How do you pronounce your name?
Laila is pronounced like the Eric Clapton song. And Lalami rhymes with Rarity.
I bet you get asked that a lot.
Oh, only about five times a day.
So you have a new book coming out?
Yes, it’s called The Moor’s Account and it will be published by Pantheon in September 2014.
What’s it about?
It’s a retelling of the famed journey of Cabeza de Vaca, from the perspective of a Moroccan slave whose testimony was never included in the official record. In 1527, the Narváez expedition landed near in Florida, with a crew of six hundred men. Their goal was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast for the Spanish Crown. But almost from the start, the expedition met with obstacles and bad luck, and within a year there were only four survivors: Cabeza de Vaca, the treasurer of the expedition; Alonso del Castillo, a captain; Andres Dorantes, a nobleman; and Dorantes’ Moroccan slave, Mustafa al-Zamori, also known as Estebanico. The four survivors journeyed across America, and were forced to live as slaves among the indigenous tribes. When they were found, years later, they were asked to provide official testimony about their journey, which was used by the imperial authorities to help organize new expeditions. But because he was a slave, Estebanico was never asked to testify. This novel is his story.
Okay, but what is it really about?
Well, it’s about the power of stories: how they inspire people to undertake the most dangerous of journeys, how they help us survive, and how they offer us a chance at redemption. It’s about greed and love and family and the search for home.
I don’t read much historical stuff and this conquest business sounds like it will be pretty violent. Will I like it?
It’s true that The Moor’s Account includes theft, torture, murder, and cannibalism (and that’s just the first half.) But if you can sit through an average episode of Game of Thrones, you can handle the violence in this book.
Why did you write this book?
I found out about Estebanico in a footnote to a book, and I wanted him to be more than just a footnote.
Sounds like you had to do a lot of research for this one.
It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun. And what struck me, over and over, was how modern the story felt. Everything that happens in it happens in another part of the world today. There’s something obdurate about human nature.
Will you be going on book tour?
Yes. All my readings are listed on my website.
Aside from writing books, what do you do?
So what have you been reading lately?
I enjoyed Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief, Roxane Gay’s Untamed State, and Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. With my book club, I’m reading People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. And I just finished reading Fahrenheit 451 to my kid, who loved it.
LAILA LALAMI was born and raised in Morocco. She is the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and the novel Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize longlist. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, The Guardian, the New York Times, and in numerous anthologies. Her work has been translated into ten languages. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Her new novel, The Moor’s Account, will be published by Pantheon in September 2014.