IFOA: Where did the idea for The Moor’s Account come from?
Laila Lalami: Some years ago, I was reading Anouar Majid’s We Are All Moors, a scholarly book about the historical connection between attitudes towards immigrants today and the perception of Moors in the 17th century. I came across a mention of Estebanico, a Moroccan slave who was said to be the first African to cross America. He had been part of the Narváez expedition of 1528, which ended in failure. The survivors, among them the famed Cabeza de Vaca, trekked across the continent, looking for a Spanish port. I was vaguely familiar with Cabeza de Vaca, but I had never heard of Estebanico. I thought I would find out more about him in Cabeza de Vaca’s account of the Narváez expedition, but that travelogue only inspired more questions. For example, the other survivors were all aristocrats, men who typically received better rations and rode horses. Somehow, this slave had managed to survive as well. He quickly became the translator for the Spaniards, the man who made it possible for them to communicate with indigenous people. Yet he was not allowed to testify to the Spanish authorities about the expedition. And Cabeza de Vaca’s travelogue mentioned only one indigenous person and no women at all. These silences intrigued me; I wanted to explore them in the novel.
IFOA: Did you build the character of Estebanico based on any found record, or did the character come completely from your imagination?
Lalami: There is very little information about Estebanico in the historical record. Cabeza de Vaca describes him in one line: “el cuatro [sobreviviente] se llama Estevanico, es negro alárabe, natural de Azamor.” (“The fourth [survivor] is named Estevanico, an Arabic-speaking black man, a native of Azemmour.”) And we also have some trace of him in writings about the 1539 expedition that the viceroy of New Spain organized to find the Seven Cities of Cibola. But we don’t know who he was, what he sounded liked, what his own motives and desires might have been. So I created him from scratch, using only the element that he was a black man from Azemmour. And I had fun with it: I gave him a family, a personal history, a specific voice, a sensibility. The process really helped me to view the events of the expedition in a completely different light.
IFOA: Describe your research process for this novel.
Lalami: My starting point was Cabeza de Vaca’s La Relacíon, in the translation by Fanny Bandelier, which was revised and annotated by Harold Augenbraum and introduced by Ilan Stavans. After that, I read a number of scholarly works, not just on the Narváez expedition itself, but also on 16th-century Morocco, Spain and America. I read dozens of sources about Spanish conquest in general and about this expedition in particular. I traveled to Azemmur, where Estebanico was born; to Cuba, where the expedition stopped on its way to the New World; to Florida, where it landed; to Texas, where the four survivors lived with indigenous tribes, and to Zuñi pueblo in New Mexico, the last place where Estebanico was seen. There was a lot of research to do, but honestly the research was not the hardest part of writing this book. The hardest part was recreating an episode of history whose bloodletting and complexities remained largely unmentioned in Cabeza de Vaca’s account. And I had to do this while maintaining the voice and the point of view of a 16th-century Moroccan slave.
Lalami: The narrative possibilities that opened up with this novel were impossible to resist. When Cabeza de Vaca wrote his travelogue, he was creating a record of the Narváez expedition, but he was also trying to ingratiate himself with the king of Spain. There are many moments in the book where you feel that Cabeza de Vaca is holding back from saying what truly happened out there, in Indian territory. I wanted to say the things that he left unsaid. And there was, too, the fact that Estebanico had been denied his place in history. The silencing of this slave’s perspective seemed modern to me. I see it every day when I open the newspaper or turn on the television. The views we read about and the voices we hear are those of the powerful, not the powerless. The novel gave me an opportunity to explore those discrepancies.
IFOA: What do you find most appealing about the historical fiction genre?
Lalami: The more I read about Estebanico, the more it seemed to me that he was perhaps the first global man. He had his own Moroccan culture, but he had to make himself at home in Spanish culture and in Indian culture. He was also a witness to imperial invasion and its attendant violence, both of which were justified and excused by the supposedly more civilized party. So even though the book is historical, in some ways I felt that I was writing about things that were happening right now across the globe.
Laila Lalami is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. She will give a reading from The Moor’s Account on October 29.