An Interview with Laila Lalami

In light of the fact the University of North Dakota’s Writer’s Conference had to canceled due to COVID-19, organizer Crystal Alberts was able to arrange for North Dakota Quarterly’s poetry editor Paul Worley to interview Laila Lalami whose 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account received the American Book Award in 2015 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her 2019 novel, The Other Americans was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Lalami is one of the most compelling voices in contemporary US letters, challenging not only the US’s perspective on itself, but also deftly moving readers through multilingual experiences of what is commonly held to be a monolingual national space. Given the weight of the current pandemic, her work speaks directly to the challenges, risks, rewards, and ultimate necessity of acknowledging the ties that connect human beings all across the globe.

Remember that NDQ relies on our outstanding contributors, editors, and subscribers to thrive. Please consider submitting to NDQ. Also remember that these days are rough for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. If you can, consider buying a book from a small press, subscribing to a literary journal, or otherwise supporting the arts. 

For some content from from our most recent issue, NDQ 86.3/4, click here. For a preview from our next issue, 87.1/2, go here.   

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Paul M. Worley: Your novels deal with some very intense human relationships. I’d like to start off with a couple questions about to the current crisis, because I think in a lot of ways your work speaks to what we owe each other as humans. And so just in terms of right now, in a moment of really traumatic crisis, not on a national scale, but on a global scale, what do you think we owe each other as people?

Laila Lalami: I think it’s a recognition that we are all connected. This is easy to forget when people have things that separate them like borders, and class, and race, and gender, and identity, and all kinds of things that separate them. Then along comes the coronavirus and we see how utterly fragile and connected everyone is. This virus doesn’t care for any of these things; it’ll infect anybody.

But the other thing it makes you realize is that the burden of the pandemic isn’t going to be borne equally by all. It’s going to be first the poor, the uninsured, the immuno-compromised, and so on.

Still, even people who might feel themselves removed from the disaster because, say for example, they’re wealthy, well, the entire economy now is tumbling off a cliff, so it doesn’t much matter. Everybody’s connected by this virus. I think that’s really the takeaway from this pandemic. Whether we’re going to remember this or go back to making hierarchies—which in some sense is part of the human experience unfortunately—I don’t know. But I think that’s what is revealing. Just how utterly connected we are.

PMW: I think your 2014 novel The Moor’s Account really speaks to this sense of connection in some really pressing ways. As somebody who is trained in I’m Latin American literature, I’ve read the Narváez Expedition that the novel is based upon, and I really love how The Moor’s Account recaps all of these issues of how we are all interconnected. So if you could talk a little about what attracted you to that story in the first place, and then segue into its implications for national belonging, and once again, how we interact with each other as human beings.

LL: So, what attracted me to the story of the Narváez expedition is that I saw immediately an opportunity to take a story that had been told one way for several centuries and to tell it another way. And in fact, I had to do a lot of Googling because I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been done, or hadn’t been done repeatedly! Of course, there have been books that have been written about Mustafa/Estebanico. But they were non-fiction and there wasn’t a whole lot of strictly factual material about him.

So The Moor’s Account really was an opportunity to tell the story from the perspective of someone who was not included in the historical record. Even the personal stories, like Cabeza de Vaca’s, did not give him a lot of space. His voice just was not heard, was not listened to, was not recorded. So that was one thing. It was just a perspective that was unique.

But also when I thought about the age of Spanish exploration, I thought about Spain’s conquest of the Americas, all those prototypical encounters between Europeans and Americans. And they were always stories of greed – that’s a given – and stories of power – also a given-, but they were not so much stories of transformation, which involved coercion at times and collaboration at other times. The Narváez expedition was a failed expedition, which is probably why I’d never heard of it until 2009. I had [heard] of Cabeza de Vaca, but I didn’t know that one of the expeditions he took part in was called the Narváez Expedition or any of that. And so when I started looking at how the conquistadors landed in Florida in 1528, completely confident in their superiority, in their ability to say that this land is now under Spanish rule. “We are now your new lords. You are to obey us.” It just sounded insane.

PMW: (laughter)

LL: Completely insane. But in a way, I mean, if you look at the 20th century, it’s different but it’s also kind of the same, right? I mean we have imperialism in the 20th century, but it’s not put in such stark ways as it was in the requerimiento [16th century legal document that the Spanish thought validated their conquests] for example. And so, you know, looking at these guys arriving like this and then within a few weeks or months, they’re slowly transforming from conqueror to conquered, essentially. The differences between masters, soldiers, and slaves start to blur and they become transformed. That was something I thought was interesting because it was a story of exploration that I hadn’t heard a million times. It offered so much opportunity for nuance and complexity. That was also something that attracted me to it. And mind you, one of the difficult things for this expedition, from the get go, was that once they went inland and left their ships behind, they started to get sick. In Cabeza de Vaca’s book, he called it “the bowel disease,” but it likely was dysentery. Some scholars say it might be typhoid. Either way, it spreads through the ranks, they’re all dying, so obviously an epidemic, in this case – not a pandemic but an epidemic – also played its role in making this expedition the failure that it was. Had they not been struck ill, they might have been able to last longer. It was just basically a series of unexpected turns that made the Narváez expedition what it was. And that gave us this phenomenal document. Had [the expedition] succeeded, we might not have had [this account].

PMW: And so in terms of your writing The Moor’s Account here in the early part of the 21st century, how do you think, the novel re-imagines the foundations of what we consider U.S. literature? When I’ve taught the novel I’ve really emphasized to the students how the it challenges our assumptions about the US, and in particular, about the U.S. South. For example, just an hour from here in Asheville, NC, we have the remains of a Spanish fort from only 20 or so years after the Narávez Expedition. And very few of my students have ever heard this before, right? So, in using a text like this, how do you think it challenges us to re-imagine what U.S. literature could be? And of course right at the very end of your novel when you know these men, these men from Spain, and Estebanico/Mustafa being from North Africa, are married to Indigenous women. There’s this other future that’s, you know, tantalizingly imminent there. But that’s not the route that things take, right? If you could just speak a little bit to that.

LL: Yeah, I think that this comes down to one of the powers of fiction, and one might even argue one of the roles of fiction, which is to be in opposition to power. So when children are sent to school, they’re taught all kind of myths about their nation. That it was founded in 1776, which is technically true, but, of course, there were nations before that, with people that were here before that. There was a history before 1776. Children are also taught myths about what it means to be American, and ideas about this being “a nation of immigrants” and so on and so forth. Fiction has the power to challenge these notions because it can excavates stories like the Mustafa/Estevanico from oblivion. It can help us re-imagine what was. Sometimes, like in science fiction and fantasy, it can help us imagine what if. I think one of the things fiction can do is really give readers the opportunity to question history and re-assess it. History in essence is a never-ending argument. It’s just an argument. And obviously the United States government has an interest in telling a particular version of history about its existence, that frames the power that it has in a particular way. That doesn’t make it true, that doesn’t make it unchallengeable. And I think that fiction really does have that power – to make people think or question or realize, “Wait a minute there was a history before this. I never thought of it this way.” Or, you know, there were Americans long before we landed here, what about all the centuries of Spanish exploration in America, and so on. So I really do think fiction has that power to question. And you see this even in journalism, as the recent 1619 project with the New York Times demonstrates. It had so many readers excited about what it was doing, but also it got so much pushback for what is, in essence, I don’t think a very controversial idea at all. It’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation to say that enslaved people who were here before 1776 played a role in shaping the nation. But to see the reactions the project got, and the pushback from conservatives, really says a lot about the importance of how we frame history. Because how we frame it says something about who we are.

PMW: And in terms of using fiction to do that, and I don’t know the Moroccan context nearly as well as I do the context here in the Western hemisphere. But one of the things coming off of my reading The Moor’s Account that really struck me about the end of your 2009 novel Secret Son, which is about a young man growing up in the poorest part of Casablanca, was when the narrator describes the protagonist Youssef at the very end of the novel by saying, “He was half-Berber and half-Arab; he was a man of the mountains, and a man of the city.” Would that passage be a similar sort of challenge to Moroccan national identity along the lines of how you challenge similar hierarchies of race and class and things like that in The Moor’s Account?

LL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think that the idea that there is any kind of purity anywhere is a very dangerous idea, whether that’s racial purity, or historical purity, that things are just this way and never to be any other way. Almost everything that you get taught in K-12 schools, in terms of history, has to be reframed as you go along. And certainly I think, in terms of Morocco, when you look at Arab political power and the suppression of Amazigh language and Amazigh rights, I think in the book it was important to me to have what I see as an ordinary Moroccan, meaning that he’s a mixture of both ethnicities, as are most Moroccans. Really, in Morocco it’s more proper to talk of Arabic-speaking or Amazigh-speaking than it is to speak about people in terms of race or ethnicity because they’ve mixed so much that it’s unclear whether anybody can really say whether they are one or the other. So that’s why it was important to acknowledge that hybridity in the character. Yeah, it’s something I’ve engaged with in almost all the books.

PMW: Yeah, and I mean, again, it’s absolutely brilliant and fantastic, the way that you handle this material. Since you just mentioned “Arabic speaking or Amazigh speaking, one of the things that strikes me, you know, across all three of the works of yours that I’ve had the opportunity to read, is that all of the novels imply that there are always multiple languages in play. Which of course, to be writing in English, in the United States, in the early 21st century, this is a pretty radical proposition, right? A lot of the conversations that the reader is reading, they don’t take place in English, even though they’re written in English on the page. Because you have a PhD in linguistics, if you could just talk a little bit about that, as a linguist.

LL: When I started out I was doing it a little unconsciously, but the longer I write, the more conscious I’ve been about engaging with these ideas of multi-linguality. I grew up speaking Moroccan Arabic in the home, and when I started school at 5 I was educated in standard Arabic and French. In fact, I don’t remember a time when I did not read in French or standard Arabic; that’s how my memory works anyway. So what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been bi-lingual all my life. Then later, in high school I took English. In college, I took Spanish. And people in the U.S. seem kind of flabbergasted when they hear this, but in Morocco it’s extremely ordinary to speak more than one language; bi-linguality is the norm, where it’s Arabic/Amazigh, Arabic/French, or Amazigh/Spanish, or you know, some other combination. It’s the norm, and this is also the case for many countries in the world. The United States is actually sort of an exception in that it encourages monolinguality. Also in terms of fiction, I’ve always wanted my writing to reflect that linguistic reality – which is that you may speak one language, but then when you interact with another person, you have to either switch to another language or code-switch in the same language. And I feel that in American literature, you know, not enough is being done to include and reflect that experience. So when I was writing The Moor’s Account, I noticed how the expedition had many different people who were not Spaniards. There were some Greeks. There were a lot of Portuguese, obviously. Indentured servants from different parts of Europe. There were enslaved workers from Africa. And there was my character, who speaks Amazigh and Arabic, and so I decided that when I wrote the book, that this linguistic reality would be reflected, that readers would know that there are people on the expedition who are speaking different languages. So two Portuguese sailors might be speaking, and of course they’re going to speak Portuguese to one another, but if they’re talking to one of the Spanish captains, they would switch to Spanish. And this before they land in the New World, where they have to interact with all of these Indigenous people and somehow figure out a way to communicate, and they eventually do learn to communicate in these other languages. So it was very important to reflect that on the page. Now, as you said, my medium is English – none of this action is happening in English. But if fiction works, we should be able to understand different human experiences even if they’re not in our language. So I wasn’t too worried about that, I tried not to draw any attention to the English itself. Throughout the book, I’m constantly reminding the reader that the characters are speaking mostly Spanish to one another, and occasionally all of these other languages.

PMW: Kind of circling back to how all of your work tends to re-imagine the nation and what it means to belong within that multi-lingual context, do you see a future for a multi-lingual U.S.? A country that is multi-lingual, also implying multi-cultural, where people are comfortable in operating in more than one language, as a part of their daily life, as opposed to something that excludes people or keeps people out?

LL: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think that’s where we’re headed, whether people like it or not. If you look you look at the statistics in the U.S. and particularly the number of Hispanic Americans, people who speak Spanish in this country, it’s the number two language in this country, followed by, I believe, I’m not sure, but I think it might be Chinese. It depends on the area. Basically across the U.S., the second-most spoken language after English is Spanish, and I live in California and there are so many public places where you go and there are two announcements – one in English, one in Spanish. I mean that’s just how we live; this is ordinary. And if we are to write fiction, or make movies or television or any kind of art that is supposed to take place in this reality, that is rooted in this reality, then it must reflect that somehow. One of my greatest sources of frustration is when I see stories that are set in L.A. that don’t have that. You know? That don’t show any Spanish except, for example, the gardener or the maid. I mean it’s pretty horrible, but it’s reflective of who gets to tell, and who has the opportunities to tell stories about California. This is changing, I think. It’s a matter of time. And I think that people will have to accept that somehow.

PMW: Uh-huh. One of the things that I thought was absolutely brilliant about The Other Americans, was how you go back and forth across so many different experiences. Again, with the character Ephraín, there are moments where you’re aware as the reader that he’s actually speaking Spanish right now, despite the fact that everything in the novel is in English. And one of the things, I think I read in another interview, where you talked about how you don’t judge your characters, right? 


LL: I try not to!

PMW: Along those lines, of the things that struck me about the novel, and I say this as a straight white guy from the U.S. South, was the care that you took with the racist son, A.J., in that book. He was actually the one who – I won’t give anything away about the book… But you know, within the context of that character, the very small detail about how he has this Celtic tattoo on his back, that for him is also this kind of like a way of belonging somewhere, even though it’s kind of like this horrible, racist, ethno-nationalism. He also is participating in this search for belonging, and if you could just kind of speak to that kind of care that went into that novel, right, to really flesh that character out.

LL: Right. I mean, for me I think, my brain works in this very odd way. Like for somebody like that, I can see where they’re coming from even as I recoil at where that experience led them. Once I made the decision that the novel was going to be told in multiple perspectives, I knew it couldn’t just be restricted to the family at the heart of the story. It became more like trying to draw a portrait of the town. So that meant including somebody like A.J., and I firmly believe there are many people like that. Everybody looks at him and rushes to say that, he’s a monster, or condemn him, or say that they would never be like him. And that’s fine. But at the same time I feel like people like that are more present with us than we think. The last election really brought that home for me because, had the Republican candidate been the sort that we had seen up until now, who gives nods to multi-culturalism while also using racist dog whistles, you know what I mean? With that kind of candidate, there would have been some sort of deniability for some people who might say, “Well, I don’t think he’s racist.” But with Trump, it was so, so, so obvious what voters were getting. And yet… here we are. So this is why I said that there are many people like this character, and they all live among us. And so to have somebody like that in the book made sense to me. The question then, writing him from the first person point of view, was how to allow him to speak for himself.

And nobody ever says, “I’m a terrible human being. I’m a racist.” I mean, there are very few people who would actually say that. Even if you look at somebody like Eichmann, right? I mean he was obviously an unrepentant Nazi, but if you look at some of the testimony that he gave, he always framed everything he did as following orders, as doing things out of loyalty to his superiors or to his country. That’s because the voice we all use to narrate our experience tends to be, for the most part, naturally empathetic. And so, with somebody like A.J., I thought, if I’m going to do this, like if he’s explaining what he’s doing, then how would he go about it? I remember also that after the Charlottesville, Virginia neo-Nazi rally, one of the leaders taped a YouTube video and posted it, basically crying because he had been identified, and he knew that it was a matter of time before the police would come and arrest him. I mean you should have seen this, he was crying, crying, and saying how he was a victim and how nobody really understood him, he didn’t hate everyone, he was just really proud of his identity, you know? It was total self-justification.

With characters like this, they’re not saying that they’re terrible people. They’re telling you that there’s a reason for why they are the way they are. So when I sat down to write A.J.’s chapter, I started to think, what kind of life experiences might have led him to become like this? Not as a way to justify how he becomes who he is but rather to explain it. Explain it, not justify it. And also I didn’t want to make him a thoroughly revolting person at every moment that he is on the page, because that would have been too easy. If he was just a monster that none of us could see any part of ourselves in him, it would be a caricature, not a character. It is much more interesting for him to be this terrible human being that you might have, like, one thing in common with. For example, he’s a dog lover. How many of us are dog lovers?

PMW: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LL: And so that’s a lot harder, and it’s forcing you to say, “Wait a minute. I share a bit of humanity with this terrible person.” And I think that’s a bit more implicating for the reader, and it’s forcing the reader to think a bit more, rather than saying, “This person has nothing to do with me. They’re a racist and I’m not.” Whereas if you have that slightly more implicating approach, there’s a greater chance of making the reader reflect about how they might also be engaging in things like that, sometimes realizing it and sometimes not realizing it.

PMW: Yeah. Let’s say again that The Other Americans is a brilliant novel. And as a follow question, if you could just tell me a little bit about what your follow-up work, Conditional Citizens going to be about.

LL: Yeah, it’s a book of non-fiction, and it basically starts off with my citizenship ceremony in July 2000. Then it describes some of the things that happened immediately after getting my citizenship. One of the most representative symbols of U.S. citizenship is a passport. So I applied and got one. And immediately my very first international trip after that, when I was returning to the U.S., when I handed the immigration agent my passport and he looked at my husband and he said, “How many camels did you have to trade in for her?” I had never had an interaction with an agent of the state as a citizen and that was my very first one. So the book is looking at what you said earlier about that notion of nationhood, looking at what it means to be American. And so one aspect obviously is national origin, but it’s also looking at like race, and gender, and class, and what the things that I would say qualify as conditional citizenship, which means you’re not quite equal to everyone else. You’re a little bit different. Markers of identity are used to determine that.

PMW: And like you were saying earlier, people are always kind of put back into these hierarchies, right? You’re always on the cusp of belonging or not belonging, often on a moment’s notice.

LL: Yes

PMW: So, has there been any word from the publisher, is Conditional Citizens still going to be rolled out in April despite everything going on?

LL: Well that’s a very big question. I can tell you that I feel like I’m getting whiplash this last week. Last Monday, I was packed and prepared to go to a two-week residency at UC Berkeley and I was going to launch the paperback of The Other Americans with a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates. And then I had one public event every week after that, leading up to the launch of Conditional Citizens, for which I would then be touring in May. On Monday night, I got home and I got a text from my host at Berkeley saying that the campus had closed. The next day, our campus at Riverside closed. Then it was like watching a set of dominoes fall. Everything was cancelled or postponed. So, you know, the first thing was the book tour. Not a big deal, you know? You get to stay home and spend time with your family. There are worse things to do! So that part is fine, but I think also the fact that over the next week all of these businesses were closing and bookstores are now closing and laying off their staff, even big bookstores like Powell’s which has closed all of their locations. So the book business right now is really reeling and unsure what’s going to happen. I mean obviously books are going to continue to be published but where are they going to be shipped? Like how can publishers get them into people’s hands if all the independent bookstores are closed? How can they get them into libraries? That is the big question. We just have to see, you know, if we recover from the pandemic. And then, books are shelf stable items, if you will. There’s no expiration date on a book. It’ll still be here a year from now when people are back in public again. And people can still read and people are reading. I mean I certainly did more reading this week that I did in in the week before.

PMW: Amen to that.

LL: Yeah. So I think, it may not be as bad, I don’t know. I honestly couldn’t tell you but I’m not, like as far as the book itself, I stopped worrying. There’s nothing I can do.

PMW: Yeah. This is kind of where we’re all at with, you know, millions of things! This is a pandemic.

LL: Yeah exactly, exactly.

Paul Worley: Well yeah, I want to say, thank you so much for being gracious about the technical difficulties at the very beginning. And thank you so much for your time.

LL: Thanks so much!

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Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She is the author of four novels, including The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her most recent novel, The Other Americans, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller, a best-of-2019 selection from NPR, Time, and Kirkus, and a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington PostThe NationHarper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times. She has received fellowships from the British Council, the Fulbright Program, and the Guggenheim Foundation and is currently a full professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. She lives in Los Angeles. Her new book, a work of nonfiction called Conditional Citizens, will be published by Pantheon in Fall 2020. You can pre-order it here.

Paul Worley is Associate Professor of Global Literature at Western Carolina University. He is the author of Unwriting Maya Literature: Ts’íib as Recorded Knowledge (2019, with Rita M. Palacios), Telling and Being Told: Storytelling and Cultural Control in Contemporary Yucatec Maya Literatures (2013), and has published articles in Studies in American Indian Literatures, and Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies. He is a Fulbright Scholar, and 2018 winner of the Sturgis Leavitt Award from the Southeastern Council on Latin American Studies. He holds an MA in poetry from the Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University, the author of the chapbook Chinese Landscapes (Mainstreet Rag; 2005), and serves as editor-at-large for México for the journal of literature in English translation, Asymptote.

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