Laila Lalami is a Moroccan novelist, short story writer, and essayist. She earned a PhD in linguistics from the University of Southern California. Her first book, the collection of short stories Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was a finalist for the Oregon Book Prize. Her novel, Secret Son, was longlisted for the Orange Prize. Currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, Lalami has been recognized with a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship.
Her new novel, The Moor’s Account, offers the story of the first black explorer to the Americas, a Moroccan slave. The book, which will be published in September 2014, has already received excellent reviews. Novelist Gary Shteyngart has called it: “Tremendous and powerful, The Moor’s Account is one of the finest historical novels I’ve encountered in a while. It rings with thunder!”
Below is RAWI’s interview with Lalami, our featured member. Her website and blog can be found at www.lailalalami.com.
Interview by Susan Muaddi Darraj
The Moor's Account is your first work of historical fiction. You imagine the life and adventures of Estebanico, a Moroccan slave who arrived in the Americas in 1527. Was this exciting for you? What kind of research did you have to conduct to write this novel?
Writing this book was exciting and terrifying in equal measure. My research began with reading Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition and taking note of all the silences in the text, the things that went unmentioned. For example, with one notable exception, Cabeza de Vaca does not name any of the Native Americans with whom he lived for so long; nor does he mention any women. These are the silences I wanted to explore in Estebanico’s version of the events. I read a number of books about the Narváez expedition itself, but also books about Spanish conquest of the Americas, medieval Spain and Morocco, and indigenous life in America.
In this novel, you write about Africans and Native Americans in the 1500s -- would you comment on this? Is there a larger comment you're making on the colonization of the "new world"?
The Moor’s Account is told from the perspective of Estebanico. It is through his eyes that we witness the arrival of Spanish conquistadores and the moment of contact with indigenous tribes. He interacts with many Native American characters and as the story progresses his views of them, which were shaped by ideas that were common at the time, change radically.
How long would you say you spent researching, and how long drafting, the novel?
I spent about a year doing research before I started writing, but even during the writing, I often had queries about historical details, which I had to research. So it wasn’t a neat research-and-then-write process, it was more fluid than that. From start to finish, it took me four and a half years.
I remember, when I was editor of The Baltimore Review, coming across your story "Better Luck Tomorrow," which we published. I was struck by many things -- your narrative voice, the characters -- but also by the richness description of your setting. I felt that setting was important in both Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and in Secret Son. Is describing place/location something you consciously do in all your work?
It’s interesting to hear you say that. When some of my early stories were published, I often received the opposite reaction: that there wasn’t enough setting. Some readers wanted more descriptions of places like Tangier. What I try to do, always, is to describe the setting through the eyes of the characters: what stands out, what doesn’t stand out. And for someone who, say, lives in Tangier, describing it in minute detail would be a bit odd. Think of insider/outsider perspectives. In this new novel, I had to pay special attention to the setting because my main character is an outsider journeying into a new world, so there are certain aspects of the landscape that stand out to him. I wanted to immerse the readers in that perspective.
I think that your narrator in “Better Luck Tomorrow” was realistic for that reason – we see the city through his eyes, not through the eyes of a tourist-like narrator. You, as a writer, trust that the reader will put it all together, and we do because we are in capable hands.
To touch upon another topic, do you feel, as an Arab American writer, compelled to make certain issues/details clear to your readers, given that the Arabic-speaking world and Islam are so frequently in the news? In other words, does the current state of world politics put a particular burden on Arab writers (beyond the task shared by all writers, which is just to create good work)?
I think there’s a pressure that some readers and editors put on diaspora writers to sort of ‘explain’ the Other, and that includes writing about certain subjects. This is a market pressure, so to speak. I resist it in my work, and many Arab American writers I know do as well, each in his or her own way.
This is a question about process (I hope you don't get bored by such questions): How do you enter your work? Does it start with an idea? Are you a writer who outlines?
It really depends on the book. With this new one, I had the idea for it as soon as I came across Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle. Who was Estebanico? What role did he play? Why had I never heard about him? The novel is based on a true story, so I had a rough outline of major events: the departure from Spain, the landing in Florida, the frantic search for gold. This put constraints on my story, but it also freed me to invent or change things to suit my purposes.
Who are your own writing heroes? Whose work inspires you?
There are so many! But I am a great admirer of J. M. Coetzee and Toni Morrison.
You’ve also written some important essays, on Islamophobia and immigration, for The Nation and other forums. What other subjects might we see you writing about in the near future?
I’m always writing essays on the side. Right now, I’m working on a piece about how writers from different parts of the world approach politics in fiction.