Last month Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami’s second novel, The Moor’s Account, was announced as a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In their citation the Pulitzer committee said that the novel was “a creative narrative of the ill-fated 16th Century Spanish expedition to Florida, compassionately imagined out of the gaps and silences of history.” That second clause ran through my mind as I raced through the novel a few weeks after its citation. The Moor’s Account is Lalami’s imagining of the famously doomed Narváez expedition to Florida that began with 600 Spanish conquistadors and settlers landing near Tampa Bay and ended 8 years later when the only four known survivors stumbled across some Spanish soldiers in what is now northern Mexico. Cabaeza de Veca would become the most famous of those survivors when his La Relación became the official royal account. Lalami, as you might have guessed, moves the narration from de Vaca to Estevanico, a Moorish slave owned by one of the other surviving Spainards and the first known African (and African slave) to land in what is now the United States.
A Historic Encounter Full of Adventure and Reflection
The journey of the Narváez survivors is one of those incidents that seems too amazing to have actually occurred. Its mix of hardship, hubris, and cross-cultural contact feels like something out of one of the classic adventure novels like Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island. Of course, such stupendous and deadly adventures were somewhat common during the period of Spanish exploration and conquest in the Americas. Even as brutal conquistadors like Columbus, Cortes, and Pizarro were toppling empires their lesser-known compatriots like Francisco Orellana and Hernando de Soto were hopelessly stumbling through the wilderness with dreams of pillage and glory in their doomed heads. The Narváez expedition belongs to that ignominious latter group. In The Moor’s Account it is clear from the start that the Spanairds’ dreams are little more than delusions. The appalling pomp of their pronouncements to absent Indians that all of the “discovered” land belongs to the Pope and Spanish King on an empty beach is a prelude to the arrogance and avarice that will lead hundreds to their doom in an alien land.
Estebanico, born as Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori in Azemmur, spends much of his time in Florida thinking about his past. Chapters alternate between his present ordeals and stories of his life in Morocco, the collusion of greed and famine that prompt him to sell himself into slavery, and the innocuous injustices of his life as a slave in Seville. He is a born storyteller, and unravels both his own past actions and the noted Spanish love of pronouncing rather than conversing with those beneath their station. These recollections of the Old World end when the Narváez expedition falls apart. Buffeted by disease, Indian attacks, and poor planning they desperately build a set of rafts and try to sail back to Cuba. Instead, they drift to the west until a hurricane scatters them across the Gulf and the survivors must assimilate into Indian tribes in order to survive. It’s here, with the social stratification of the Old World destroyed by desperation and the hopes of returning to “civilization” at a nadir that the novel’s valuecomes into full view.
The Value of Alternative Perspectives
Over the past year I’ve been trying to push my reading to encompass facts, stories, and voices that differ from the dominant Straight White Male paradigm in American culture. That paradigm is especially strong in history, which is very often portrayed as the adventures and actions of Great Men Who Also Happen To Be White. This narrative is especially strong during the colonial period, when most of what we know about the Americas before and after Columbus’s journeys are related through the perspective of the Spanish conquistadors or Catholic priests whose records become the official story. But as Mustafa/Estebanico disappears into the patchwork of tribes that occupied what is now the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico he becomes one of the first points of contact between Africans and Native Americans.
In another 1493: Discovering the New World Columbus Created, another book about alternate historical perspectives that I recently devoured, Charles C. Mann spends dozens of pages on the connections between Native Americans and the peoples of Africa and Asia who turned up on their shores in the wake of Spain’s conquest of the Americas created a globalized trade network. Some of those encounters, like the Samurai who were hired as silver convoy guards in 16th-Century Meixico, truly blew my mind in their seeming random and extraordinary nature. But far more common were the Maroon communities, which consisted of African runaways from slavery and Native Americans living just out of the reach of colonial authority. Their polyglot communities was unsanctioned and brutally oppressed when it could be, but persevered for centuries and represented the majority of cross-cultural connection during the first three centuries of the Columbian Exchange.
In Estebanico/Mustafa’s journeys with the natives we get a glimpse of a similar historical encounter that was extremely common but little remarked upon in those official stories. By virtue of being a Black man accompanied by three Whites he is marked as an alien among aliens. Though it takes years and he never fully embraces the role, he eventually becomes a revered shaman among the Native tribes and a trusted compatriot for the surviving Spaniards. It’s in those years of travel and work among the Native Americans that Estebanico/Mustafa seemingly sheds the faults and failures of his past lives as a Muslim, merchant, slave-trader, domestic, and slave and finds something like grace. Lalami is careful to show that this is not because the Native culture is inherently better than those of Morocco or Spain. Rather, it’s because the newness of the environment has allowed her lead to drop all connections to his past, for good and ill, and be happy in the life he is presently leading. He ceases to be both Mustafa and Estebanico and is instead a true American original.
The survivors’ eventual return to familiar civilization is the obvious end-game, but their collective and then individualized responses are worthy of discovering and savoring on your own. It is the culmination of Lalami’s use of historical background and incident as a way to meditate on the way that names, ideas, and stories define the structure of our lives. Who am I? What do I stand for? What have I done? It all depends on the telling, and The Moor’s Account provides a beautiful and invaluable narrative perspective that we don’t see much of in American media. It’s more than worthy of the praise she’s received and well worth a read.