named Alex and fell in love. In the first essay, “Allegiance,” she describes the optimistic process of attaining citizenship. As she took her oath at the Pomona Fairplex eight years later, she imagined herself becoming “an equal member of the American family — a spirited group of people of different races, origins, and creeds, bound together by common ideals. As time went by, however, the contradictions between doctrine and reality became harder to ignore.”
With the Sept. 11 attacks just months down the road, the challenges came fast and furious, and each of the subsequent chapters explores some aspect of the problem. “Faith” describes Lalami’s complicated family tree, illuminating the relationship between the rich variety of Muslim lives around the world and the us-or-them reductionism of ISIS, which most Americans buy into without a thought.
“Borders” juxtaposes the issues of U.S. borders and President Donald Trump’s wall with the author’s childhood experience on a day trip with her family to the Spanish-owned town of Melilla on the Moroccan coast. This town is now “surrounded by a twelve-foot-wide ditch, a wall topped with blades, and three metal fences, two of which are twenty feet high … an obstacle course for mythical giants.”
Like her innate globalism, the author’s perspective as a parent enriches her analysis. In 2015, Lalami’s daughter announced that she wanted to be president when she grew up. Her mother said, “I’d vote for you,” not wanting to discuss the chances of a Muslim presidential candidate. Just a year later, after Trump’s election, she called her mother at work in a panic. “He can’t make us leave, right?”
This is Lalami’s first nonfiction book after four novels, one of them a National Book Award finalist, and it is exciting to hear her address the issues she has touched on in fiction with rigor and focus. As she puts it, “It is because I love America that I cannot be quiet about her faults. The price of my belonging cannot be my silence.”
Marion Winik is a professor and writer in Baltimore and host of the Weekly Reader podcast.
By: Laila Lalami.
Publisher: Grove Press, 208 pages, $25.95.
Event: Club Book, 7 p.m. Oct. 6, livestreamed facebook.com/ClubBook