UCR Magazine The Magazine of UC Riverside

Winter 2016

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Laila Lalami: The Novelist

“Writing in English was very freeing. It became a love affair.”

Vanessa Hua MFA ’09

From the moment Laila Lalami learned about Estebanico, the first African explorer of America, she wanted to tell his story.

In 2009, the creative writing professor was reading a book about Moorish Spain when she discovered a reference to a Moroccan slave on a 16th-century Spanish expedition to Florida. Out of 300 men who journeyed inland to find gold, only four survived by living with indigenous tribes, reinventing themselves as faith healers.

“It was such an incredible story of cross-cultural encounter, exploration and adventure,” she said. Lalami read an account of the expedition written by the Spanish conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. “But the indigenous people in that book were completely silenced. And even though Estebanico had a name, oftentimes he was referred to only as the ‘slave’ or ‘negro.’ His exact role was never described at great length, even though we’re told he learned indigenous languages and he served as a translator for them.”

Her third novel, “The Moor’s Account,” gives Estebanico a voice, telling the story of the expedition from his point of view. It’s also received high acclaim, landing on best-book lists for the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, winning an American Book Award, becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and making the long list for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

Lalami had never before attempted to write a historical novel. “From idea to execution, there is an abyss.”

She grappled with the protagonist’s voice. “He is writing for people who have never seen that land, and he himself has never seen it. So that comes with a lot of challenges. For example, he can’t call an animal the name we call it today, if that name was not known in the 16th century.”

With few historical details available, she had to invent Estebanico’s life, a leap she calls “imaginative empathy.” Like him, she knows what it’s like to move between cultures and think in different languages.

Moroccan-born, Lalami’s first language is Arabic. In primary school, she studied French. In high school, she began studying English and while she was earning her doctorate in linguistics at the University of Southern California, she studied Spanish, which became useful while researching “The Moor’s Account” in Florida, Spain and Texas.

As a child, she wrote her first stories in French but later felt the language carried too much colonial baggage. (Morocco gained independence in 1956, after 44 years of French rule.) While writing her dissertation in English, Lalami decided to try writing fiction in English, too. “It was very freeing. It became a love affair, and here we are 20 years later.”

Lalami, who began teaching at UCR in 2007, praised the school’s diverse student body. “You hear the most incredible stories from students, not only interesting life stories, but also their responses to literary texts, which are often perceptive and original. I always enjoy it, and never know what to expect.”