... a wonderfully readable series of essays ... The points Lalami makes are not new, but her perspective on them is unique, and the beautifully written personal stories she includes give Conditional Citizens a flair and warmth rare in a polemic about what’s wrong with America ... Like her innate globalism, the author’s perspective as a parent enriches her analysis ... This is Lalami’s first nonfiction book after four novels, one of them a National Book Award finalist, and it is exciting to hear her address the issues she has touched on in fiction with rigor and focus.
... an argument for active, equal United States citizenship. In order to forward her conception of equality, Lalami must first present its counter construct: conditional membership in the body politic ... Lalami’s interrogation of patriarchy is the most important critique in this very strong book ... For citizens planning to exercise the franchise this fall, Conditional Citizens clarifies the stakes of the most crucial American election season of the 21st century thus far.
... a no-holds-barred non-fiction debut ... Lalami structures Conditional Citizens: On Belonging In America as a series of personal vignettes and historical dives that are more broad than deep. Her contribution is not original research. She relies largely on the scholarship of others and news archives to explore her own understanding of what it means to belong in this country. What she brings is self-awareness ... Her book is not designed to win over those 'in the middle.' She 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.
I read Conditional Citizens as a first-generation immigrant, a Jewish refugee from the former Soviet Union who has been teased for being 'a commie' and 'a Russian spy' but also complimented on successful assimilation by those who knew nothing of the process. I read Conditional Citizens while holed up in my apartment, immunocompromised and afraid of catching or spreading the novel coronavirus.I read Conditional Citizens as a break from scrolling through social media feeds and learning about ordinary individuals who couldn’t get tested until it was too late, while celebrities got diagnosed and treated. I saw the president lean hard into racism and xenophobia, repeatedly saying 'Chinese virus,' and thus tacitly encouraging harassment and violence against Asian Americans ... This is why books like Conditional Citizens are important. They remind us that the dichotomy of citizen and non-citizen is too facile. Even legal citizenship does not guarantee cultural citizenship, equality under the law, or safety from state brutality ... Lalami does not offer her readers the option of hopelessness and disengagement. On the contrary, her words compel us to keep returning to the question of who belongs in the United States, and under what conditions, and to remember that the stakes of this question are about not merely feelings, or even 'entitlements,' but survival itself ... Conditional Citizens is a tightly crafted and highly accessible book. Those who carry around the US Constitution should consider adding this book to their collection, if only to remind them of how the Constitution fails, by design, to protect those who live among them but experience citizenship as restricted, situational, or entirely out of reach.
Ms. Lalami’s is a short book, 160-odd pages of often elegantly expressed (and exasperating) paranoia. Portions of it have appeared, she acknowledges, in publications like the Nation, whose flavor her text seems most clearly to carry. She is, in fact, a columnist at the Nation; and in keeping with the locutions of that progressive-dissident magazine, she writes of the 'Los Angeles uprisings' in the wake of the Rodney King beating by the police in 1991 and of 'Latinx motorists' being stopped more frequently than whites by Border Patrol agents. Although the book feels, at times, to be a stitching together of disparate essays, it does have a clear thread that runs right through from start to finish ... It’s hard to avoid the sense that Ms. Lalami is playing down her privilege for polemical advantage. Elsewhere she repurposes the notion of privilege by slackening its definition ... Reading Conditional Citizens, you become convinced not merely that Ms. Lalami is unwilling to recognize that any racial and social progress has occurred in America since the days of the Founding Fathers but also that her Manichaean eye regards a glass as entirely empty if it’s not entirely full. And for all her writerly elegance, you also come to see her as somewhat picayune in her judgment of other human beings—even as she makes her grander pitch for racial justice ... Failure to interpret is, in truth, a charge one might level against Ms. Lalami herself: a failure to interpret America. It is the kindest of charges, in the circumstances.
Lalami is less insightful when she widens her lens to argue that all minorities in the United States—including people born here but of a race, faith or gender not shared by the dominant majority—are discriminated against by their government and others, a heavily worn argument ... is best when Lalami turns inward: How has her treatment by our government and fellow citizens been far from the ideal? ... I wish Lalami had dug much deeper to show in this, her first nonfiction book, how this inequality affects her. I wondered: As an English professor who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., among the nation’s wealthier and most liberal enclaves, was she buffered from the worst of the inequalities she describes? You don’t have to look far in Los Angeles County, where I also live and where 34 percent of the residents were born in another country, to show how these inequalities play out daily. She could have cast a wider narrative net to tell these stories through friends and acquaintances ... While her book convincingly lays out the inequalities among citizens, she’s woefully short on remedies and specific ideas for achieving change. How do you make voting accessible to all? What are the best approaches locally, statewide or in other countries that we should fight to have enacted wherever we live?
... sharp, bracingly clear essays ... By fusing deep research with lived experience, the book doesn’t just ask you to consider that the personal is political; it makes you marvel that anyone could still presume otherwise.
As a novelist, Lalami traffics in the specific textures of individual lives and voices, allowing questions of race, gender, and class to percolate at the edges of her narratives rather than dominate them. A similar instinct infuses Conditional Citizens, which uses the contradictions between American ideals and the author’s experience to excavate histories of exclusion. Tackling questions of national belonging, media representation of Muslims, anti-poor government policy, and structural misogyny, Lalami sets an enormous task for herself: to describe multiple modes of exclusion, each with its own knotty convolutions. But if this collection finds Lalami broadening her scope, its wide lens sometimes vitiates the specificity that is her greatest literary strength ... Conditional Citizens can drag when Lalami sacrifices her own story for broad summaries of everything from the Islamic State to the explosion of funding for the U.S. Border Patrol ... At its best, Conditional Citizens uses memoir and history to resist that narrowing. 'Faith' is the most impressive of the book’s eight essays for the attentiveness with which it turns its gaze toward not only Lalami’s family but also the African slaves who were among America’s first Muslims ... It is these gray lives, as Lalami calls them, with their confounding heterogeneity, that conditional citizenship seeks to stamp out of being. This collection rescues such lives from oblivion.
In 200 pages, Lalami offers a tightly packed examination of the whimsical nature of American citizenship, proffering examples of the weaponization of laws against every race and religion, and yet it is the conditionality of Muslim citizenship upon which she shines the brightest light. In the long-standing tradition of artist-activists, Lalami invites the personal and political, the private and the public ... There is a quiet frustration in Lalami’s work. It rouses in the reader a misplaced longing, a trove of embarrassing memories of a not-so-distant past when Americans were convinced that 'erecting walls (was) the work of tyrants and autocrats.' As the 2020 election nears, Lalami’s writing reflects a citizen who’s descried the matted underbelly of her adopted home, a citizen cautioning us that what we believe of ourselves, our laws, our country has and will shift to suit the ever-changing demands of power. We are a land of conditionalities.
[A] searing look at the struggle for all Americans to achieve liberty and equality. Lalami eloquently tacks between her experiences as an immigrant to this country and the history of U.S. attempts to exclude different categories of people from the full benefits of citizenship ... Lalami offers a fresh perspective on the double consciousness of the immigrant ... Conditional citizenship is still conferred on people of color, women, immigrants, religious minorities, even those living in poverty, and Lalami’s insight in showing the subtle and overt ways discrimination operates in so many facets of life is one of this book’s major strengths.
On the surface, its timing could not be better ... Timeliness is a double-edged sword, however. If an author is writing about a topic that is in the very air we breathe these days, it is imperative to say something that others do not. Lalami misses the mark in spite of her unique experiences as a Muslim from Morocco who became a U.S. citizen 20 years ago. At issue is a book so profoundly disorganized that it raises anew the question of what precisely editors do these days ... Lalami is no neophyte author: She is an award-winning novelist, as well as a creative writing professor at the University of California Riverside. But her debut attempt at a nonfiction book seems to have gotten away from her ... The book defies description, and not in a good way. Is it a memoir? Sort of, but Lalami constantly veers away from the story of her own life and only returns to it intermittently. A book of essays? A note at the end mentions that sections were originally published in various magazines, but one topic bleeds into another with no rhyme or reason. It is not uncommon for authors to weave seemingly disparate subjects into a coherent whole, but that does not happen here ... Scholarship is sparse, with 'sourcing' that is anything but — endnotes mostly expand on points made in the main text, or refer to newspaper articles or the author’s previous work — and the book is heavily reliant on anecdotes and the author’s 'feelings' to make unsupported assertions ... The most perplexing aspect of Lalami’s book is her seeming lack of awareness of the here and now. The reader will look in vain for, say, a reference to Black Lives Matter. Instead, Lalami rehashes a number of incidents that are very old news to any reader who is even marginally well-informed ... In the end, Lalami’s book is a lost opportunity. Its one truly revelatory part — a history of Muslims in America, buried within Lalami’s grab-bag of other topics — could have served as a backdrop to her own story and made for a compelling and unique read. Instead, the author has chosen to lecture us on much that we already know while overlooking the many ways history has moved on, seemingly without her awareness.
In a concise and powerful work of nonfiction, Lalami argues that America’s vaunted diversity and pluralism are undermined by actions designed to differentiate systematically between an 'us' group and an 'other' group. The ultimate goal of these actions is to keep white citizens—and especially white men—in control; people of color and women are denied the full rights and privileges of citizenship ... Lalami’s own experience of being a 'conditional citizen' pervades her analysis. Born in Rabat, Morocco, she lived briefly in Great Britain and then moved to California, where she completed a doctoral degree in linguistics ... Conditional Citizens stands out thanks to Lalami’s rare skill at combining compelling personal narrative and memoir with perceptive and wide-ranging insights on the cultural, social, and historical forces that create our modern American caste system ... What may be most eye-opening to many readers is her account of the sheer enormity and persistence of efforts to destroy, oppress, or exclude whole groups of people throughout the nation’s history ... Ultimately, Lalami writes, it will be the moral courage and actions of individuals that will determine the nation’s fate: 'If we want change, we must be agents of change.'
... thoroughly researched, as evidenced by its detailed source notes and bibliography, but in this gifted storyteller’s hands, it never feels like homework. Lalami braids statistics and historical context with her lived experiences to illustrate how unjust policies and the biases that feed them can affect individual lives.
... [a] propulsive, fascinating, and infuriating account of citizenship in the U.S. ... an eye-opening, uncomfortable examination of the many ways U.S. citizens find themselves differentiated based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and language ... Though certainly timely for the current political moment, Lalami historicizes these trends, which turn out to be as American as apple pie. Lalami treats this complex, incendiary topic with nuanced consideration and blistering insight.
In this eloquent and troubling account, novelist and National Book Award–finalist Lalami...draws on her personal history as 'an immigrant, a woman, an Arab, and a Muslim' to argue that becoming a U.S. citizen does not necessarily mean becoming 'an equal member of the American family.'
While walls may seem to offer security, as Lalami points out, the climate change that “unfettered industrialization” has created will eventually render both walls and checkpoints useless. Consistently thoughtful and incisive, the book confronts the perils of our modern age with truths to inspire the coalition-building necessary to American cultural and democratic survival ... A bracingly provocative collection perfect for our times.