Dispatch from Self-Quarantine

“Disease did not discriminate,” I wrote in my novel, The Moor’s Account. Based on a true story, the book chronicles the journey of a Spanish expedition to Florida in 1528, from the point of view of a Moroccan slave who has been brought to the new world by his master. Within weeks, the men contract dysentery and begin to die, whether from infection or from their attempts to escape the unfamiliar landscape of America. “[Disease] could strike the rich as well as the poor, the brave as well as the coward, the wise as well as the fool. Disease leveled all the differences between us and united us in a single abiding fear.”

In our modern world, where massive populations of people live in high-density areas and depend on a global economy for survival, disease can spread just as fast as in 1528, just as indiscriminately. But the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be borne equally by all. Once disease spreads and quarantine becomes mandatory, the poor, the elderly, the immune-compromised, the disabled, the uninsured, the incarcerated and the detained will be hit much harder.

The coronavirus pandemic is an argument for why we need social rights, like universal healthcare, a living wage, sick leave, and free education. Imagine for a moment how the pandemic would’ve unfolded if Americans could see a doctor for free at the first sign of symptoms. Imagine if workers who are diagnosed could immediately take leave from their jobs without fear of lost wages. Imagine if students did not have to worry that an additional semester in college would mean adding tens of thousands of dollars to their mounting debt.

The mention of social rights usually triggers howls of “How will we pay for it”? But the correct question is “Who will pay for it?” In 2017, the Trump administration passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which lowered taxes for corporations, whose rate went from 35% to 21%. It was the biggest one-time reduction in corporate tax in American history. But as the budget deficit ballooned, it soon became clear who would pay for these tax cuts. Last year, for example, Trump proposed cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The COVID-19 pandemic will worsen all of the problems that fester in U.S. society right now: expensive healthcare, income inequality, mass incarceration, immigration detention, etc. We need a national guarantee of social rights. The time to act is now.

Hello, 2020

New year, new book! Here’s the cover for my upcoming book of nonfiction, Conditional Citizens. It’s about the experience of inequality and exclusion in the United States and I wrote it for everyone who’s ever felt, or been made to feel, like they didn’t belong in this country. Thanks to Viet Thanh Nguyen, Maaza Mengiste, Pankaj Mishra, and Kiese Laymon for their kind words about it. Details and preorder info at this link

Bye, 2019

The Other Americans had a pretty good year. It was named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller, and made best-of-year lists at NPR, Time, Variety, the Washington Post, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and many others. Translation rights were sold in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Romania, and China. But this year was also marked for me by the loss of my beloved mother-in-law, the passing of one of my heroes, and some health troubles. So it goes. I’m looking forward to winter break, when I’ll get to spend some time with my family and enjoy some time offline. Thank you all, dear readers, for your support these past few months. Happy holidays!

The Other Americans Named A Finalist for the National Book Award & the Kirkus Prize

I started writing The Other Americans as a way to find narrative order in the chaos of ideas and emotions that were swirling around in me about immigration and exile, alienation from the self and others, families and communities. It has been a long journey, with a lot of ups and downs. By the time I held the finished book in my hands, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Everything else that happened after that has been the proverbial cherry on the cake. So it was especially thrilling to hear that The Other Americans made it onto the shortlist for both the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award in Fiction. My heart is full.

(Illustration by Katherine Moffett for Vanity Fair.)