2019 Great Immigrants Recipient

Laila Lalami
Writer and Professor of Creative Writing, University of California, Riverside | Guggenheim Fellow and American Book Award Winner
Born in:

Described as “the finest contemporary chronicler of immigration and its discontents” by the Washington Post, Laila Lalami considers herself to be “an immigrant by choice and by chance.” Born in Morocco and educated in Rabat and London, Lalami arrived in the United States in 1992. Her plan was to return to Morocco after finishing coursework for her PhD in linguistics at the University of Southern California, but she met her future husband and stayed, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2000. Lalami’s acclaimed novels address themes of immigration, race, class, marginalization, and dislocation. The Moor’s Account (2014) fictionalizes the story of an actual 16th-century Spanish expedition to Florida from the point of view of the explorer Mustafa al-Zamori, a Moroccan slave largely ignored in historical accounts. In addition to winning the American Book Award, the novel was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and was named to the Man Booker Prize longlist. Her latest novel, The Other Americans, centers on the mysterious hit-and-run death of a Moroccan immigrant in a small California town, spotlighting the struggles of Muslim Americans and undocumented immigrants in today’s America. A professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, Lalami won the 2019 Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Prize for her body of work. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Washington Post, Harper’s, and the New York Times, and she is a regular columnist for the Nation and critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times. Lalami strives in her novels to avoid the “fairytale” picture of the immigrant experience that pervades Hollywood movies, instead exploring how the act of immigration offers opportunities for growth, but also real sacrifices. As she told the Nation, “If you uproot yourself, and move to a whole new place, you begin to change.… When I write about immigrant characters, it’s never far from my mind that there’s an interplay between gain and loss.”