Laila Lalami

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois introduced the idea of “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” DuBois applied this sense of “two-ness” in 1903 to black people, who he says were both “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” But Top Ten contributor Laila Lalami reminds us in her new book of essays, Conditional Citizens, that double-consciousness is experienced by many people in this land of immigrants who believe they are seen as outsiders.

Through personal reflections and poignant vignettes Lalami recounts her unlikely journey from Moroccan immigrant to U.S. citizen, using it as a starting point for her exploration of the rights, liberties, and protections that are traditionally associated with American citizenship. Tapping into history, politics and literature, she elucidates how accidents of birth—such as national origin, race, and gender—that once determined the boundaries of Americanness still cast their shadows today. Conditional citizens, she argues, are all the people with whom America embraces with one arm and pushes away with the other. She writes:

“All immigrants walk around with a scar left behind by their crossing into a new country, an invisible mark of the exile that became their condition when they were uprooted. Their children grow up without grandparents, without aunts and uncles and cousins, without a reservoir of collective family memory passed down through generations. While immigrants nurse this immense loss, they are told that they must adjust and belong by giving up even more of their culture.”

Reviewing the book for NPR, Aarti Shahani says Lalami “can and will be dismissed by some as a newcomer who has lived the American Dream and then trashed it. But mainstream acceptance is not her central concern. Her goal, it seems, is to thread together the experiences of a breathtakingly diverse underclass. This constituency is increasingly finding its voice, and she is amplifying what had long been intimate, complicated inner thoughts.”

Laila Lalami’s Top Ten List

1. Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (1980).
2. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977).
3. A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe (1966).
4. The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984).
5. For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri (1973).
6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986).
7. A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (1961).
8. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952).
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967).
10. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (1984).