Here’s a “salvaged” Q&A from a recent telephone interview with author Laila Lalami prior to her appearance at the 2017 Get Lit! festival on April 19. Usually I post these more or less unedited, but I’ve slimmed a few answers down where, say, an aside resulted in a confusing subject/verb mismatch. My questions, as always, are paraphrased so as to eschew the maddening number of “uhs” and “ahs” I inadvertently insert as I flip though my mental OED in search of the right word.
Will you be reading from new work at Get Lit!?
No, I wish. I’ll probably be talking about The Moor’s Account mostly and then doing a brief reading. Mostly just talking about it. I don’t think people want to have long readings nowadays. I’m going to talk about where the idea for the book came from, sort of the inspiration for it, the research process for it, the writing process, and some of the challenges that came from writing the book. And then a brief reading from it. I think that’s the plan. And then, of course, I’m happy to answer any questions.
Of those challenges in writing the book, which one stands out most?
The idea part is the easy part, right? You get the idea for the book and it sounds amazing in your mind. And then you actually face the white page and you have to figure out how to write it. So for this book, it’s a novel that’s based on a true story. It’s based on the story of the first black explorer of America, who came to Florida on an expedition in the 16th century.
So, of course, the biggest challenge is how to create the voice of this man who lived in 1528, who was a slave, and who was brought with Spaniards to Florida to claim that territory for the Spanish crown. How do you create that voice, how do you moderate it in such a way that you can be inside the mind of someone who is from the early part of the 16th century and has the views and the opinions that are to be expected of a 16th-century man, and yet at the same time make it interesting, make it fresh for the reader who’s reading this book in the 21st century? So that’s really the biggest challenge.
The whole writing process of this book was such an adventure for me, which is very appropriate because this book is based on an adventure. It is absolutely an adventure story. One of the things I relished was the freedom that came from writing a book that could explore a lot of the gaps and silences that were present in the historical record. The historical record erased a number of details and number of things that happened. But because this is fiction, and because my character was sort of an interloper, there came a freedom in writing about that, in writing it in the form of fiction, that enabled me to write about all the things that were erased from history.
For example, when the Spaniards first arrive in Florida, we’re never really told in the historical record exactly how they managed to get indigenous people to take them around from village to village to look for gold. So, obviously, here there was coercion. There were forms of torture. And we know this from other sources as well. So that’s something that I was able to include in the novel. Another thing that was not included in the historical artifacts was sort of indigenous people as characters. They were described as tribes, as groups, and so we know about some of these tribes that have now been completely obliterated through the historical record. But we know them only as groups, if you will, not as individual characters. So, again, because in the form of fiction you can do this, I was able to turn them into actual characters in the book with names and histories.
Another silence has to do with the presence of women. To read the historical records, you would think that women played no role in this journey of conquest, when in fact they did. They were there, they were present. So these are all silences that the canvas of fiction enables me to fill, enables me to write about, to confront.
Having just published a piece on this subject in the Los Angeles Times, how do you reconcile your public versus private selves at festivals like Get Lit!?
It’s certainly a lot more difficult, especially when you are doing these festivals. I mean, it’s fun. I enjoy it! I love meeting with readers. I really can’t imagine a better time. Book people are my people. Where it gets a little bit trickier is where it’s so fun that people start to go from asking you about the book or the process of writing the book to asking you details about your life. It’s not a big deal because some of those details are public, obviously. Where I was born, where I was raised, where my degrees are from — all of that is kind of in the public record, and that’s just the way it is. But still, they ask you things about, you know, your family and things that are completely irrelevant to understanding the book. And I’ve just learned that you can say things very casually at some of these events, and then it just leads to people being more curious about you. I’ve had packages turn up at my door, and you wonder how these people find out all this information. You know, it doesn’t take very much nowadays to really breach people’s privacy.
But you have certainly drawn on your personal life in some detail in the past — for example, the 2015 essay “My Life as a Muslim in the West’s ‘Gray Zone’” in The New York Times Magazine.
I have two things to say about that. One is that if I were to ask you, well, ‘Who are you?’, you would have the freedom to say, ‘Well, I am such and such a person.’ You could give me your name. You could say, ‘I’m a journalist. I’m a reader. I’m a resident of the Pacific Northwest.’ Or you could tell me, ‘It’s none of your business who I am.’ You have that freedom. And that is what I’m talking about: the freedom to decide what it is that you reveal and what it is that you conceal or keep to yourself, if you will. And I think there comes a point when people get curious about a work of art where that curiosity kind of goes into areas where the writer really isn’t given the freedom to decide what they want to reveal or what they don’t want to reveal.
The second thing I have to say about that is that oftentimes—for example, that piece you just mentioned—it was never my intention to talk about my husband or my daughter. When I wrote the first draft of that piece, it didn’t include that information. But in the editing process oftentimes you’re bouncing ideas, and they’re, well, you know, ‘We want to explore this,’ and then just in the process of talking about it on the phone with the editor, they’re like, ‘Oh, well, that’s so relevant. Do you think you could include that?’ And so you’re like, ‘Sure, I don’t mind. There’s no identifying information, really, so I can talk about it and use that to discuss the issue.’ Obviously, as a writer you’re going to use material from everywhere, including material from your life and your writing.
But what that piece in the LA Times was about was this breach of privacy that sometimes happens when you become this kind of published writer, and it’s not something that I was frankly prepared for when I first started out. The reason I wrote that piece is because it really did come to me as a surprise that people were so curious about the author. I just very naively thought, well, they have the whole book, they can read it. That’s why I wrote the book. Everything that I want to say is in that book — read it.
And, you know, I am on social media. It’s not as if I’m some kind of hermit. I’m absolutely on social media, and I talk about myself, but I remain ambivalent about the whole thing is what I think that piece was about, how ambivalent I feel about how much of our lives nowadays is just sort of offered up.
Do people look to that public self of yours for direction?
I think it happens. I think there’s such a sense of despair about politics. People feel powerless. People feel that they have voted for certain representatives, and they feel that the policies that are enacted don’t really reflect what they voted for. And this has been going on for a long time, not just this particular year. This year, of course, things are a lot worse than they have been in a long time. And I think that the sense of despair is even bigger. But it’s sort of a longstanding problem. And I think what happens in a situation like this is when people read a piece of nonfiction and they find that it touches on the same despair that they feel, they turn to you and ask for direction.
And the thing is that the writer is not a prophet. The writer is not someone who can provide salvation or tell you, you know, if you do this thing, we will be saved. Obviously, I have ideas about the state of our politics, and I obviously love to engage with them. But I write mostly to question and to understand and to figure things out. Sometimes I might have answers, but very rarely. Most of the time it is a question.
And I think also that there is a sort of inability, I noticed, to sit with discomfort, to allow discomfort in our lives. And when I say ‘our,’ I mean in Americans’ lives. There is a certain aspect to American culture that makes it resistant to living with the discomfort of our politics. And so they come to you, like, ‘What can we do? What should we do?’ And it’s like, ‘I don’t have solutions. The problems are so complex.’ Like, when you start to talk about solutions, where do you begin? So I think when people start to realize that, it makes them feel very uncomfortable, and they’re unwilling to sit with that discomfort. And so they continue to go, ‘What can we do? What’s the solution to make the discomfort go away?’ And the writer is not the person to provide salvation.
Does your “outsider” status give you a unique vantage onto American culture?
That’s really for other people to say. I can only say that I have no way of comparing how I view the world to how other people view it, so really it’s for others to decide whether that’s a unique vantage point or not. All I can tell you is that politics has always been a part of my life because politics has always affected my life. It has always affected the places where I’ve lived, how people have lived, whether they had jobs or not, whether they were going to find jobs or whether they were going to have healthcare — all of that was dependent on the one man at the top.
And so I’m not a stranger to how politics affects our lives, and yet it’s just been very interesting to me to watch these calls for resistance as if they’re for the very first time. I really think that for the very first time a certain segment of the American population has woken up to that fact that politics is a part of their lives. I think that, especially for people of color, that has always been true, but I think certain people are only kind of waking up to that. ‘Oh, dear. We’re going to have to deal with this. We can’t just assume that it affects other people’s lives; it affects all of our lives.’
Have you been insulated from the worst of that to some extent?
Listen, I’m not unaware of my privilege. I’m not necessarily at physical risk, and so I can’t say that I’ve experienced any kind of physical repercussions to what’s happened politically, but in terms of hearing things — of course, I hear them all the time. If I ever tweet snything about Islam, I can guarantee that in my mentions, somebody’s going to say something extremely offensive or hateful. It’s just an everyday experience. I’m not a stranger to it, and I think the difference with the particular moment we’re in now is that there is a particular validation that comes when you have the person at the very top using the same terms, so it mainstreams things that might have been confined to the fringes before. It makes it a little bit more acceptable. And, mind you, I don’t think that the president isn’t the only one that has engaged in these Islamophobic policies or statements. This is a longstanding problem in America. It’s just that him being there and being so open about it has validated these feelings nationwide.
Will you be talking about your earlier work at Get Lit! too?
My first two books were both set in Morocco. The first one was about a group of immigrants who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar on a lifeboat. It’s called Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. The odd thing is that, given what’s been happening with the refugee crisis, a lot of people have been going back to that book and asking me about it, which has been an interesting experience. Twelve years after you publish a book and people are talking to you about it again, it’s really interesting.
And then the other one was called Secret Son and is set is Casablanca, and it’s about a young man who finds out the true identity of his father. It’s more of a coming-of-age story. I’m happy to talk about books with anyone.
That “rediscovery” of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is an encouraging sign that it has staying power, no?
Every writer wants to continue to be read. It’s slightly disconcerting that it’s happened because of this refugee crisis. It’s interesting because I was just invited to give a reading in Washington, DC, from that book, and I haven’t looked at it since the book tour for it. I moved on from it to write other books, so it’ll be interesting to go back for the first time and try to find an excerpt to read for the event. The issue has always been very close to my heart. I think any form of crossing boundaries comes at a cost, and I think that the cost is probably the worst when it’s a refugee and you’re forced to leave and you have no choice. So I think that’s the situation that’s for me the most difficult — to think about, to write about.
Crossing boundaries — you’d agree that’s a prominent and universal theme in your work?
Absolutely. If you had to look for a thread that ties all three books together, in all of them you have characters who are crossing boundaries or crossing borders. And they could be national borders or other kinds of boundaries, even moving between social classes, for example. So, yes, it’s about displacement in all its forms.