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Last Reviewed on February 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1145

Xenophobia and the American Dream

When recounting the events of her father’s life to Detective Coleman, Nora notes that Driss was an ardent believer in the possibilities of the American Dream—the idea that hard work and ambition are enough for a person to reap the rewards of mainstream American life. Concerning her father’s experiences in the United States, Nora explains,

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I think he liked that story because it had the easily discernible arc of the American Dream. Immigrant Crosses Ocean. Starts a Business. Becomes a Success. He told the story from time to time, just to remind himself that everything turned out fine for him. But all that changed one September morning.

Though Driss’s views are somewhat tempered after the increased Islamophobia the Guerraouis face after 9/11, he persists with his old narrative. Even after his donut shop is burnt to the ground in a hate crime, Driss does not want to leave America, both because the Mojave has become home for him and because he does not wish to disrupt his daughters’ lives. However, Nora, who has faced discrimination as a Moroccan, Muslim woman growing up in the United States, has a far more hesitant optimism regarding the American Dream.

Achieving this dream is difficult, if not impossible, for minorities and immigrants, and it often comes at the price of assimilation. For instance, Driss feels the need to display the American flag on his premises to “prove” his patriotism, and he likes to keep his religion private. Xenophobia in the book often takes the form of daily aggressions against characters, both covert and subtle: for instance, Efraín’s daughter has to wear a blond wig while playing the part of a fairy in a school play, since fairies always have “blond hair.” Similarly, Salma’s children are not given speaking parts in school plays. As children, Nora and her Hindu friend Sonya Mukherjee were often confused with each other and subjected to the same racial slurs. When Bryan Fierro spies on Jeremy and Nora in an intimate moment, he intends to belittle Nora not just as a woman, but as a woman of color.

Thus, racist aggression colors every aspect of the lives of minorities, and ignoring it only enables perpetrators, such as A.J. In high school, A.J. was a bully who painted racial slurs on Nora’s locker, yet he was rewarded for his athletic achievements. The racially charged language in his home as well as his father’s toxic masculinity causes A.J. to look for a scapegoat for his rage, which he finds in the “other” Americans, exemplified by Driss. A.J. ultimately runs Driss over and kills him.

The text suggests that the best way to overcome xenophobia is by creating space for multiple, dissonant stories to be heard. Further, rather than cultural erasure through assimilation, the goal of a society should be integration, where communities can coexist while retaining their cultural pride.

Polyphony and Perspective

Polyphony, the chief narrative device of the novel, demonstrates one of its most important themes. By presenting the narrative through multiple first-person perspectives (and one second-person perspective), Lalami introduces the idea of listening to others as an antidote to prejudice. When people hear each other’s stories and learn to see from their perspectives, they begin to view each other as complex entities rather than according to their labels.

Making this multitude of voices available is important not only at the level of the larger community but also of that of the family, like in the case of Nora. Nora often feels alienated from her devout mother, whom she feels places an enormous burden of conformity on her. However, when the text discloses Maryam’s point of view, it becomes apparent that living in America has cost her greatly and that her expectations of Nora are borne...

(The entire section contains 1145 words.)

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