ARUN RATH, HOST:
Here's a bit of American history you might not be familiar with. In the spring of 1528, 600 Spanish and Portuguese men, mostly soldiers, landed on the Gulf Coast of Florida, hoping to find gold. But the Narvaez Expedition was an utter disaster. Within a year, nearly all of the men had either deserted or succumbed to disease, starvation, drowning or violent death in fights with indigenous people. The four survivors made their way across the continent living with the natives until they finally reached the Spanish settlements on the western coast of Mexico. That disastrous expedition is the inspiration for a new novel by the Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami. It's told from the perspective of the expedition's most mysterious survivor, a Moroccan slave. It's called "The Moor's Account." I asked Laila how we even know about all of this today.
LAILA LALAMI: One of the survivors was the treasurer of this expedition. And his name Cabeza de Vaca. And he wrote what is the first travel log of life in North America and really the first narrative of Spanish exploration of North America. And I just became so fascinated with this expedition. And with everything that went wrong with it and with the greed that drove it and the transformations that it led to that - I just wanted to know more. And the narrative that Cabeza de Vaca provided just didn't give me the answers that I was looking for. And so that's how the novel came about.
RATH: And so this character, the moor in the title, we know that he existed historically.
RATH: Do we know much about him historically?
LALAMI: Not really. So and when I started reading Cabeza de Vaca's travel log, I started paying very close attention to when this Moroccan slave was appearing because I'm Moroccan. I was very interested in him. And there were very very few mentions of him.
So he was either identified as the slave or the Negro or Estebanico. Those were three ways in which he was identified in the book. And all we know about him historically is that he was born in Azemmour and that he was an Arabic-speaking black man. That's literally the one line of biography that we have about him from Cabeza de Vaca.
I just became so fascinated by him because to me he seemed like a thoroughly modern man. Because even though he came from Morocco in 1520, like to me he seemed like the first globalized man. Like he was born in Morocco. Likely, even though he spoke Arabic, he was from Azemmour. So likely he also spoke Tamazight, which is the language of the indigenous people of that area. In Azemmour - Azemmour was under vassalage with the Portuguese. So he probably spoke some Portuguese. And then he moved to Spain as a slave and from there moved to America with the expedition. So he just lived in these three continents. He interacted with all these different cultures. He spoke all these different languages. So to me he struck me as a very global man - cosmopolitan man.
RATH: And tell us a little bit about what these men go through.
LALAMI: Yeah, so basically when the expedition landed in Florida, somebody was sent ashore to - because they had seen signs of a village. And that person found a tiny little nugget of gold. And that was the reason that the Narvaez Expedition landed where it landed, which is near what is now Tampa Bay in Florida. And I became again just completely fascinated by the fact that all these men would land and everything would be started because there was a tiny little nugget of gold.
RATH: I'm wondering this - how you came across this story initially and how you decided you wanted to make this into a novel?
LALAMI: Some years ago, I was reading a book about Moorish Spain. And I came across this mention of this expedition - of the fact that this Moroccan slave was said to be the first African explorer of America. And he was said to be Moroccan. And I was Moroccan. And I thought, well, how come I have never heard of him? I mean, I've gone to school in Morocco all the way through college. And so how come I have never heard of him?
And so I went out and I got Cabeza de Vaca's book about the Narvaez Epedition. And instead of finding answers, I actually only had even more questions. Because the book really didn't include his perspective. It had very little about him even though he played a very crucial role for the expedition - for the survivors. The role he played was that he acted as kind of a go-between between the Spaniards and the indigenous people. So he would serve as a translator or a scout. And the other reason is that he was not of the same race - not of the same culture.
Those are all reasons that probably put him in the position where he was kind of the translator between the two peoples. So even though he played this very crucial role, we know very little about him.
RATH: Now, your other books are not historical fiction. I mean, you've written about modern social issues.
RATH: You know, I could very easily see you taking, you know, this story and, you know, writing some non-fiction comparing this with modern events and that kind of thing.
LALAMI: Right. Right.
RATH: Why did you decide to write this as a novel?
LALAMI: That's a very good question. I think it's because the novel gives opportunities that non-fiction wouldn't have given me for this book. The novel is the only form in which I would've been able to explore what it really felt like to be taken from your home and to have grown up in freedom and then to suddenly become a slave and have to travel across the ocean and what it felt like to encounter another culture, what it felt like in the flesh to go through these experiences. In some ways, I think it's the closest that we come to the truth - is in the form of fiction.
RATH: That's Laila Lalami. Her new novel is called "The Moor's Account" and it's out on Tuesday. Laila, thank you so much.
LALAMI: Thank you very much for having me.
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