When I interviewed Laila Lalami a few weeks ago, we talked quite a lot about critics and readers. This was probably my fault. Her new novel, The Moor's Account, is a remarkable and unique piece of historical fiction: it tells the story of an enslaved African who was part of the Narváez expedition to conquer Florida in 1528, and who was one of the only four survivors. History has mostly forgotten him. The most famous survivor was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, whose narrative of his "captivity" among the native peoples of the area remains one of the few surviving records of that region, before its inhabitants were exterminated and displaced. Cabeza de Vaca doesn't have much to say about "Estebanico"—the name which was given to him by the men who enslaved him—and mostly calls him "el moro" or "el negro."
In The Moor's Account, Lalami tells the story of the Narváez expedition from the perspective of "Estebanico," to whom she gives a name: Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori. This is not the name history remembers, of course; history only records his enslaved name. Which is to say, history remembers a fiction, the lie that was told about this human being by the people who sought to call him a slave, an object, a piece of property. His given name may not have been "Mustafa," and his father's name may not have been "Muhammad," but his name certainly wasn't Estebanico and he did have a father. As a novel about a person who history has worked to erase and forget, The Moor's Account demands that we ask ourselves this question: when history remembers a lie, what does it mean to write a historical "fiction"?
In retrospect, I wish I had asked her more about her novel and less about her readers. But I had gotten a little bit defensive on her behalf, a few days before her novel was released, when she got what I can only characterize as a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad review in The New York Times, by Jeffrey Renard Allen, under the title "His Manifest Destiny." The Moor's Account is a book that should be read, and I got angry that this review gave its readers permission not to. So I spluttered quite a bit on Twitter, and used some four-letter words.
Her response (though also on Twitter) was much more thoughtful, and precise:
Yesterday, The Economist complained that, in a book on slavery, "almost all the blacks are victims, almost all the whites villains." Today, the NYT frets that, in my book on Spanish conquest, "Europeans conquer, enslave and erase while Native Americans are a people apart."
Complexity of character does not mean showing the "good side" of the conquerors or the "bad side" of the conquered. If you want to see that kind of "complexity" in settler colonialism and genocide, then watch a John Wayne movie. My book shows complicated and transformative relationships between a Moroccan slave, Spanish conquerors, and Native American tribes. In ten years of publishing, I have never once complained about a review. A review is an opinion. And you know what they say about opinions. But I could not let such an egregious misreading of my work go unanswered. Thanks for reading. We now return you to regular programming.
It was a coincidence, I'm sure, that The Economist ran a no-good, very bad review of Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism the day before The New York Times ran its review of The Moor's Account. The day before, she had been making jokes on Twitter about The Economist's review, which complained that, "Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains."
Using the hashtag #economistbookreviews, she wrote:
- The Handmaid’s Tale depicts women’s subjugation in a theocratic society, but fails to show patriarchy’s positive side.
- In Beloved, Toni Morrison writes about a slave who escapes from a Kentucky plantation. But what about the slaveowner?
- One fails to understand why Mr. Marquez inserts magical elements in a setting where realism is more appropriate.
- Mr. Kafka is unnecessarily harsh toward a family whose son has turned into a gigantic bug.
- Mr. Bradbury argues that burning books is bad, but provides no solution to the unemployment that firemen would face.
The Economist eventually withdrew its review, but this kind of "objectivity" remains a part of the critical landscape: when writing a book about slavery, don't make the white people the bad guys. And if you write a book about conquistadors in the Americas, making them the villains of the story is "simplistic." So Allen's NYT review chided her:
For Lalami, storytelling is...a primal struggle over power between the strong and the weak, between good and evil, and against forgetting...in this novel, which can be simplistic in its construction of heroes and villains, the villain always has white skin. Europeans conquer, enslave and erase and are beyond redemption, while the Moors and Native Americans are a people apart.
That this is an astonishing misreading of the novel isn't even the most interesting thing about it, but it's still worth saying that this is an astonishing misreading of the novel. The Moor's Account is full of European characters who are not villains; the principle Castilians in it—Cabeza de Vaca, for example—are deeply human, quite flawed and weak, but never simplistic. This is an act of real generosity on the part of their author, as you have to read very little history to realize; if ever there were cartoonishly monstrous historical villains, it's the conquistadors. But even the "Moors and Native Americans" in her novel are not "a people apart," whatever that is even supposed to mean. Before the protagonist becomes a slave, he was—briefly—a buyer and seller of slaves, himself; it is exactly the point that he was already part and parcel of the economic system that eventually makes him its victim, and he spends much of the novel agonizing over his own complicity. There is also a scene, midway through the novel, in which a Carancahuan murders one of the most sympathetic Castilians in the book, utterly without provocation or cause. But it is exactly as horrifyingly arbitrary as an earlier scene, in which a Portuguese soldier cuts off the protagonist's father's arm, simply because he can. The parallel is hard to miss. Perhaps the reviewer didn't finish reading the book? More likely, he had already read it before he began to read it.
This is why I wanted to talk to this novel's author about critics, about reading, and about objectivity. These kinds of misreadings advance an agenda under the cover of objectivity: the problem, for these kinds of readers, is that Edward Baptist and Laila Lalami are writing about historical moments in which the identity of the villains is pretty darned clear. There were no "good" slave-owners, and to be a conquistador was, at best, to be a participant in one of the most horrifying holocausts of the modern world. These were people who came to New World to conquer, rape, kill, torture, and enslave, and they did all of these things. If their victims were not always virtuous and without blame—being human beings, after all—they simply are not, and cannot be, the villains of that story. The victims of genocide don't have to be flawless to be the victims of their story, and the one thing they are not, not ever, is the villain.
Lalami's conquistadors are not heroes. Some of them, like the young Castilian who was murdered by a Carancahuas chief for the crime of having appeared in someone's dream, are simply soldiers who enlisted in a war they didn't choose, suffering for someone else's evil. Some of them, eventually, come to dissent from the horrors in which they are taking part; a few even come to treat non-white people like they are human beings. But in the end, most of them just follow orders and do what they're told. They kill, rape, torture, and steal, and as they do these things, they tell themselves stories about God and Pagans to make it seem like something other than it is. But these stories are not "objectivity." This is the point of the novel. It is a cliché that history is told by the winners. But when the winners were genocidaires, history is also the story as it gets told by the villains. To mistake Cabeza de Vaca's narrative for objectivity is like reading American history through the eyes of slaveowners and Indian-killers (something we Americans have gotten very good at doing). In a perverse way, therefore, there is much more "truth" in a novel like The Moor's Account than in La Relación of Cabeza de Vaca, in the same way that "Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori" is a much truer name for the man who Cabeza de Vaca called "el Negro," than Estebanico.
So this is what I ended up talking with Laila Lalami about, the problems and agendas of readers, and the problematic ways that readers read her as having an agenda. It's a problem because what happens, then, is that you don't talk about the novel; all you talk about is the author, its readers, and the missed opportunities. This makes my interview feel like a missed opportunity, in retrospect. For example, I regret that we didn't really talk about the ways her novel explores social death outside the bounds of institutional slavery, how it thinks about "enslavement" as something not only to be found in contracts and chains and whips, but also in societies which, simply, do not regard persons as persons. The Moor's Account is a novel written by someone who has read Toni Morrison very carefully, and who has absorbed much more than just her remarkable way with a sentence. Yet it's also a novel which thinks powerfully about what it means to be rendered something other than a person, say, in a society which has, to put it lightly, are very good at "extreme renditions" of Muslim people.
If I may make so bold, then, let me ask you to read The Moor's Account. All the things that I let my interview with its author get derailed by, all the things we didn't quite get a chance to talk about - that's where you'll find them.
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AB: Would you start by telling me out about Mustafa?
LL: [laughs] Oh, you mean, my character? Who is not based on me at all?
Who is not based on you, on people in your life, because you have an imagination.
This is what happened. At my first reading on this book tour, I did a Q and A, and at the signing, this gentleman—an older white man [laughs]—came up to me and he said "This guy is you." And I was like, "OK..." And it was so obvious to him, like why hadn't I thought that I was writing about myself?
So he was telling you this as if it was true, but somehow you hadn't seen it?
Yes, in other words, I was the person who spent five years with this book, but apparently, this person who heard me speak for 20 minutes was certain that Mustafa was me. I just smiled because this is something that I see all the time, when I tour and I talk about my book, this idea that when you're writing, you're writing memoir. That you couldn't possibly be writing something completely outside of your range of experience. That's something that I've noticed fairly consistently. Especially for women, it's a way to dismiss the work that they're doing, and not take it as seriously as it ought to be taken.
That was actually a serious question, and I do want to hear about Mustafa. But is it a related issue that you write about men as much as you do? You had a blog-post where you said "For the last four years, I've spent the majority of my time inside a man's body and mind," and obviously the book is an exercise of historical imagination. But also, you do a lot of writing in the minds of men; is part of that to get away from the idea that you are writing memoir?
[Laughs] I like men! And that's another question that came up in the tour: what's up with all the male characters? It's tough for me to answer that question. I'm still early on in my career, relatively, I've only published three books. The first one, half the characters were women and half were men, and I've written from both perspectives. The second one was from the perspective of a young man, though it also included the perspectives of a young woman and a mother. And this third book, the protagonist is another man. So I think people are like, "Why all the male characters?" They're curious. But in this book I'm working on right now—and it's very, very early, and I'm not prepared to talk about it—but the main character is a woman. I don't know. It's early yet, I think, maybe it's a question I can answer when I publish ten or fifteen books. I can go back and say, I see why there were this many men or this many women. But right now, I just go wherever the stories take me, wherever I think they're interesting...
But I want to answer your question. You just want me to talk about Mustafa?
Well, let me explain the question. When I'm telling people why I love this novel, as I do, I say two things. There's a historical thing you're doing here, where you're thinking about the gaps in the historical record, what is true, what isn't true, what is "objective history," all that stuff. That was what I expected the novel to be, and it is. But then when I read it... honestly, I live in Texas, but 16th century Texas is something I've never pictured, much less the people who saw it four centuries ago. I had never imagined what the world looked like to Mustafa, to someone who was born at that time. Put differently, there's a way in which it isn't even about history. Mustafa feels like a fully fleshed out character, a person that I never knew before. So, distinct, from the "historical" questions, I'm just genuinely curious: where do you get this person from?
The thing you mentioned about being in 16th-century Texas, about never imagining what 16th-century Texas looked like, is something that came to me when I was camping. Um... you know, my husband is a hiker—a very, very, very serious one. I was joking with him the other day, that I feel like he's converted to another religion or something and I feel like I've had to follow suit. I DID NOT LIKE IT. [Laughs] But I have grown to enjoy it. And so over the last ten years we've gone all over the place, and seen all kinds of things. And one of the things that struck me when we go outdoors: I see the mountains and the trees, it's very humbling, it always makes me feel very very small. You know that poem by Li Po? "We sit together, the mountain and I, until only the mountain remains." That's what I feel like, when I'm outdoors, hiking, I feel like, Wow, there are so many generations before us have beheld the exact same landscape, and they're all gone, but the landscape remains.
And so when I started researching the book, we went to Zuni Pueblo first, which is where the book ends. I just stood there, and I felt very overwhelmed, because I was thinking... this is what he saw, this is where he stood, four or five hundred years ago. I don't know, I was very touched by that, that this man had completely disappeared as if he had never been. And the only thing that really survives as long as those mountains and those trees was a story. I felt that he'd been robbed and so I wanted tell his story. That was something that really intrigued me.
And frankly, it was also all the narrative possibilities that opened up from telling this story, that it was just something I knew that I could play with... As far as the character, he - I've had so many drafts, it's hard. I can't say that he came to me fully formed, but I had a pretty clear idea about his dad, his mom, the city, the town, all that. That was pretty clear from the beginning. Then there was a lot of writing and re-writing, and changing things, and adding things. But the basic set-up of who he was, I think I had a pretty clear idea. I don't know where it came from.
Obviously, I knew I didn't want him to be the swashbuckling hero who gets everything right all the time, and so he had to be much more complex. And I also did not want him to have modern attitudes. That was very, very, very difficult to do, because in writing about native Americans, when he first lands, he's coming from the old world, and he's part of this conquering expedition. And I had to be very careful because I wanted the language to be realistic, in the way they talked about Native Americans. I had to look for ways to subvert all of that, to turn all of those things around. So it was challenging, but once I got the voice and once I had an idea of who he was, already, it kind of flowed from there.
For example, I knew that he had to be literate. He's writing the goddamned book! [Laughs] Once I knew he was literate, I was able to do all kinds of things, because then I was okay, he has a family, he went to school, that means the father is literate... Then, I thought, if we are told that he is an Arabic-speaking black man, but he's from the town of Azemmour, I was pretty sure that his native language was Tamazight. So he's already bilingual. So I used clues from history. But beyond that, everything else was made up.
There are also more random things; for example, his father is a notary, but Mustafa wants to become a merchant instead. That's a very unnecessary story, in the terms you're describing.
Yes, I could have started the story right when they landed in Florida and ended it when they arrive in Mexico, and it would be a straightforward re-telling of Cabeza de Vaca. But I didn't want to do that, I knew all along that I wanted the story of the Narváez expedition to be a part of his life story, if not his entire life. That he had a life before and after. What we know about him, starting from 1536 onward, is something that comes to us from the friar Marcos de Niza, who was sent by the viceroy of Mexico, to explore what is now New Mexico. So that's another secondary source about Mustafa. This guy was never really able to tell us his own story.
So... I don't know, I just had to do it. I wanted this to be a part of the larger story of him. And you're right, it wasn't necessary to the story of the expedition, but to me, it felt like it was crucial to do that. No one who had taken an interest in him, from the research that I had done, had taken an interest in what had happened to him beforehand, or afterward. His role, in these articles and books, is confined to what happened to him with the Narváez expedition. One of the things that interested me about him is that everyone who wrote about him wanted to claim him in a different way. So, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were some African-American scholars that became interested in him as well, because he's African, and they wanted to, in a sense, almost demonstrate that Africans had played a role in New World exploration, and so he became the guy through which they could make that proof. So to me, that's very interesting.
There are different theories about him. There's one that said he was not at all Moroccan, he was from Sub-Saharan Africa. And to me that was a little bit far-fetched, and a little bit ignorant of Moroccans, because people assume that Moroccans are all light-skinned, and that's just not true at all. Of course, there are Moroccans who are black, and there are black Berbers, especially in the south. He didn't need to be from outside of Azemmour. We are told that he's from Azemmour, so I just took that as my starting point and went with it.
But also, that portion of the novel, when he is in Azemmour, is very much a part of a broad world. Calling him a Moroccan is maybe the least useful word.
And I never do, in fact, in the book! The major kingdom at the time was Fez. The word 'Morocco' comes from Marrakesh, and that's another kingdom. It just wouldn't have been correct anyway. He's just from Azemmour, and that's it, that's all I used. But I had fun, I had fun with that, I really wanted to kind of explore... I wanted him to be a hero, for example, so he had to have a fatal flaw. This guy wants to be a merchant, and that's the beginning. Eventually he becomes a castaway, like Robinson Crusoe.
All the great shipwreck narratives are merchants going off to have adventures and make money, aren't they?
Robinson Crusoe was on a slaving expedition, wasn't he? That's when he gets shipwrecked. I'm looking at my bookcase now, trying to remember.
One of the things I really appreciated about this book was the extent to which global economics is like weather, that it sweeps through people's lives and transforms them, that people are changed by those structures that are so much bigger than them. But also, when the Narváez expedition is in the New World, being in that space changes them and they become very different people. And so that idea that some people are good and some people are bad, that there's some intrinsic quality to people, well, over eight years you have the opportunity to really show how where you are makes you who you are.
Absolutely! Oh, absolutely, absolutely. When I started working on this book, I was very scared. I don't know enough about the 16th century, I don't know what people sounded like, I can't do this. But the more I researched it and the more I read about it, the more I realized what a thoroughly, thoroughly modern story it is. For example, this wasn't part of the Narváez story at all, but Mustafa's father is very resentful of refugees—people who are fleeing the Inquisition! And he's upset with them because they're taking jobs. So he leaves, in a huff, to go to Azemmour. I feel like that never changes, that's human nature. We're always going to have resentment for the foreigner. We're always going to have this lust, we're always going to have this greed—and it might not be for gold!—and that was the key to the story, that as long as I could keep looking at those emotions, and at those desires, then I had a key to kind of understanding how that era worked. That's why it felt very modern to me, we still see these things today.
The same thing with the famine, all the changes in the region that drive Mustafa to sell himself into slavery. And then he changes. In fact, he changes several times in the book. Now what's interesting in this story, to me, is that this happens with all the characters. When they first land, the Spaniards are very convinced of the idea that they are superior. But of course, over the course of eight years, a transformation in how they view the native Americans, and also a transformation in themselves. You would think that that transformation would last. "Once I have learned to see these people as complex characters, I will not, again, have those simplistic views." But that's just not true! Because once they're back in the heart of the empire, they're back in Mexico City, little by little—because these things don't happen overnight—but little by little, they go back to sort of the established social order and they adopt these attitudes again.
I couldn't believe this, when I was researching this story, Cabeza de Vaca went on this crazy adventure and wrote this book, years later, and then he ended up getting a license to go back to Argentina and did the same thing again. And it was like, you went through all of this, and it didn't change your perspective on imperial expeditions... So I wanted that in the book. It's not about good or bad characters, it's about how characters behave, given very, very specific times and places.
Of course the Spaniards do awful things and I wanted that in the book. But if anything, it was so mild. I really endeavored to be very light. There were only a couple torture scenes, I could have put a lot more...
It's weird! If people think this is a harsh indictment of the conquistadors...
I know, I know. Before you publish a book, and it's only yours, you wonder what people are going to say. Then it's published, and it's never what you expected. Not in a million years did I expect some people to be upset about the portrayal of the conquistadors. I thought, are you kidding? They're very complex characters in the book. I chose—and this is a very conscious decision—for my own peace of mind, that the principal Spanish characters, the other three Spaniards, are never really the ones doing the torture. It would have been so much to carry it through the book, emotionally, it would have been very hard for me. And I wanted the readers to root for them, to want them to survive.
Well, Cabeza de Vaca is just constantly disappointing. He's not a villain, but I kept saying "C'mon, man, you can do better than this, surely, right?"
To awkwardly change gears, when I was talking with Maaza Mengiste about her book, we talked about the ways she has the historical Haile Selassie in the book, and then she displaces the real-life dictator with this character, Guddu, and I asked her how she decides where to remain faithful to history, and where you say, no, this is a novel, I'll do what I want. She said that she decided that since she's a novelist, she can be very pragmatic, and pick and choose where she wants to be historically accurate, and where she just doesn't need to. How did you address that question?
Well, if the whole conceit of the book is that it's from his perspective, then he has to be the hero of it. So he's the one who finds the gold [note: in Cabeza de Vaca's account, he claims to have found the gold himself] and he's kind of at the center of the action even though he's a slave, and even though, for the first third of the book, there's very little that he can do. But it also means that every step of the way, I make choices about how different his version is from the established record. The broad lines are the same, they land near Tampa Bay, they go looking for the gold, they can't find it, they get lost, they build the rafts, and then start their journey.
But I made many different changes. In Cabeza de Vaca's book, for example, you find out that Narváez made all the terrible decisions, and Cabeza de Vaca is always trying to counsel him to make the right decisions, because, of course, he's the hero of his own story. So in my book, I wanted to play a little bit with that, for fun. But even little things, like when they land, nowhere in Cabeza de Vaca's books does it say what they named the first village they landed in. But when you're writing a novel, I had to name, and name and claim it, and that was very hard for me, because I don't know what they named it. I had to pick names. My goal, always, was to build a completely different story, but have it be as believable as the story everyone now takes for granted.
I'm really fascinated by people who think that the way Cabeza de Vaca described it is really how it happened. I actually heard from a reader, last week, who said, "Oh, I read your book, and you mentioned that they tortured the Indians to find the gold, but Cabeza de Vaca doesn't mention that, and I wonder what your source is." [Laughs] So I have to prove that the torture did happen, but he doesn't have to prove that it didn't happen. And I thought that was really interesting.
My answer was that if you do a little research about the conquest of New Spain, of the Americas, one of the things that is often described and very casually is the torture of the Indians. The slitting of the nose was a very common thing that happened. One reason that it may not have been mentioned by him is that he was trying to get a license to go to Argentina. If you're writing that you treated the natives badly, you don't know how that's going to come across in your petition, when you ask to be given this other territory. So of course he had an agenda! But it's interesting to me that my book is now being accused of having an agenda because I talk about this torture. For the average reader who might not know about the Narváez expedition, this might seem like any other story, parts of it might seem kind of incredible, like the cannibalism. But the cannibalism, strangely enough, Cabeza de Vaca does mention.
You know, as I was reading this novel, at a certain point, you realize that the characters don't actually know what happened to the others, and there are hundreds of them that have been scattered across the continent. I always assumed that there were only four survivors. But of course, there could have been hundreds of them that just lived lives in North America, who were absorbed into different groups and then were never heard from again.
Yes, yes, yes! This is in fact mentioned in Bernal Díaz' Conquest of New Spain. In the early parts of the book, long before they actually make the attempt to take over Montezuma's empire, they're still on the coast. They land, and they find survivors from an earlier expedition that was shipwrecked, and there was this guy who had lived with native tribes for eight or nine years, and he was covered with tattoos and had earrings. And so they found two or three of them, but the one that sticks in my mind is the guy with tattoos. They couldn't even speak Spanish very well, because they hadn't used it for ten years. So Cortés wants to bring these guys back with him on the ship. But the guy in tattoos said, "Look at me. These are my children. This is my wife, look how handsome are my children. I'm not going to go with you. I'm not going to leave them." He didn't go with Cortés; he stayed. In the case of the Narváez expedition, we know what happened to all the rafts, but we don't know what happened to each individual member. In fact, we know that one member chose to stay with the Indians. They could have absolutely survived and mixed in with the native tribes, absolutely.
It's interesting that when people are reading this, as if you have the agenda, like you are introducing torture into the agenda. But when I was reading this, I did have this constant question—how much "war on terror" is in this novel? Like the moment when the Spaniards, at the ferry, when they attack his father...
Oh, the Portuguese, you mean.
Yes, yes, the Portuguese, not the Spanish. My first reaction was... This is kind of like a check-point. The way there's a space outside of where law and order obtains, and one group of people can just kill the other group of people, and they do. And the violence is so sudden, and unexpected. There were lots of moments like that, where I found myself saying, this feels a little bit like a "war on terror" novel, within this other novel.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you're talking about. I should say, it's only because you and I are interested in these topics and we're kind of nitpicking. But the majority of readers were so nice, there were only a couple of strange emails, and that one review. But in any case, it's interesting to me that this is the one thing and not a million other things that they could have complained about. And I really wonder about that. Have we imbibed that narrative to such a level, to such an extent, that no one can question it? Have we absorbed this narrative of conquest to such an extent that even in talking about it in the mildest way, gets you accused of having an agenda. I was amazed by that! If you read Cabeza de Vaca, you can see quite clearly that he has an agenda. But these people don't think so. There's a sense that agendas are something that brown people have. When it's written by an older white male, then it's not an agenda, it's just a fact.
But "agenda" is also just a bad word for having an... intervention. It's not like you don't have an agenda, after all.
Of course I do! Every writer has an agenda. It just means you have a particular way of looking at the world, and you're trying to explore it. But that word has such negative connotations.
To go back to your question, when I started working on the book, one of the things that drew me in was the fact that they found this tiny, tiny little nugget of gold, and they became completely convinced that there was much more where that came from. And so there's this quest, and it's a very foolish quest. And you think, there's no way that even in 1528, three hundred men would start marching in the heat, and the humidity, and with the mosquitoes, and the horses, and the armor because they found a nugget of gold. To me, it seems completely incredible and foolish. But at the same time, when I tried to think how that could have happened, the only parallel I could draw from is when we were told things like Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.
Now, I remember very clearly the buildup to the Iraq war. I knew that there were no weapons there. And so when pundits or politicians who cheerleaded for the war came out later and said, well, we didn't know, I'm like how can you not know? When I'm sitting at my desk at Redondo Beach, and even I can see that the evidence is not enough, how are you telling me that you were working for our government and you were fooled? Or you were working for the New York Times and you were fooled?
People believe what they want to believe. These conquistadors wanted to believe that there was gold there. Because if there was gold, then they would finally claim victory for themselves and for the king. When I started working on the book, I wasn't at all thinking about the "war on terror," the Iraq War, or any of that. That came much later. But once that came, it was really frightening to notice all the parallels. To notice not just how the quest started and the use of torture, but the refusal to believe that they were wrong, even when the evidence piled up. It's only when it's too late that they start to scramble to get out of Florida.
So it wasn't something that I saw immediately, or that I had in mind when I started thinking about the book, it's something that came later. And once I realized it, it was kind of overwhelming. It was like, "Wow, nothing ever changes!"
There's a feeling about halfway through the novel, where it really shifts, when the two different narratives, the one in Azemmour and the present-day narrative, stops flipping back and forth between them it changes into a different kind of novel. It's much less a kind of war on terror narrative, and that was for me when I started looking out my window, and looking at the prickly pears, and imagining that this was the space where this other thing happened. Because when I say "war on terror" narrative, I mean that I already know this story. There's a moment where it stops being that, where I was reading a story I'd never read before.
Yeah, and that's another part of the fun of writing this book, getting to write about things that Cabeza de Vaca kind of glosses over. Because he doesn't really talk that much about the eight years. The focus of his book is really on what happens to the Narváez expedition.
One of the reasons that I chose that structure for my novel is that it would have been so hard to keep reading the story of the conquest without any respite. We all know what happened to the indigenous tribes when the Spaniards started landing. And I thought that it would add power to those scenes if they were contrasted with scenes of domesticity, and scenes of just regular people going on about their regular lives. That structure performs several things at once. By the way, this is the secret to writing: it has to do multiple things at once. That particular structure allows me to give some background on our hero, it tells us a little bit more about who Mustafa was before the expedition started, so that the story of the expedition is only part of the story of his life. It provides a break from this brutal quest for gold, which can be difficult for people to read about. And it provides an emotional contrast.
But then, once that ends, and we begin the long journey inland, I wanted to really take my time with that, and show little by little how these people are transformed by the experience, physically and emotionally. By the way, obviously one of the contrasts in my book is that all of the men end up having wives, while in Cabeza de Vaca, they remain very faithful to their faith, and none of them have partners or wives or anything like that. Now, that's Cabeza de Vaca version of it. But when you look at Marcos de Niza's version, you hear that Estebanico loved women, and he wanted all these women, and I thought, Oh my God! That is so clichéd. Are you kidding me? I'm supposed to take as historical fact that the three Christian men had remained celibate for 8 years but the Muslim guy, oh no, he had to have his harem. I thought, wow, that's really interesting. So I wanted to play with that. I wanted to complicate that clichéd image of the men. And that's another question that came up, from another reader, who asked why my Estebanico is different from the Estebanico that we know, and I said, "Yes, it's a novel, so I get to make up this character the way I want."
This is when we go back to agendas. We talk about writers' agenda, but we should also talk about readers' agenda, the kinds of things that they bring to a book. So, this expectation that this guy, because he was Muslim, had to have a harem. And I think there's a little bit of disappointment at that.
Just so we don't tear on your readers too much...
[Laughs] I love my readers!
So, tell me... I have the opportunity to ask you, since you've just launched this book that you've been writing for years and years and years, and you're just seeing it through other people's eyes, what have you learned about your book that you wouldn't have expected?
This is the great thing or the bad thing, I don't know, about having a web site, is that people feel they can email you to tell you what they think you should write. But honestly, the responses have been very positive. I have readers that were already familiar with the Narváez expedition, and so they're reading this book because they're interested in this alternative view. They see the fun in changing it. And then others, who [laughs] don't want that story changed because it will be a little bit destabilizing.
I have other readers who are interested in the idea that this is the first black or Muslim outsider to cross the continent. There's a lot of interest in that. At my reading in New Mexico, I had several African-American readers who came to the reading, who were really, really interested, and wanted to know more about this guy, because they lived in the area and they had heard stories about him, and they were curious to know if the stories they had heard about him were correct. I had to say, well, my book is fiction. But so is the history, in a way.
Do you feel any distance from the novel now, now that it's finished and published? Whenever I write something, it always seems like it was written by another person within a couple days. And I have to disassociate myself, because people say "Oh, you didn't think of this at all" and I say "No, I totally didn't, and yes, if I would write it now, I would write it differently." Do you have that feeling?
Well, it's starting, actually. While I was working on the book, I was obsessed with it to the point that I felt I was seeing signs of it everywhere. When you're writing, it's almost like starting a religion. Everywhere you see signs, and those signs only confirm your vision for the novel, and help you with it. But once the book went into production, I didn't think about it as much. I had to think about things like covers, fonts, blurbs, publicity, book tours, etc. The first time I had to talk about the book, someone asked me about the research, and I realized I had forgotten some of the details. How can I forget, I thought; I just finished the goddamn book last year! But it was starting to recede. That's normal, especially when you've already started working on another book, I think it's good, it's salutary. Otherwise, my God...
If I have to be completely candid, I dread interviews. Even though I enjoy reading books and I enjoy writing about them, I always find it very hard to analyze my own works, or to interpret it for audiences. And increasingly, I find that's part of the job of working writers: that you actually have to go and talk about your work. And people ask you questions as if your interpretation of the book is the interpretation of the book. I always tell my students that there are as many books as there are readers. Everybody's bringing different agendas, different life experiences and different reading experiences. I think this book cannot be read the same way by someone who has never read, say, Conrad or Naipaul or Morrison as by someone who has read them. It cannot be read the same way by someone who is familiar with Cabeza de Vaca's travelogue as by someone who has never heard of it. You're not going to interpret the book the same way, so the idea that all these readers are going to have the same reactions is just not true.
So it's hard for me to say, well, this is the way it should be interpreted, because I, myself, have a different experience than other readers. So I have a hard time with it.
You know, I'm teaching this novel now, and I have to decide, at what point will I show them the transcript of this interview.
Oh definitely afterwards! Not before. Definitely afterwards. You don't want to color their experiences. I think, the other thing, too, is that the author is taken into consideration in how people are reviewing books, and so there's a lot more of that than I think there was, even, twenty years ago. Part of it is that there's a lot more access, all these authors are online, they all have websites.
Well, I'm interviewing you on Skype!
These things just weren't possible. They hadn't been invented. So I think there's an instinct of, "Well, let's just go to the source and find out." Even in the writing of reviews, that starts playing out. I probably shouldn't even complain about this, but I feel like because I write a lot about politics and culture, and I tweet a lot about politics and culture, and I tweet relatively little about things like what's going on in the literary world. I think there's a perception that because I'm interested in political things, this book must be political, it must have an agenda. There's a lot of use of an author's biography in reading the book a certain way.
Like that New York Times review that made the novel into an expression of Manichaean binaries. The weirdness of that projection has to come from somewhere, right?
That's what I think, too. Just reading the book in light of religion and faith... That struck me as a little bit strange. When I started working on a book about Mustafa, I knew I had to make him a man of his age. I find it very frustrating when historical novels make the main character a super-enlightened person who has no problems about race or class or gender. I wish it were the case, but I really have a hard time believing that someone in 1520 would be like that. Our perceptions have changed, and so, when I wrote this, I wanted him to sound like a man of his age, and that meant including a lot more about religion and faith than I would if I were working on a book set in the present. I did that because that's what the character demanded.
However, because I also happen to write about Muslim civil rights quite frequently, people conflate the two, the fiction and the nonfiction, and treat them as being the same.
While so much of the discourse around writers becomes biographical, about your life, you, as a writer, are also partly made by the books you're reading and the writers you know. So, I wonder, can you talk about what other books you're writing through, and speaking with?
Well, I did all kinds of reading when I was working on this book. One of the things, too, about writing a book, is that you read almost exclusively things that are relevant to what you're doing. For The Moor's Account, I read a lot of history journal articles and books. That's just research, obviously. But I also I read a lot of fiction. In the beginning, in the first few drafts, I read a lot of Coetzee. Though I had to be careful, because he writes so much in the present tense, that if I wrote something in the present tense in my head, and I go back to my work, which is in the past tense, it can mess me up.
I read... I re-read...
Are you looking at your bookshelf there?
How are your books arranged? Chika Unigwe's bookshelf was arranged by continent.
No, it's straight up alphabetical, and by language. English, Arabic, French.
Don Quixote was very useful. It's sort of the same era. And there's the quest and, of course, the language. I wanted to make sure that my characters sounded like people of their time. Everyone, not just my protagonist. I read a lot of Toni Morrison and Edward P. Jones. Novels about quests, about power and empire, about slavery. What else... I read a lot of Naipaul, and I was starting to worry, for reading so much of him. My God, he's such a bastard, but his prose is just... I don't know how he does it. I learned a lot from him. Cormac McCarthy, I did read quite a bit. Someday, we should have a conversation about race and Cormac McCarthy, which is what no one talks about.
This is really nerdy, but I keep a log-book. Every day, I write down what I've been working on. I keep a word-count, but I also keep a record of what I've been reading. I should be able to dig out the logbooks of the five years I spent working on The Moor's Account.
One of the reasons I wanted to ask that question, is that the symposium in December, we're calling it the "UT Symposium on the African Writer." Which brings us to what I'm calling the obligatory "African Writer" question: what affinity—or not—do you have for that term?
African writer? It's something I've been called, and I absolutely don't mind it. I am an African writer, I am from Africa. Where it starts bothering me is if it's a way to say that it's all I am. Other people are called writers, but you're called an African writer. Then you're like wait, a minute, what does that mean? When it's restrictive, it bothers me. But if it's not, then I don't have a problem with it.
I've found interesting, and this is just my experience, it doesn't mean this is true of other writers, but I feel like in some sense I've been more embraced as an "African writer," than as an "Arab writer." This might have to do with language. I feel like I'm not considered Arab enough because I don't write in Arabic. But I don't get that sense when other African writers are talking to me, or about me.
Well, you were short-listed for the Caine Prize a few years ago.
So you're saying that might have something to do with it? Like I said, I think it has to do with language. There's so much African writing in English, and in comparison there's not as much Arab writing in English. Maybe.
Let me ask another symposium-related question. What sorts of conversations would you like to have, at this kind of event, that you don't always get to have, or don't normally get to talk about?
I would be curious to talk things like craft. Things like creating characters, drafts and revisions, etc. The nitty-gritty of writing. Obviously, as African writers we get asked so many questions about politics and race, so many, and I feel like that takes away from the actual artistry of the work. You almost never get asked that. Even in the reviews, people pay so much attention to that that they don't talk about the craft aspect.
This is why, in MFA programs, people will study and obsess over someone like Alice Munro, or Chekhov, or Cheever, or Carver, or but maybe less so about Toni Morrison. I mean, that's just my take on it. I see reading lists, and I see who gets assigned as a model to study for point of view, or for character, or for prose style. And these are the people you study. And she is so incredible. But any time anyone talks about her, they talk about her in the context of this "Grand Dame of American Letters" who's written the great books about slavery. But there's so much that she does in her work that should be studied just at the level of craft. What would be really neat is if we had a conversation about that. I don't know how you're organizing it, but it would be nice if we're only talking about that, to talk about the nitty-gritty aspect of writing.
That's very similar to what Maaza said, actually. Craft was the first word she used.
Because we don't get asked that! I'll tell you what happens at these literary festivals. This has happened to me not one time, not two times, not five times, not ten times. This is what happens. You go, and there'll be like a panel called "The Narrative Eye" and it'll be about point of view, and there'll be four white writers. And then there will be a panel called "Writing The Outsider," and it'll be one Hispanic, one African American, one Asian.... I'm exaggerating, but not by much.
This is what we see at literary festivals. I'm not joking, I've had people ask me about agricultural policies in Morocco in the 70's. And wanted an answer.
The African writer as sociologist is such a well-established thing.
And mind you, this isn't something that only non-Africans are doing, a lot of times it's Africans who want you to be sociologist, to be the sort of person who's the interpreter for the country. "What do you think should be done about language policy in Morocco," and you're like "Dude, I just wrote a novel, and I want to talk about the novel." But the irritating thing is that I do have opinions, so I end up answering these stupid questions!
Well, this has been lovely, thank you so much for your time.
I hope I have answered all your questions!
Well, the one question you haven't answered, I do want to know about the project you're working on right now.
You're not going to get an answer.
Can you tell some little detail that will not help me in any way? Something small, that will not actually reveal anything?
[There is a very long silence]
No, I can't! [Laughs] It's too new.
Ah well, I tried...
ALSO IN THIS SERIES:
Interview: Maaza Mengiste
Interview: Miral al-Tahawy
Interview: Tope Folarin
Interview: Sofia Samatar
Interview: Teju Cole
The interviews in this series will lead up to the Symposium of African Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The event, which will take place December 2-3, 2014, will feature conversations with Laila Lalami, Maaza Mengiste, Nnedi Okorafor, Sofia Samatar, and Taiye Selasi. “African Writers in a New World” will conclude with a conference report from the Symposium. Details are available at http://africanwriters2014.wordpress.com/.