The Other Americans

by Laila Lalami

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1148

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,

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...

(This entire section contains 1148 words.)

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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 partly from her desire for Nora to fit into mainstream American society.

Similarly, Jeremy’s decision to join the marines in Iraq seems at odds with his quiet personality, but it makes sense when he reveals his tragic childhood and desire to belong to a community. Even a character as reprehensible as A.J. is shown to have a complex backstory that contributes to his xenophobia. At the level of the community, hearing the complex narratives of people like Driss and Efraín could help dispel some commonly held stereotypes about immigrants. For instance, Driss’s story dispels the stereotype that immigrants come to America to “steal jobs”: it is clear that the Guerraouis were forced to migrate because they were seeking refuge.

Dysfunctional Families and Violence

The event at the center of the novel is a crime; accordingly, violence and its origins form a key theme in The Other Americans. Through its multiple first-person perspectives, the narrative traces clear connections between dysfunctional family dynamics, toxic masculinity, and violence.

Often, the violence generated within the nuclear family spills outwards into the community and is further fomented by social pressures and prejudices, as it is the case of A.J. Seen through the eyes of Nora and Detective Coleman, A.J. is a racist, sexist brute who uses his status as a white male to intimidate them. A bully in school, A.J. cruelly referred to the overweight Jeremy as “Jabba the Hut” and painted offensive racial slurs on Nora’s locker.

However, in his first-person account, it becomes clear that A.J. does not view himself as a racist or a bad person but as a father and husband trying to get by in an increasingly competitive world. More tellingly, A.J. recalls how his father emotionally abused him as a child, haranguing him for hours because of the close bond A.J. shared with his mother. Because he earned a place on the wrestling team, his behavior went unchecked and his hyper-masculine violence was even encouraged and rewarded. Thus, A.J.’s involvement in Driss’s death does not come as a surprise.

Similarly, though the thoughtful, self-aware Jeremy is a far more sympathetic character than A.J., his violence also stems from his father’s negligent treatment of him following his mother’s death. Jeremy keeps his violent streak in check, but it surfaces in the way he beats his friend Fierro mercilessly and even in the way he desires to “protect” Nora. Interestingly, Nora’s elder sister, Salma, can also be said to abuse Nora emotionally; but this, too, is the result of the pressure to fulfill her parents’ aspirations and assimilate as a success in mainstream America. Although Driss and Maryam are loving, responsible parents, they burdened their children with expectations of perfection, which took a toll on Salma. Through characters such as A.J., Salma, and Jeremy, the text demonstrates that violence, whether physical or emotional, often affects not only its victims, but others around them and future generations.