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Fictionalized slave tale offers a new narrative

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/9/2014 (1949 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In this exquisite piece of historical fiction, Moroccan-born Laila Lalami re-casts the infamous 1527 Narváez expedition to Florida in a shining new light. Writing from the point of view of Estebanico, the Moroccan slave forced to accompany the Spanish conquistadors, Lalami skilfully gives him a voice and a past.

By slightly altering his real name from Estevanico, Lalami allows herself some imaginative latitude to recreate him. At the same time, she develops a powerful tale around the power of naming itself, reminding us that the real Estevanico/Estebanico is also buried beneath that diminutive Spanish appellation.

Thus, she introduces Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Azmori — Mustafa for short — who painfully remembers the scene of his sale as "A negro from Azemmur. A bargain at twenty-five ducats!"

The most intriguing source for the historical Estevanico lies with Cabeza de Vaca's La Relaciòn, published in 1542 and addressed to King Charles I of Spain. La Relaciòn is at once a moving account of the spectacular failure of the Narváez expedition and a kind of ethnographic map of the American southwest.

In La Relaciòn, the historical Estevanico appears as an entirely silent figure, primarily identified as "the negro" because thoroughly insignificant to the Spanish monarchy. Yet, there is something so compelling about him in the surrounding taciturnity of the wider tale. For, along with Cabeza de Vaca, Estevanico was one of 450 humans and horses to enter Florida — and one of four to come out alive, the only black man among them. That he survived to re-cross the Atlantic is remarkable.

Throughout most of Lalami's novel, it is Cabeza de Vaca who appears in brief glimpses, rendered silent and serious by Estebanico's version of events. Introduced on the first page as "my rival storyteller" — in a sly allusion to La Relaciòn — Cabeza de Vaca re-emerges later not as a violent conquistador but in this description: "Here was a man who knew how to tell stories and how to listen to them... A kindred spirit."

As much as Lalami wants to fill in the picture of those whose tales do not often get told in the history of the Spanish conquest, she refuses to compose a straightforward vilification of the men involved in this brutal chapter of history. From Estebanico's perspective, some conquistadors are vicious, while others are less so. The Native American peoples they encounter are portrayed as equally complex.

Lalami structures the novel through chapters that alternate between Estebanico's version of the expedition and his memories of home. She takes us forward and backward this way, in waves that move the plot along and shape Estebanico's character.

Desiring to match the skill and renown of La Relaciòn, Estebanico recounts his life before and during the expedition with stunning attention to detail. We don't just see the world through his eyes — we also hear, smell, and feel it.

For example, when the conquistadors try to take the "Indian" village of Aute, Estebanico recounts with sensory intensity and respectful astonishment its burning to the ground: "The smell of burning wood and singed fur sat heavy in my throat. In spite of the sandals I wore, I could feel the heat rising from the ground through my feet... The people of Aute would rather burn their village than let the Castilians take it."

Lalami is a creative-writing professor in California with a PhD in linguistics. The historical Estevanico was also a kind of linguist, a man who quickly learned other languages, both European and Native American, and who translated them well.

In this way, they are kindred spirits, each brilliant with words.


Dana Medoro is a professor of American literature at the University of Manitoba.


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Updated on Saturday, September 27, 2014 at 8:39 AM CDT: Formatting.

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