NONFICTION

Laila Lalami Goes Deep

Laila Lalami, author of Conditional Citizens.
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Laila Lalami, author of Conditional Citizens.
Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens excavates the history of exclusion. 

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In the early 1990s, Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami—then a graduate student studying linguistics in Los Angeles—found herself filling out administrative paperwork at the University of Southern California so she could teach Arabic and French to undergrads. She puzzled over a section that asked her to self-identify with one of a limited number of racial categories: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black; Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; and White.

Being an Arab Muslim immigrant from Morocco, she did not see herself in those categories. Was she white? Maybe: according to the paperwork, “White” covered anyone with origins in “Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” That didn’t seem right, though. Her status as an Arab immigrant from Africa in a nation that eyes Arabs and Muslims as figures of suspicion rendered her very much nonwhite. “I was bewildered,” she writes in Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, a book of essays, “both by the imperative to self-identify and by the narrowness of the categories on the list. Where would Moroccans fit in such categories?”

It’s the sort of Kafkaesque absurdity that American citizens who are immigrant, of color, queer, or women know from the outside in. Throughout Conditional Citizens, Lalami tries to puzzle out its insidious logic. As a novelist, Lalami traffics in the specific textures of individual lives and voices, allowing questions of race, gender, and class to percolate at the edges of her narratives rather than dominate them. A similar instinct infuses Conditional Citizens, which uses the contradictions between American ideals and the author’s experience to excavate histories of exclusion. Tackling questions of national belonging, media representation of Muslims, anti-poor government policy, and structural misogyny, Lalami sets an enormous task for herself: to describe multiple modes of exclusion, each with its own knotty convolutions. But if this collection finds Lalami broadening her scope, its wide lens sometimes vitiates the specificity that is her greatest literary strength.

It can be hard to find language to talk about exclusion in America. How do we analyze something that operates subtly, often through the very mechanisms of inclusion? Lalami uses the concept of “conditional citizenship” to describe an attenuated belonging, characterized by a disconnect “between doctrine and reality.” The conditional citizen is someone whose relationship to the state is premised on unending difference, which marks her as a person “whose rights the state finds expendable in the pursuit of white supremacy.” In other words, the conditional citizen is she whose rights can be nullified whenever the state sees fit.

“While my life in this country is in most ways happy and fulfilling, it has never been entirely secure or comfortable,” Lalami writes, explaining what it means to live conditionally. “Certain facts regularly stand in the way.… My relationship to the state, observed through exposure to its policies or encounters with its representatives, is affected in all sorts of ways by my being an immigrant, a woman, an Arab, and a Muslim.”

As Lalami sees it, this is not a flaw in American pluralism but a feature that maintains power for the “free white persons” who were the nation’s first citizens. Returning to Los Angeles from a trip abroad, she finds herself the target of a border agent who asks her American husband, “So…how many camels did you have to trade in for her?” This is the state working exactly as it is meant to: ensuring that the border between citizen and “other” remains indelible. Everywhere Lalami looks, she finds borders both physical and figurative, intended to draw a line between those who enjoy full rights and those singled out by identity for limited citizenship.

Conditional Citizens can drag when Lalami sacrifices her own story for broad summaries of everything from the Islamic State to the explosion of funding for the U.S. Border Patrol. These summaries take up long stretches of the book, distracting us from what she does best, which is to bring us into intimate proximity through personal narrative: her immigration to the United States to attend graduate school, her naturalization in 2000, and her eventual education in conditional citizenship after the September 11 attacks. In “Faith,” she recalls giving a talk about her 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account, only to have an audience member ask about Islamic extremists. It’s not an uncommon encounter; Lalami is used to confronting the “wide abyss between the imagined me and the real me.” This, she goes on, has “the paradoxical effect of making my life narrower, because if I spent my time correcting misconceptions about [Muslims], then [I would have] little opportunity to engage with issues that [matter] to me within that community.”

At its best, Conditional Citizens uses memoir and history to resist that narrowing. “Faith” is the most impressive of the book’s eight essays for the attentiveness with which it turns its gaze toward not only Lalami’s family but also the African slaves who were among America’s first Muslims. Faced with that audience member, Lalami propels herself into the story of her mother, who was raised in a French orphanage as a Catholic—until French rule ended in 1956 and “the nuns abruptly told their charges that they had to practice their own religion now.”

Even as she moved into Muslim life, Lalami’s mother maintained her social and personal connection to Catholicism, visiting with the nuns who had raised her and occasionally praying to Saint Anthony. What room, the author wonders, does conditional citizenship have for a religious experience like this one, caught between multiple historical trajectories? It is these gray lives, as Lalami calls them, with their confounding heterogeneity, that conditional citizenship seeks to stamp out of being. This collection rescues such lives from oblivion.

Ismail Muhammad is a writer and critic based in Oakland, California. He is the reviews editor of the Believer.

CONDITIONAL CITIZENS: ON BELONGING IN AMERICA

• By Laila Lalami
• Pantheon, 208 pages, $25.95

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