Born and raised in Morocco, and currently teaching Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside, Laila Lalami is the author of The Moor’s Account, a work of historical fiction based on an early Spanish expedition to North America.
Why did you write your new book?
It was a book I wanted to read, but it hadn’t been written yet. Some years ago, I came across Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, the first narrative of Spanish exploration of North America. The Narváez expedition was intended to claim Florida for the Spanish Crown, but it failed quickly and spectacularly. For the next eight years, the survivors trekked across the continent, reinventing themselves several times in order to survive. I was fascinated by their story of adventure and transformation, but I was hungry for things that Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative didn’t give me. I wanted to know what the survivors’ personal relationship with one another was like, how they interacted with indigenous people, what role the Moroccan slave Mustafa al-Zamori/Estebanico had played, and whether the survivors’ worldviews were changed by their experiences. I wrote The Moor’s Account because I wanted to explore those questions.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
For precision and economy, V.S. Naipaul’s sentences. For depth and beauty, Toni Morrison’s.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My friend Pankaj recommended daily one-hour naps. I’m certain it would be amazing for my physical well-being and mental health, but sadly I have never followed that advice. I seem to be rather the kind of person that people go to for advice. And I’ve often found that it’s unheeded as well!
Which historical period do you wish you’d lived through, and why?
I have no wish to live in another era, mostly because, as a woman, it would involve giving up too many rights. I wouldn’t mind living in the future, though maybe it’s optimistic to think that our species is going to have any future at all.
Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten, or legendary after death?
The nice thing about being successful during your lifetime is that you would get to enjoy it with your family. And as for being forgotten, you would never know about it if it happens after death! But being remembered after one’s death, being read for many generations, that’s nice too. Since I’m fairly pessimistic about what the future holds, I suppose I’d have to choose success in my lifetime.
What agreed-upon classic do you despise?
D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.
Which fictional character do you wish you’d created?
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?
As a matter of fact, I wish people would not ask me any questions about my work. In the process of reading a novel, each reader creates in his or her mind a unique interpretation of it. Why ruin that by adding the author’s commentary?