Who Does the United States Belong to?: A Conversation with Laila Lalami

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ABBIE REESE: I saw the story of your mother-in-law as sort of parable about consent and memory and acquiescing to authority. America is where we can erect a parking lot over the site of Japanese relocation and forget about the episode and use the space to swear in new immigrants. There are going to be more. Or accusations that she wants to turn the US into Somalia, which is where she was born. But I thought it was interesting that, to them, this is our house means the physical takeover of that Capitol — bringing weapons and threatening representatives who are not doing what they want them to do. This really fundamentally goes back to the question of who does the United States belong to? They’ve had a retired Air Force vet. The dichotomies or the pairings that you present — of allegiance and silence, of consent and memory — are really important and thoughtful. I think that just comes with the territory, if you’re writing critically about politics. It’s through erasure that you can have situations where new citizens are being sworn in at the site of previous internment of Japanese Americans, as I was in Pomona in 2000. Or does that mean that votes in certain states they don’t like don’t count? They’ve had a business owner from San Diego. After Obama came to power, he made a decision not to prosecute anybody that was involved with war crimes and torture. And it was very painful to watch her go through Alzheimer’s and to watch her lose her memory. I’m the same person applying what I hope are the same standards of observation and critical analysis! She is a creative nonfiction candidate in the MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts program at the University of California, Riverside. No kidding. When you compare these two behaviors — you have a representative from Minnesota who is being critical of policies that she wants to change, and you have citizens who are taking action by storming the Capitol and acting like a mob and threatening to kill the vice president — it’s clear that the range of discourse that’s allowed, the margins of what’s allowed, are not the same. We saw this after the Iraq War, the biggest foreign policy disaster in the last half-century. When you look at the massive problems that the United States is facing right now, I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that the country is on the verge of being ungovernable. The difference is that the loss of memory in the United States is willful, while in the case of my mother-in-law it was obviously not willful. The flip side of that is that, when I would write articles that are critical of the United States, I would get emails from Americans calling me a traitor and saying how I should go back to where I came from. Think about the myth of “a nation of immigrants,” made up of many different races, and how that erases indigenous dispossession, slavery, or segregation. One of the things that struck me very much when I was watching the videos of the storming of the Capitol — which even as I say it, seems strange to say — but one of the things that struck me, because I heard it more than once in different videos, was that these Trump supporters, many of them white men and women, were saying, “This is our house,” meaning the Capitol is the people’s house and people have a right to disagree with their government and all that. The margin of discourse that Ilhan Omar is permitted is far narrower than what those people were permitted to do. To many Republicans, particularly Trump Republicans, Kaepernick was behaving like a traitor when he kneeled for the national anthem, but the fact that they’re storming — storming — the Capitol and carrying Confederate flags is simply the expression of their political views, protected by the First Amendment. Some citizens are allowed to be critical to the point of violence toward their government, and others are not. These are people who can afford to do this sort of thing. One of the things that I can tell you about that is whenever I criticize Morocco in print — when I would write about issues relating to freedom of speech for journalists — I would unfailingly, every time, get emails from Americans telling me how brave I was and that I was speaking truth to power. Now, the other thing I will say — the flip side of what I was talking about with Ilhan Omar — is what happened this week, where a crowd of “pro-Trump extremists,” as NPR calls them, who are basically insurrectionists, stormed the Capitol. One thing that I do know for sure — and I’m convinced of this — is that, unless there are serious consequences for what happened at the Capitol, we’re going to be right back here in a few months, maybe at the midterms or the next presidential election. These senators denounced the violence, but they’re also saying that the election was fraudulent and that we have to listen to the concerns of these insurrectionists. This is not a protest of the working class. Now a citizen, she encourages a critical lens. That has always struck me as strange. They left a trail of evidence, so the FBI is starting to make these arrests. “Being critical is how the US is able to change and get better. You can’t sever that connection as long as you’re taking one step forward and then another step back.”
Lalami arrived in the United States as a graduate student 30 years ago. FEBRUARY 17, 2021

LAILA LALAMI’S 2020 BOOK Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America yields a compelling history of the United States and our founding myth of equality. Laila Lalami will speak on a panel with Mike Davis at the 44th annual UCR Writers Week at 5:30 p.m. Register here. I think it speaks to deep-seated ideas about who belongs in America and who doesn’t. Yeah, and the fact that people were allowed to fly home. Holder halted progress and dismantled protections for African Americans. It’s wild, the hypocrisy with Representative Omar, as well as Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, a silent demonstration that was completely unacceptable to so many people. You have the storming of the Capitol last Wednesday and here we are on a Monday with a few dozen arrests among the insurrectionists. I fear that we haven’t yet hit the part where people are going to finally start saying, “Okay, there have to be consequences.” Because, so far, I’m not seeing that. They’ve stormed the Capitol and carried Confederate flags and caused all this mayhem. “What we need,” Lalami says, “is a sustained effort to protect citizenship rights and to sever them from any connection to race or gender or any other accidents of birth. I think they’re up to 70 arrests right now. Her gratitude doesn’t protect her from these accusations. I think it’s gracious and astute in the book that you comment on the imperfections of your birth country — Morocco — at the same time that you comment on the imperfections and flaws of the United States. And of course, that kind of impunity led us to this moment that we’re in. It’s by erasing these little portions of its history that are shameful or distasteful or disturbing that American mythology is created. When I criticize the US, Moroccans don’t mind, but when I criticize Morocco, they mind it very much! ¤
Banner image: “DC Capitol Storming IMG 7986” by TapTheForwardAssist is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. That’s the opposite of allegiance. Several people have died. But the actual leaders — Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Paul Gosar, some of the people that were encouraging the crowd — have suffered no consequences. And, of course, you can imagine if it was Ilhan Omar who was telling her supporters to go into the Capitol and do this, she would have been forced to resign from Congress. And by the way, I want to say that one of the things I truly resent is how people always talk about these supporters just being from the white working class, when everybody that I’ve seen so far that has been arrested has been middle and upper class. So, if we let this go, this is going to continue. And there is nothing unique about Americans, by the way. They’ve had a woman who flew on her private jet. But any other kind of position — any position in which you are critical — is perceived as a sign of a betrayal, as a sign of ingratitude. I think that erasure is very much a part of how America constructs its national identity. If you’re hurting economically, you don’t have the money to fly all the way to DC, book a hotel for a week to go do this.   PT on Thursday, February 18, 2021. Is there any hope? I got along very well with her and cared a great deal about her. In a generous interview soon after the insurrection at the US Capitol, Lalami offered insight into the origins of this Republic, where white men agreed at the outset that they would be governed by consent, everyone else by force. 
The right to vote, restricted to white men who owned property, steadily opened up over the generations, notably with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests. But the Roberts Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Her criticism of US government policy is perceived as a criticism of America itself, despite the fact that she is actually quite careful when she talks about the US to signal her gratitude for having been welcomed here as a refugee and growing up in Minneapolis and, in a wonderful arc, becoming her district’s congressional representative. I guess the question is how to convince Trump supporters that there are inequities in society and that these problems should be rectified. All of these senators are basically saying that the onus is on us who are sitting in our homes minding our business to listen to them — the insurrectionists — and to listen to their concerns. And there is absolutely a connection between political affiliation, race, gender, and this right to speak critically. Polling stations have closed. The connection between allegiance and silence is a long-standing feature of American national mythmaking, and you can see it at play almost constantly. Image had been darkened. But an erasure of memory is part of how the United States constructs its national identity. The one that’s on my mind this morning, because of the situation in Washington, DC, is how Ilhan Omar, the representative for Minnesota’s 5th district, gets treated whenever she criticizes the United States: out come the racist cartoons, with her being portrayed as a terrorist sympathizer, if not an outright terrorist. I think that’s because, for people like her, and I think you can see this very clearly with Muslims, there’s this idea that you show — you demonstrate — your allegiance by being either silent or by being vocal about your gratitude. ¤
Abbie Reese, a dual citizen of the United States and Luxembourg, is writing a book about reclaiming her great-great-great grandfather’s Luxembourgish nationality. That’s what they believe. LAILA LALAMI: I think in some ways my relationship with my mother-in-law mirrors my relationship with America. But look at how they’re being defended, to this day, by people like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley. Silence is the price that you have to pay to show your allegiance. Or does the focus really have to be more on policy moves and shifts? It doesn’t get better by the people being silent,” she says. She’s somebody that I cared about very much. But how it’s perceived is very different when the gaze is pointed outward versus when it’s pointed inward. They’re saying that it belongs to these Trump supporters. There’s complete impunity for anybody but the people who broke into the Capitol. They seem to think that only some votes — theirs, of course — count. Does it belong to all its citizens equally, meaning that a majority voted for Biden, so he gets to be president? I mean, to be able to even leave the Capitol and not be arrested —
But they documented everything that they did on social media, and that tells you how confident they were, that what they were doing had the approval at the highest levels of government, beginning with the president. Why wouldn’t this happen again if there are no consequences for the people who are stirring the pot?