Writer as Witness Colloquium

Laila Lalami,
Conditional Citizens: Who Belongs in America? September 7, 2022
8:00-9:30 PM in Bender Arena

To set the stage for your first year here at AU, we have chosen a book that we call our “community text” for you to read before you arrive in August. You and your classmates will discuss the book and write about it in your College Writing class. The Writing Studies Program and the Campus Store will also sponsor an essay contest to honor the best writing inspired by the community text. The dialogue we develop around the challenging themes that define our community texts unifies our students and faculty in an intellectual experience. When we ask tough questions, explore controversy, listen to one another respectfully, and sharpen our claims, we illustrate how writing is a social act at the heart of an academic community. Welcoming our text’s author to discuss their work is an essential part of that shared intellectual experience.

We’re delighted to announce this year’s choice: Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens: Who Belongs in America? We will meet with Dr. Lalami this fall for the twenty-fifth annual Writer as Witness Colloquium on Wednesday, September 7 from 8-9:30 in Bender Arena. She will address the American University community and meet with students and faculty to discuss the book, as well as the craft, artistry, and research that went into its creation.

Order Conditional Citizens from the Campus Store.

Lalami, a Moroccan-born novelist, short story writer, essayist, and professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, writes on issues of race, immigration, and citizenship. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among others. Lalami has received a Fulbright Fellowship, a British Council Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her novels have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. She holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Southern California.

Lalami’s latest book, Conditional Citizens, is about belonging in America. Using her own journey from Moroccan immigrant to US citizen, she explores the rights, liberties, and protections that are traditionally associated with American citizenship. Tapping into history, politics, and literature, she elucidates how accidents of birth–such as national origin, race, or gender–that once determined the boundaries of Americanness still cast their shadows today. Throughout the book, she poignantly illustrates how white supremacy survives through adaptation and legislation, maintaining a caste system that keeps the modern equivalent of white male landowners at the top of the social hierarchy. Conditional citizens, she argues, are all the people who America embraces with one arm, and pushes away with the other.

The American University Campus Store is offering Conditional Citizens at a discounted rate. You may order the book directly through the Campus Store Website. Copies will also be available for purchase at the Campus Store over the summer, when you’ll have your first opportunity to talk with classmates about Conditional Citizens.

As you read, think about possible questions for the author to address during the September Colloquium. You may email questions or comments to lit@american.edu, or share them through social media on Twitter (@WriterAsWitness) or Facebook (search for Writer as Witness). You also will have the chance to ask your questions directly at the Writer as Witness Colloquium on September 7. We look forward to meeting you there to hear your responses to the provocative questions raised by Lalami’s work.

Student Essay Competition

Open to all Writing Studies students. Sponsored by the Writing Studies Program and AU Campus Store.

For more information, please contact Daisy Levy, the Writer as Witness committee chair:

Previous Writer as Witness Texts

  • Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper, named best/most anticipated book of 2018 by The Atlantic, The Root, Politico Magazine, Glamour, and Bustle.
  • Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, by Eli Saslow, winner of the 2019 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction.
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in the General Nonfiction Category
  • Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild, National Book Award finalist
  • We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, by Jeff Chang, the Northern California Nonfiction Book of the Year
  • Notes from No Man's Land, by Eula Biss, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.
  • The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel, a "Best Book of the Year" for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and others, and the winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism.
  • The Devil's Highway: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist and winner of the Lannen Literary Award.
  • Savage Inequalities, by Jonathan Kozol, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. 

How Do We Choose the Writer as Witness Book?

We do have some criteria for our Writer as Witness books. They must be non-fiction, and the author must be alive and available. We look for books that relate to current events and issues and that make an argument using research. Most importantly, we want a book that generates discussions about a writer’s rhetorical choices.

The Writer as Witness faculty committee in the Writing Studies Program starts the process in early October by asking for nominations for the book from people across campus, including current College Writing students. They review the books on that list and narrow it down to about ten books. Then they look at those books more closely, along with reviews of the books and any audio or video appearances by the author. The committee members are then able to narrow the list to four or five choices, and they send that list to the director of the Writing Studies Program, usually in December. In fall 2020, we added a student focus group to this process. The program director spends about a month contacting the authors’ agents to find out if they’re available on our Writer as Witness date and how much they cost. (There are many authors whom we just can’t afford.) Once she comes to an agreement with an agent, she needs to get approval from the university to proceed with the contract, and the contract process can take one to two months. If all goes well, we have next fall’s book chosen and the contract signed by mid-spring.