Laila Lalami is no stranger to crossing borders. Born in Morocco, educated in Great Britain and the U.S., Lalami explores the limits and complexities of national and individual identity, race, displacement, and belonging in her fiction.
Morocco plays a part in much of her work, lending its rich culture and complicated history to her compelling narratives and deftly-crafted characters. Her first collection of stories, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was inspired by a short article in the PARIS GLOBE about a group of Moroccans who had drowned while attempting to cross the 10 mile-wide Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain. Lalami’s debut novel, Secret Son, addresses issues of class, culture, truth, and identity in a world that is increasingly chaotic, sectarian, and gloabalized. Her second and best-known novel, The Moor’s Account, won the American Book Award, the Arab American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, in addition to several nominations and other honors. The Moor’s Account, based on true accounts and presented in the format of a memoir, follows the first black explorer of America, a Moroccan slave named Mustafa al-Zamori — called Estebanico by the Spanish explorers with whom he travels — as the group faces starvation, disease, and other misfortunes after landing somewhere in Florida. Lalami imaginatively fills a gap in American lore by reviving al-Zamori’s tale and introducing his unique voice to the well-known narrative of discovery, conquest, and survival.
Lalami told Post 45 that she was compelled to write from al-Zamori’s point of view because so little was known about him; the account from which Lalami drew his story mentioned him just once, and then only briefly, in one sentence.
” … All we know about him historically is that he was born in Azemmour and that he was an Arabic-speaking black man,” Lalami said.
Lalami stumbled upon the line when reading the account of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, one of the few survivors of the real-life expedition. Lalami said what caught her attention was not only al-Zamori’s Moroccan heritage, nor his status as a slave, but his role as a traveler and intermediary, crossing lines of culture and language along with crossing borders. The lack of information available on such an extraordinary person lead Lalami to write the fictional memoir.
“I felt that he’d been robbed and so I wanted to tell his story,” Lalami said.
Her other works, from essays to anthologies to columns, tend to explore the role of another cultural and linguistic migrant – that of the young Arab in a rapidly-changing society. Of Secret Son, for example, the Los Angeles Times says that Lalami reveals “the social, political, religious and poverty issues facing its citizens—especially its still-hopeful young” in a way that “is both sensitive and startling.”
Lalami regularly contributes to The Nation, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times, where she focuses on the issues that face the contemporary Arab and Muslim worlds, the politics of North America, and the overlapping spaces in between. She currently teaches at University of California Riverside.