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America's First Explorers: Fact vs Fiction
The 'Moor's Account' author talks being an immigrant, Craig Ferguson, and divisive rhetoric
Book of the Month, Laila Lalami
March Guest Judge Craig Ferguson's selection, 'The Moor's Account' tells the story of the the first black explorer of America, a Moroccan slave called Estebanico whose testimony was never recorded. Spanish conquistadors with the NarvÃ¡ez expedition landed in 1527 six hundred men strong, but after a year facing disease, starvation, and resistance from indigenous tribes, there were only four survivors. We spoke with the author of this Pulitzer Prize finalist, Laila Lalami. Listen to the full interview or read the transcript below.
The themes in this book are those that you have visited in the past - class, people in new lands, a heritage based in Morocco'¦ what speaks to you about these themes? I know that you're from Morocco.
That's interesting. I mean I think that the sort of journey that my life has taken, which was not one I had expected has certainly played a big part in my writing. I had not expected, for example, to become an immigrant. I came to the United States to go to graduate school, and within a couple of years I had met someone and was married and [laughs], so you know life happened. I think that sort of crossing of borders has certainly been a central theme in a lot of what I'm writing. So for example, in my first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, I write about a group of Moroccan immigrants who try to cross the Strait of Gibraltar on a lifeboat.
It's not just physical crossing of boundaries that interests me, but I've also written about, sort of moving between cultures or between languages, and between milieux, that certainly was the case in my second book, Secret Son. And then with this one, which is a little bit different because it's a historical novel, you can kind of see that it's still dealing with the same issue of cross-cultural encounters, except that in this case it's set in 1528 and it's an epic story of conquest. What happens when a person from one culture is suddenly thrust into another, or what happens when two cultures meet, what are some of the consequences of that?
That brings me to a question that I had about something you had written in the New York Times - you said "I was born in one nation (Morocco) speaking Arabic, came to my love of literature through a second language (French) and now live in a third country (America), where I write books and teach classes in yet another language (English)." Can you tell us more about those experiences of having multiple cultures, religions, and languages present in your life?
I think, to me it's not that unusual of an experience. I think nowadays we live increasingly in an age of globalization and I think that kind of experience is more common than people imagine. So I was born in Rabat, Morocco, and I grew up in a house full of books. I grew up around people who loved to read, my parents were big readers, and so I read from a very young age and I started to have the urge to tell stories from a young age, but at home we spoke obviously Moroccan-Arabic, but my parents sent me to a French school when I was a little girl, and so my earliest exposure to literature came through French. So I read a lot of French books and French literature later on. There certainly is a huge Moroccan literature in French - a number of Moroccan writers - writing in French. So I read a lot of my own culture through French. Then later on in college I majored in English and then I ended up studying in England and later in the United States, and decided, because I was already writing so much of my research, for my dissertation, in English, decided to try my hand at writing non-fiction, and then later fiction, in English.
So that kind of a journey through languages is featured again in my work. This is what I mean when I say that I'm always writing about crossing boundaries. I've always found it to be very enriching, I've always found it to be something that has added great value to my life to have been able to live across different cultures. When I see a lot of what's happening in the country right now, a lot of this divisive rhetoric, that's being spouted by a number of presidential candidates, it's just very, very concerning, because I don't fear others. I see myself in other people, I don't necessarily fear them and I feel like a lot of the divisive rhetoric is based on fear.
Going more into Moor's Account, what specifically appealed to you about writing this account from what was thought of as one of the first black explorers of America?
It's such a fascinating story. I was reading a book about Moorish Saints years ago and I came across a very brief mention of a man named Estebanico who was said to be the first black explorer of America. He was said to be a Moroccan slave who had been part of the Narvaez expedition. When I came across that, I said, "Wait a minute, what do you mean first black explorer of America?" It just seemed such an incredible story and I had never even heard about it. So I decided to read up more on the chronicles of the Narvaez expedition. That's how I found Cabeza de Vaca's account.
The Narvaez expedition, it's such an incredible, epic story. It's a story of conquest, it's a story of ambition and greed. Narvaez, this fascinating character in his own right, left Spain with 600 men, women, and children, nearly 100 horses. Landed in Florida in 1528 with the goal of claiming it for the Spanish crown, but within a year, there were only four survivors, for a variety of reasons, because the expedition just basically met with every imaginable disaster. Within a year there will only four survivors - Cabeza de Vaca, the treasurer of the expedition, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, who's a young nobleman, Andres Dorantes de Carranza, who's another nobleman, and his Moroccan slave, a man that the other three Spaniards called Estebanico. We don't actually know what his real name was. And together they journeyed across North America. When they were found many years later and brought to Mexico City and asked about their experiences, the testimony that was collected was collected only from the three nobleman but not from the slave because it was assumed that his testimony was not valuable or superfluous or uninteresting, in spite of the fact that he had learned indigenous languages and served as a translator for the others, often times also as a scout, and had been alongside them the whole time.
That historical erasure seemed to me to be interesting because it also felt very modern, it's something that I still see, that I think is ongoing. It is part of history that certain perspectives are going to be recorded and valued and other perspectives are not going to be recorded or not going to be valued and are going to be erased. So that appealed to me, this idea that he had this incredible life and nobody remembered it. And I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to hear about this expedition from the point of view from the one member of the expedition whose destiny was never collected.
What was the process like, writing historical fiction?
Well it was, actually to be honest, it was a little bit terrifying, because I hadn't written - my work up to that date had been contemporary. I hadn't written a historical novel before, so I was a little bit afraid of all the research that it would involve. It certainly was a very, very long process, the research, but I feel like I've been very fortunate in the sense that the Narvaez expedition has been the subject of intense interest on the part of historians and anthropologists. So there's a lot of material about it, obviously about Cabeza de Vaca's account, and various translations of it, but also commentaries that were made about it, discussions that existed in academic literature. So I was able to read up on it - find maps, find additional documents, read up more about what Narvaez had been like before he decided to go on this journey. I read also a lot about Spanish exploration of the Americas in the 16th Century. I also read extensively about Moroccan politics in the 16th Century, like the specific circumstances that might have led someone like Estebanico to end up on a Spanish expedition.
Of course I also read up a lot on indigenous tribes in what is now the United States and tried to find as much information as I could about them. A number of these tribes are now extinct and so we often have only Spanish sources about them. Later on, we also have other sources that can be relied upon for research. So it was a long process of research but at the end of the day research can only take you so far and you have, in writing fiction, obviously you have to create characters, you have to create a story, you have to create themes, and that really is the challenge, is that you have to create these characters but you're operating within the constraints of history. You know that they're going to leave Spain at a specific date and they're going end up in Mexico City at a specific date, and that certain circumstances are going to compel them to act in certain ways. The rest of it is up to you, the rest of it in creating these characters, is up to you as an author. That process I found very enjoyable. I really had a lot of fun writing the book.
Great. I wanted to ask, what are some of your favorite books - whether fiction or nonfiction?
Oh dear me. You know I always have such a hard time answering that only because there's so much to pick from. I'm a great admirer of John Coetzee, the South African writer, I guess now Australian writer. So I went back to him a lot during the writing of this book. I also love V.S. Naipaul, I like Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison has been a huge influence on me. For this book I read a lot of historical fiction, so I read a lot of Amitav Ghosh. Another big influence on the book has been travel-logs. So I read the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta. I read some of his work to prepare for the Moor's Account.
What books do you read to your daughter?
Well I am a little bit unusual in that I've tried to read some of my serious works to her but - so for example last year together we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, she loved those, such great fun to read those. But we also read things like Animal Farm, [LAUGHS], The Metamorphosis, I love Kafka and I thought that was probably the more accessible of his books. She's a little bit older now so of course we did all of the Harry Potter, all of the Philip Pullman, all that stuff we did a long time ago, so we're kind of transitioning to semi-serious stuff now. Another book she loved was Fahrenheit 451.
So how does it feel that your book was selected by Craig Ferguson, obviously you've gotten a lot of acclaim for this book, but specifically Craig Ferguson who is a historian himself?
Yes, yeah it's weird when you publish a book you never really know what to expect - whether it's going to find readers. He just came across the book like any other reader. At the bookstore, read it, loved it, had me on his show back when he had his TV show but it didn't quite work out because the segment before mine went a little longer so my segment didn't run. So I think he's been such a great supporter of the book and has mentioned it in interviews. So it's just been delightful to see that he's a fan of it.
What are you reading right now?
Well, [LAUGHS]. I am judging two literary prizes, so I'm afraid I'm reading a lot of manuscripts. I'm judging the PEN/Bellwether Prize and I'm just finishing up with that and I'm going to be judging the Hurston/Wright Legacy Prize for Debut Fiction so I just have a whole box of books that have been submitted.
And what are you working on now?
Well I'm working on a novel, and it's actually part of a larger project. I'm kind of hesitant to discuss much about it. What can I tell you? It has to do with two generations of a family, across two different countries. How 'bout that.
Great. Anything else you want our Book of the Month members to know as they're reading through this content to see what book they want to select for the month?
I hope that they enjoy reading the book and I hope that it leads to discussions about how history is recorded and the line between fact and fiction and whether it's as hard and fast as we usually like it to be, or believe it to be.