Across Florida in 1527
WILLIAMSTOWN -- History is supposed to be the story of our past. But more often than not, we find that the story it tells is biased and incomplete, filled with silences where voices and experiences were never recorded.
"I was attracted to these silences," said Laila Lalami, author of "The Moor's Account." "My book is about the first black explorer of the Americas. We know that this man existed and that his name was Estebanico. Unfortunately, we don't know much more -- history is silent after that. So, I started to imagine what his life must have been like, to imagine the answers that history did not provide."
Through Lalami's imagination, we are brought into the world of an ill-fated Spanish expedition to capture Florida, as experienced by a Moroccan slave. At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8, in Williams College's Griffin Hall, Lalami will bring this man, Estebanico, to life in a reading from "The Moor's Account."
"Even though [the book is] set in 1527, a modern audience will see many similarities with our world today," Lalami said. "Is it strange to imagine people halfway across the globe, chasing after gold? Not really. We see people going halfway across the world and starting wars over profitable resources all the time."
"The Moor's Account" follows Estebanico as he sets out for the New World on a ship with a crew of 600 men. Within the year, he is one of only four survivors, as the other men die from starvation, illness, inclement weather and violent conflict with the locals.
"The area of Florida where the expedition landed was inhabited by the Apalachee," Lalami said. "The Spaniards used violence against them to extract information about gold and eventually left behind all their horses and armor and many of their supplies, lured inland by the promise of treasure."
But this was a mistake. Soon, the four surviving members of the expedition had to offer themselves as slaves to the local peoples in order to survive. Estebanico proved invaluable, serving as translator between the Spaniards and the American Indians, negotiating for their lives.
"We come to see that Estebanico is a very sophisticated man," Lalami said. "He speaks at least four languages, but more than that, he also is emotionally sophisticated, insightful about others' perspectives."
In Morocco, Estebanico was once much like his Spanish masters -- seduced by profit into becoming merchant who would sell whatever necessary to make money, including his fellow man. But when drought hit his hometown of Azemmur, Estebanico was forced to sell himself into slavery to save his family from starvation, and he came to understand what he put other men through. This gave Estebanico a perspective that the Spanish -- who have never learned the consequences of greed -- lack.
"Estebanico is able to see similarities between his own values and those of the Native Americans, who care little for profit, living comfortable lives of subsistence," Lalami said. "They are cut of one cloth, the Spanish conquerors of another."
Eventually, after eight years of becoming increasingly integrated into American Indian society and living together as equals, the four men are found and "rescued" by Spanish slavers from Mexico City. The Spaniards betray Estebanico, and he is forced to return to Spain as a slave.
"It is important to note that when they get to Mexico City, the men are asked to give an account of their time in the wilderness," Lalami said. "But only the three Spaniards are asked for their stories. Estebanico is ignored. Later on, one of the men [Cabeza de Vaca] writes a travelogue of his experience. Estebanico is only mentioned in passing as ‘the negro' or ‘the slave.' He is all but erased as far as history is concerned."
But despite this awareness of places where history has failed, Lalami still accords it great respect. In "The Moor's Account," she tried to use historical fact as the frame upon which she would weave Estebanico's story, because that would make it believable, she said.
"'The Moor's Account' is meticulously researched," said Williams College Professor of Francophone Literature Katarzyna Pierprzak, who invited Lalami to read at the College. "From specific details of the Floridian swamps and Indian cornfields to accounts of the surviving explorers, Laila [Lalami] is as much a scholar-historian as she is a writer."
For Lalami, this is a triumph -- producing a book that accurately depicts the 16th century, but that also moves beyond what we already know to give life to a figure neglected by the history books.
"I wanted to tell an untold story," Lalami said. "Stories are powerful things. They give us control over who we are. So Estebanico's story is as much about the importance of being able to tell our own stories to claim ourselves as it is about his particular experience."
If you go ...
What: Laila Lalami reads from ‘The Moor's Account'
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday,
Where: Griffin Hall room 3, Williams College, Williamstown
More Book Unbound: Events include Publication studio pop-up bookshop at Williams College Museum of Art 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, talk on Olympe de Gouges' Declaration of the Rights of Women 5 p.m. Thursday at the Clark Art Institute, WCMA at Night 5 p.m. Thursday and ‘Writing for Young People panel 8 p.m. Thursday.
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