Laila Lalami, a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, sometimes describes herself as an “immigrant by chance.”
Born and raised in Rabat, Morocco, she came to the United States in 1992 to pursue her education with plans to return home once she earned her graduate degree. But she ended up meeting her husband, an American, and stayed, becoming an American citizen and a successful author of four novels.
Lalami is one of 38 naturalized citizens whose contributions are being celebrated by the Carnegie Corporation of New York as part of its annual “Great Immigrants” tribute. The honorees will be recognized with a full-page ad running in the New York Times on the Fourth of July.
The foundation, which released the list of this year’s honorees Thursday, described them as “citizens who strengthen America’s economy, enrich our culture and communities, and invigorate our democracy through their lives, their work, and their examples.”
Lalami recently won the 2019 Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize and was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. She’s won several other awards, including the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award for Fiction, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and the Arab American Book Award for fiction.
Carnegie began the Great Immigrants initiative in 2006 to commemorate the legacy of its founder, Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant who believed strongly in immigration and citizenship.
This year’s honorees represent 35 countries of origin, a range of experiences and a diverse array of fields. They include violinist Midori, baseball player Mariano Rivera, journalist Wolf Blitzer, Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, biologist Angelika Amon, and computer scientist Dina Katabi.
Lalami’s perspective as an immigrant has informed much of her writing, including her most recent novel, “The Other Americans,” which features a Moroccan-American protagonist grappling with the death of her immigrant father.
She also wrote about how being an immigrant has become more politicized under a Trump presidency in a recent New York Times essay.
In the essay, Lalami notes that being an immigrant is not unusual – millions of people share that experience, including many of her students. Yet it’s one that shapes how one experiences and sees the world “from two vantage points at once, to perceive it in shades of gray rather than in black and white.”