Books

bibliophiles

Looking at the world through stories from other cultures

April Rocha Photography

Laila Lalami’s award-winning second novel, “The Moor’s Account,” takes the form of a memoir of a Moroccan slave on the disastrous Spanish expedition across North America led by Cabeza de Vaca in the 16th century. The slave was one of the four who survived the 10-year trek. Lalami, who also writes regularly for The New York Times and The New Yorker, will discuss her book at 7 p.m., Wednesday at Boston College’s Gasson Hall as part of the Lowell Humanities Series.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

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LALAMI: I just finished “Delicate Edible Birds” by Lauren Groff, a short story collection. Last night I started “The Book of Unknown Americans,” which is by a friend of mine, Cristina Henriquez, and is about two Latino, immigrant families who live in Delaware. Right now I’m interested in reading things from different perspectives, so I’m getting that with these two books.

BOOKS: Are those books typical of what you like to read?

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LALAMI: I also read a lot of nonfiction. I just got “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein. I felt like what with everything that is going on with the president and the parallels with Nixon’s presidency, I needed to know more about the man. I asked people for recommendation and this book kept coming up.

BOOKS: What subjects are you drawn to in nonfiction?

LALAMI: It’s all over the place. I read about current affairs. I read essays. I had to read a lot of nonfiction for my novel. I read “The Conquest of New Spain” by Bernal Diz Del Castillo, which I recommend to a lot of people. He was an eyewitness of Cortez’s conquest of Mexico. It’s at once very brutal and at times very plodding. It tells what they did everyday, so days can go by and nothing happens. Then all of the sudden they are torturing and doing all these dark things. I also read this great book by the historian by Andrés Reséndez, “A Land So Strange,” about the crossing of North America by Spaniards.

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BOOKS: Was there anything about growing up Morocco that left its stamp on you as a reader?

LALAMI: I began reading in French. I didn’t read in English until high school. Another thing that was very different for me is that an American child’s reading is filled with Americans. When I was a child, I was reading books filled with people different from me, all French, all foreigners. There was a sense of disconnect between my sense of imagination and the world around me, which I don’t think is common for Americans. It forces you to learn to look at the world through other people’s eyes. There is a insularity within American fiction even for adults. It’s very tough for books in translation in the US. So few get translated and the ones that do have trouble making it into the mainstream. It’s more likely that Americans will discover another culture through an American writer rather read a writer from that culture.

BOOKS: What were some of the books that have had a big influence on you?

LALAMI: The ones that were relevant while I wrote my book were books like “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, which is based on a historical fact, “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow, and “True History of the Kelly Gang” by Peter Carey. Then there are writers I return to no matter what I’m working on, writers like the South African J.M. Coetzee. He has an ability to make you feel that he is writing for you alone. I love James Baldwin essays, but also his novels. I recently read “Another Country.” I couldn’t believe how ahead of his time he was.

BOOKS: What will you read next?

LALAMI: It depends. I don’t know what I’ll be like when I finish the books I’m reading. Every book leaves its mark on you. It might leave you hungry for that kind of book or you may be satiated, and you’re eager to read something else. It might send you in a completely different direction. I love that about reading.

AMY SUTHERLAND

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