American Inequality: On Laila Lalami’s ‘Conditional Citizens’

The day after Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, Laila Lalami’s daughter asked her a question: “He doesn’t have to make us leave, right?”
Lalami, a Moroccan American who lives in Los Angeles, has been a citizen for decades; she assured her daughter that it would not happen. In reality, she wasn’t sure.
“Every time I have thought about this conversation––and I have thought about it dozens of times, in my sleepless nights since the election––I have felt less certain,” she writes in her new essay collection, Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America.
Lalami has published four novels—most recently the bestselling The Other Americans—this is her first nonfiction book. The original essays draw on the themes of identity and politics that she has written about for outlets such as The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and The New York Times.
In the book, Lalami tackles what it means to be an immigrant in America––one whose paperwork states that she is a citizen but whose daily life sometimes makes her feel as though she doesn’t belong. With essays like “Assimilation,” “Borders,” and “Inheritance,” the book takes a deep dive into the notion that, despite the ideals of America’s founders and Thomas Jefferson’s promise that “all men are created equal,” all American citizens are not treated equally.

Born in 1968 in Rabat, Morocco, Lalami grew up speaking Moroccan Arabic and later learned standard Arabic and French. She moved to the U.S. 25 years ago to complete a doctoral degree in linguistics, received her citizenship in 2000, and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Talking via Skype from her home in Los Angeles, her tight dark curls resting on her shoulders, she is animated, gesturing with her hands, surrounded by books in her office.
Lalami notes she has always felt, to a degree, that she’s living in a gray area, culturally. “This gray life of mine is not unique…Most of the time, gray lives go unnoticed,” she writes. It’s only when some kind of political event or violent act erupts that “gray lives become targets.” She adds that her time in the U.S. has been wonderful in many ways, but she’s “never been entirely secure or comfortable” here.
Lalami says she feels that way because she has experienced being treated as what she calls a “conditional citizen.” The term comes up throughout the essays, taking shape in ways big and small: she writes about those who are “policed and punished” more than others, as well as those who “are more likely to be expatriated and denaturalized.”
Being considered a citizen, Lalami says, is something most people take for granted. “The idea of citizenship is below the surface––it’s not something that you ever think about in your everyday life,” she explains. “You have breakfast with your family, you go to work, you do your thing, you come home, you rest and watch TV or read a book or whatever. It is something you become conscious of under specific circumstances.”
For Lalami, the idea of conditional citizenship began crystallizing in recent years, after interactions she’s had with various government officials. “You become conscious of it when you’re crossing the border, because then you’re sorted by nationality––this line for E.U. nationals, this line for U.S. nationals,” she says. A border agent at the Los Angeles International Airport once asked her husband, who traveled with her, “How many camels did you have to trade in for her?”
“That’s when the idea of conditionality emerges––this feeling that you’re not really American if you don’t support what the government is doing,” Lalami explains. “If you don’t support the troops, if you don’t agree with how things are being done. Everything that distinguishes you from others becomes suspicious.”
Being an Arab American after 9/11 has also impacted Lalami’s understanding of her place in this country. “Bush’s message of with-us-or-against-us carried the implication that one could not be Arab and American, or Muslim and American, unless one was on the side of the United States in its military fights,” she writes in “Allegiance.”
In “Faith,” Lalami highlights her discomfort with being regularly burdened with “having to educate white Americans” about topics that they assume she’s an expert on because of the color of her skin, or her religion. As we talk about the essay, she offers an example: when she was employed at the Getty Research Institute in the late ’90s, a colleague who worked on her floor asked her out to lunch. The reason? He said he had questions about the Middle East.
Lalami laughs. “I’m not from the Middle East!” she says. “I’m from North Africa! And even if I was from the Middle East region, what is the question? Is it about politics? Culture? Can you imagine someone approaching you saying they want to have lunch because they have questions about Texas?”
Citizenship, in Lalami’s view, brings with it a responsibility to learn about one’s country and its relationship to others. When people refuse to do this work, she says, they shirk their “responsibilities as citizens.” Being a good citizen is “more of an active thing than just a state of being: it’s a relationship––and like every relationship, it involves effort and it involves nurturing and it involves work.”
Still, Lalami acknowledges the importance of making an effort to learn. “People who ask are at least curious and trying to learn,” she says. “And especially as an educator, that is something that I have a deep love for. I really do think that people can change their minds. I don’t think that they can change their minds based on reading about politics in the newspaper or listening to a politician or any of that. I think that they change their minds––sometimes without realizing it––when they hear another person’s story.”
In the end, Lalami wrote Conditional Citizens for her daughter. “The most important role I have is with my family––my husband and my child,” she says. “When you think about the grand scheme of things, all of this is going to go away. The only thing that’s going to last is the love that you have for one another.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Siri Hustvedt Is Writing to Discover

Siri Hustvedt is frustrated sometimes when people ask her how much of her work—in particular, her latest book, Memories of the Future—is based on her life. The book is a novel, and it includes fantastical elements, such as a coven of witches and a character called the Introspective Detective. Yet Memories of the Future, set in New York City in 1978 and featuring an aspiring novelist from Minnesota as its heroine, closely mirrors Hustvedt’s own experiences, and I couldn’t resist the impulse to inquire.

Hustvedt answers me graciously: “I’m playing with my own autobiography, if you will.”

Memories of the Future tells the story of a 23-year-old woman, dubbed Minnesota, who moved to New York with the goal of completing a novel in a year, before beginning a PhD program at Columbia University. The story contains diary entries from that year, describing her struggles with writing and paying rent; the joys of forming new, intense friendships; and an eccentric neighbor’s overheard conversations.

Hustvedt juxtaposes these diary entries with the contents of the novel that Minnesota is writing, as well as with the voice of Minnesota later in life, as she looks back at her younger self and reflects on how her memories have shifted. All of these textual components are enhanced with Hustvedt’s own illustrations, which she tells me are “visual punctuation” for the story.

The form of Memories of the Future took Hustvedt a while to discover. Like Minnesota, she spent a year working on a novel, but she ended up discarding it. “I think I needed to fail at the other book to write this one,” she says. “I think of this book as an origami project. It starts out as a kind of fairly flat narrative, and then it folds itself into itself.”

For instance, at some point in the novel, the diary entries begin to take on the shape of a 19th-century novel. “There’s a lot of playing with the idea of the novel, and the idea of memoir, right inside the book,” Hustvedt says. “As it goes on, the Introspective Detective comes to life inside the book. It’s her imagination. But fiction and imagination, as the book goes on, really start to blend with the so-called reality of the book.”

Like its author, Memories of the Future cannot be easily defined, labeled, or categorized. Hustvedt published her first poem in the Paris Review in 1979, just after moving to New York. She wrote poetry and prose for years, earned her PhD in English literature, and published The Blindfold, her first of six novels, in 1992. Hustvedt also writes essays and other nonfiction, and publishes work in science journals. For years, she has immersed herself in the study of neuroscience, psychiatry, and neurology, lecturing on the subjects and serving as a volunteer work for psychiatric patients at the Payne Whitney Clinic. After experiencing an uncontrollable shaking episode during a memorial speech, Hustvedt wrote her 2010 book The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves—a blend of personal history, philosophy, and neuroscience. Now she lectures on psychiatry at Weill Cornel Medical College.

Hustvedt’s commitment to understanding the nature of memory drives her current work. As she writes in the novel, “I am writing not only to tell. I am writing to discover.” In Memories of the Future, she illustrates how malleable memory is—how we can create false memories and how “there’s amnesia in all of us.”

In choosing a complex structure that includes elements of memoir, Hustvedt demonstrates a commitment to truth. “We are unconsciously editing our memories all the time,” she says. “We don’t know we’re doing it. But the fact is, memory is crucial to many functions, short- and long-term memory, and our lives are shot through with fictional material. A lot of memoirs are works of fiction. These categories blur tremendously. And there have been memoir scandals, too. People have made things up and put it into their memoirs.”

Memories of the Future is also strongly feminist. Hustvedt’s protagonist is an ardently feminist, intelligent woman who dissects the way gender operates, and the structure of the novel strays from the confessional style that some female authors feel boxed in by. The narration is full of hurtful memories from childhood, such as when Minnesota’s doctor father tells her that she will “make a fine nurse.” But when her older self chimes in, it’s with more confidence—with a deeper understanding of how her younger self at times faced barriers because of her gender.

There is also a poignant scene describing what the narrator calls a “near rape.” Hustvedt wrote this before #MeToo but says that it reflects how, for many women of her generation, “there were many humiliations that people simply put up with and didn’t say anything about.” The novel explores the shame that Minnesota experienced and the way it was internalized.

“For me, this book is about getting her out of that stationary pose,” Hustvedt says. “Out of the pose of waiting and into activity—into motion.”

A recurring line in the book—“The world loves powerful men but it hates powerful women”—is just as true today as it was in 1978, Hustvedt notes. “Women who choose not to hide their power, who choose not to apologize for it, are punished,” she adds. Specifically, she says, social psychology research reveals that women who are assertive can be inadvertently punished. “That’s why so many women apologize for themselves before they start speaking. It cushions the blows. I find this ghastly.”

Hustvedt says she has become “more assured in my own authority” with age. “It’s maybe confidence, and also probably that one is more seasoned and somewhat indifferent. You’re not finding yourself quite as much in the eyes of others as one might assume.”

“I think few human beings understand the degree to which they are locked into these very airless perceptual categories,” Hustvedt tells me. “We are so conventional, all of us. So much of what we do is predetermined. So much of what we see is predetermined. Part of my pleasure as a novelist is to explode some of these truly tedious categories—especially about men and women.”

And isn’t that, truly, a reflection of reality?

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.