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Laila Lalami, whose novel imagined Estevanico's account of conquest, to speak at Santa Fe festival

Author Laila Lalami
April Rocha Photography/April Rocha Photography
Author Laila Lalami

The Santa Fe International Literary Festival is coming up next month. It runs from May the 19th to 21st, and will bring together authors from all over the world. Among them will be Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami. Her Pulitzer-shortlisted novel "The Moor's Account" imagined the story of a historical figure who came to what is now New Mexico centuries ago. She spoke to KUNM about how the book reminds us of the Arab and African influences on the Spaniards who came to the region as conquerors. 

LAILA LALAMI: The person that the Spaniards called Estevanico is an incredibly fascinating figure of history. He was said to be an enslaved man from Morocco, who was part of the Spanish expedition that came to Florida in 1528 in order to claim it for the Spanish crown.

The expedition failed miserably. But it still had four survivors, among them this man from Morocco, and the survivors ended up crossing North America and becoming the first outsiders to do so. His testimony was never included in the official accounts of this expedition. And yet, how fascinating it is to have this person be a part of that crossing party, because this person is neither a Spaniard, nor is he an Indigenous person. So he's neither a conqueror, nor is he a Native. And so the joy of writing this novel is getting to imagine this character in that landscape at that moment of encounter, and to see it through his eyes. So just really to give us a perspective that is completely different on this encounter in the way that it has been taught us in history.

KUNM: And I'm right in thinking that you grew up in Morocco yourself and became a citizen later on, I think, right? (Yes) Is there anything that you see, or have experienced or encountered in the United States, maybe especially the southwest and California, that reminds you of the Moorish element of the very diverse roots of modern culture in this area?

LALAMI: I mean, yes of course, the influences are very, very evident. So for example, the people, the outsiders who came to New Mexico for example, the friars, the soldiers from Spain, were carrying with them, in a sense, the architectural legacy of Moorish Spain. Their language had been influenced by Arabic. And so today, when I'm in Los Angeles, and I see, for example, an orange tree, or when I look at the Spanish Revival architecture that we have in California, all of these really are reminding me of a culture that feels very familiar to me having grown up in Morocco.

KUNM: And then maybe with that as a backdrop, this eye on the diverse roots of modern America, do you want to talk a bit about something your books take as something of a theme, your own experience of being an American today?

LALAMI: I think that the particular events of my life have brought me to be here in this moment to live in Los Angeles, California. I came here as a graduate student. And then, life happened. I met someone, fell in love, and he was an American, and we got married. And so that decision sort of led me to yet another decision, which is to become a naturalized citizen.

So I've been spending a lot of time thinking about that relationship, the one that binds me to other members of my community, but also that binds all of us to the government that is supposed to be serving us. And so I've been over the years writing essays about that, writing about the exclusion of immigrants or the exclusion of people of color, the experiences that people have, and ended up expanding it into this book called "Conditional Citizens."

KUNM: Is it fair to say that some of what you're doing in Conditional Citizens is laying out evidence that structural inequality exists? That while lots of people are American citizens, that's not actually an equal experience for all of those citizens?

LALAMI: Yeah, I think that is absolutely a fair characterization. Citizenship was never intended to be something that was open to everybody in this country, at the founding of the United States. So it took a lot of struggle and some of it violent and bloody for the system of citizenship as we have it today to be expanded to non-whites. Even now we see the shadow of that initial legislation surviving, even if it's not written legally into law. It survives in cultural ways. And it survives in all but legal ways. So changing the law was the first step but changing the actual lived reality of people, we're not there yet.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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