"Whenever I open the newspaper, or listen to the radio, I read or hear about Muslims around the world and those things seem almost alien to me, in that I don't see myself reflected in anything I see or hear," award-winning author Laila Lalami said. "So there is a sense of invisibility. I see everything reflected back to me in the generic. Muslims are viewed as an undifferentiated mass instead of as particulars."
As part of both the College of Arts & Sciences' Cultural Life Series and the JWU Goes Global event series, Lalami visited the JWU Providence campus earlier this month. A professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, her most recent historical fiction novel, "The Moor's Account," has won a number of awards, including the American Book Award and Arab American Book Award.
Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, The Nation, the Guardian, and the New York Times, in addition to many other anthologies, and focus primarily on issues in the Arab world.
"We have this image of Muslims as either cartoonish villains, or silent victims," Lalami said. "When we face this view of the world—this black and white, 'you're with us or you're against us' view of the world—it seems to me the only thing you can do is try to hold on to the gray zone inbetween."
One way to hold on to this "gray zone" according to Lalami, is to hold on to the complexity and history of those who occupy it. "History is told primarily from the perspective of the powerful rather than the powerless. When the latter's stories aren't told, they're essentially erased from history," Lalami said.
It is this sentiment that ultimately led Lalami to write "The Moor's Account," which recounts the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America, a Moroccan slave to conquistadors whose testimony was ultimately left out of the official record despite being a translator for his Spanish masters.
Although Lalami know nothing about Spanish exploration, indigenous tribes, or this type of in depth Moroccan history, she still felt the need to take on this initially daunting project. "I had this sort of lightbulb moment where I thought to myself: 'I need to do this,'" she said. "That's how I decided to tackle this void in history, but I know there are others."