Q&A with Laila Lalami

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Questions by Helen Skinner

1. The Moor’s Account is narrated by the Moroccan slave, Mustafa al-Zamori, also known as Estebanico. What made you decide to write the novel from Estebanico’s point of view?

When I came across the story of the Narvaez Expedition, I noticed right away that the only perspectives that were ever recorded were those of the surviving Spanish noblemen. I thought it would be interesting to revisit this story from the point of view of the one survivor whose testimony was never heard or documented. The fact that he was a slave, an interloper among these conquerors, only added to my fascination with him.

2. Was it always your intention to write this book as historical fiction rather than non-fiction?

Yes. Too little is known about Mustafa/Estebanico to make for satisfying nonfiction. The only biographical bit of information about him is that he was an Arabic-speaking black man, a native of Azemmur, a small town south of Casablanca. Fiction provided me with the freedom to create everything else about his character.

3. I was very impressed with the amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this novel. Did you come across any interesting information during your research that you were unable to incorporate into the story?

Oh, yes. There were many small details about the Narvaez expedition that could not be included. For example, the expedition left the port of San Lucar de Barrameda in Spain in 1527 and took about a year to reach Florida. Part of the reason for this delay is that about a quarter of the passengers and crew deserted at the first port of call, which was on the island of Hispaniola. Narvaez had to spend several weeks on the island, hiring replacements for the deserters. But it would have been tedious to write about all the delays. I had to get the story started at the point where it mattered, which is when the men find gold.

4. Estebanico’s adventures take him from his home in Morocco to Spain and then to the New World. Have you visited any of the places he passed through on his journey?

I’ve visited most of them. I’ve been to Azemmur, of course, but also to Cuba (even though that scene was later cut), to Florida, Texas, and New Mexico.

5. The Narvaez expedition began with so much hope and optimism but ended in disaster. Estebanico was one of only four men who survived. How much of their survival do you think was due to luck and how much to the personal qualities those four men possessed?

I certainly think luck played a role. But I also think that these four men survived because they were strong enough to withstand disease and they were clever enough to reinvent themselves as healers when necessary.

6. The Moor’s Account is set in the sixteenth century but is written in language that feels both authentic and easy to read. What stylistic choices did you have to make to avoid Estebanico’s narrative voice sounding inappropriately modern while still being accessible to the twenty-first century reader?

I tried, wherever possible, to choose words whose etymology dates back at least to the sixteenth century but are still in use today. This required a lot of work on a line by line basis, but I enjoyed it and I was very pleased with how it turned out.

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Read Helen’s review of The Moor’s Account in our Fiction section here.

Helen blogs at She Reads Novels.

Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account (Periscope: London, 2015). 978-1-85964-427-0, 430 pp., paperback original.

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