Laila Lalami discusses non-whites' place in American culture ahead of Pittsburgh appearance | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Laila Lalami discusses non-whites' place in American culture ahead of Pittsburgh appearance

click to enlarge Laila Lalami - PHOTO: APRIL ROCHA
Photo: April Rocha
Laila Lalami
Since becoming a US citizen in 2000, Moroccan native Laila Lalami has been grilled about assimilation by a man sitting next to her on a plane. When her father became ill right after 9/11, Lalami feared she wouldn’t be able to fly home to see him in Morocco. And when she was on a book tour promoting her novel The Moor’s Account, a woman asked her about ISIS.

“It was not the first time by any means, and that tells me that in many people’s minds, there’s still a connection between a 21st century person who is writing about 16th [century] Muslims and a transnational terrorist group,” Lalami says. “And that leap is the result of a number of factors, and one is basically ignorance and not understanding the difference between being a Muslim and a member of ISIS.”

Lalami will make a virtual appearance Mon., Oct. 26 as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Ten Evenings Series.


Lalami’s latest book, Conditional Citizens (Pantheon), is culled from experiences since she became a U.S. citizen 20 years ago. The author of four novels, including The Moor’s Account, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won an American Book Award in 2014, the new book is a sobering look at how immigrants are perceived in the U.S.

The incident with the woman at the book signing suggests a failure by the media “in the way in which these groups are covered,” Lalami says. “If after all of these years, people are still thinking they can ask questions like that, it tells me there’s something missing in the way in which this coverage is taking place.”

While Lalami explores concepts including “Tribe,” “Caste,” and “Allegiance” in Conditional Citizens, the chapter “Borders” is more than just an examination of entry points where immigrants seek to enter the country. What most citizens don’t realize is that there are 136 checkpoints within 100 miles of the U.S. border, in places like Beecher Falls, VT, Lake Charles, LA, and Buffalo, NY. There are checkpoints in Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, and Illinois where Border Agents have free rein to stop anyone.

Roughly 200 million Americans live within border zones. When travelers are asked if they are citizens at these checkpoints, it’s up to the agents to make a determination if the truth is being told.


“Most people don’t go around carrying a passport or birth certificate,” Lalami says. “And if they don’t believe you, you have to ask why they don’t believe you. Is it because of the way you look or the way you act or the way you sound or something about your behavior? And that’s where their discretion comes into play, and what that means is that for people who are non-white is there’s a greater chance of being stopped and sent into secondary inspection.”

While Lalami offers evidence that liberty and equality are often conditional on skin color, faith, and even economic status, she finds hope in the small acts of citizenry available to everyone. In the chapter “Do Not Despair of This Country” — a phrase coined by Frederick Douglass, Lalami writes about elections, albeit important, not being enough.

“You have to remain engaged within your community and your neighborhood, your state, and the country at every level,” she says. “And that could mean something as simple as volunteering at your local school to tutor children who are struggling. … That’s a huge expression of citizenship because it means that you’re working to chip away at inequalities in society that are endless. Every day, if you can find in some small way, a way to chip away at it, that to me is progress.”
Ten Evenings virtual event with Laila Lalami. Mon., Oct. 26. Watch anytime online for one week. $15 ($10 students). pittsburghlectures.org

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