By Anya Shukla
It’s Olllllllll-ympic season! I have gotten so fantastically into the Olympics that it’s getting a little ridiculous. Ice hockey, speed skating, alpine skiing, that sport where they go headfirst down a super-slick ice track at 70 miles per hour, I’m watching it all. Plus, powering through five hours of NBC coverage a day leaves me almost no time to read books!
Review: Who gets to be American, Laila Lailani asks her readers in “Conditional Citizens: On Belonging In America” and why? To answer that question, Lalani draws from personal anecdotes, historical information, and political decisions, focusing on the Americans not afforded the rights and privileges given to others. She explores this concept through the lens of several identifiers: race, religion, gender, and country of origin, among others.
Lalani’s clean, elegant writing leads the reader on an enlightening journey. She has a knack for chopping complex topics into bite-sized, manageable pieces, enabling readers to easily grasp her points; more importantly, the ideas she brings up lodge in one’s mind long after they turn the last page. My Rating: 4.75/5.
What I Loved: Lalani structures each chapter so beautifully, skating smoothly between personal experiences and academic information. She closely analyzes and interweaves history, politics, current events, and history with masterful precision. In one section, “Borders,” she describes how she and some friends were stopped at a Texas inspection point, then explores the legality of that stop. According to her research, Border Patrol has the right to stop anyone “within a hundred miles of an external border,” a law which affects approximately 200 million Americans (pg. 94). She goes on to note the racialized and politicized nature of a border wall: Canadians have the greatest number of visa overstays and the Canadian border is a major source of illegal drugs into the U.S., yet the Canadian border remains unsullied in political speeches and the greater American consciousness. Her personal/analytical approach makes these complex ideas digestible for a reader—she never dumbs herself down to make a point yet consistently speaks to the lowest common social-justice-warrior denominator (aka me).
Like in the above Mexican/Canadian border discussion, Lalani often makes comparisons between a minority and majority group to showcase differences in treatment. This dichotomy emphasizes the injustices that marginalized groups face. For example, I can recognize the toxicity of the War on Drugs, which promoted strict sentencing laws that targeted Black communities, because Lalani compares that period to the opioid crisis; opioids affect white populations at a greater rate and treatment and counseling are used to reduce drug use. When Muslims commit acts of terrorism, Lalani notes, the public attacks the entire Muslim community; when white people do the same, newspapers focus instead on their mental health. White people are often seen as individuals, while a person of color is “a specimen… found mysterious and perhaps dangerous” (pg. 83).
Most importantly, Lalani places great emphasis on art as a tool for understanding others: “not only did I know Christians personally,” she writes, but “they were also present to me imaginatively, in all the books I read” (pg. 65). I find that idea so, so crucial—and not just because it’s the driver of our entire organization. Art has such a transcendent ability to help us empathize with other people and cultures. If we are told by American society (through school, university, reviews, “best of” lists) that Western classics are the pinnacle of artwork, we obscure huge sections of our country’s history and current experiences. What’s so powerful about “Conditional Citizens” is that the book works to reclaim that history, to tell the stories of individuals—Lalami—and groups—Muslims, Arabs, women—that have not had their voices represented.
What I Didn’t Love: Some chapters in the later half of the book—“Assimilation,” “Tribe,” “Caste”—didn’t hold my attention as much, but that's completely personal preference. There’s something in here for everyone.
Food for Thought: I recently read “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. (Okay, the comic book version, but that counts, right?) The book notes that humans come together by telling and buying stories. For example, money, especially money that isn’t backed by a rare physical good like gold, only has worth as long as people believe in its value. Otherwise, a dollar bill is just a piece of paper. Our societies are built on collective myths that we all buy into.
Personally, I feel that the myth that ties the United States together has been the American Dream. This is a country where anyone can be anything if they just work hard enough, where grit holds more weight than status and money and class. What happens when—given the rising rates of income inequality and wage stagnation in the U.S.—that myth is debunked? What becomes the new story of America?
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “It seems to me now the imbalance in literature courses was perhaps the most harmful. We were trained, all of us, to feel more empathy for male* heroes, to see the world through their eyes, to feel their pain, their joy, their hopes. We developed an affinity for male taste and male pleasure. We learned to have compassion for men’s faults and men’s failures. But rarely did we do the same for women protagonists” (pg. 254-255).
Up next: “Mexican Gothic" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
*"Male" can be extrapolated to encompass all majority groups.