The Power of Storytelling
By: Emma Lucas
History is said to be written by the winners — by those who have the knowledge paired with the power to write the story however they deem fit. Readers and students experience this often, yet we do not realize that we are only getting one, possibly biased, side of the story. Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account is a fictional retelling of a commonly accepted history that reveals the power of storytelling, this history being the exploration of North America by Spanish conquistadors titled The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. Published originally in Spain in 1542 under the title Relación (The Account), Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative is meant to be a historically accurate account of the 1527 Pánfilo de Narváez expedition to North America. The Moor’s Account, on the other hand, tells of the same expedition but from the point of view of a Moroccan slave, historically known as Estebanico. His story operates to fill in some of the holes in Cabeza de Vaca’s story of their journey, as well as elaborate or explain details that were confusing within de Vaca’s narrative. These texts demonstrate that there can easily be more than one version of the truth that has been overlooked. By opening ourselves up to all possible avenues of truth, we as readers may just gain an understanding that our view of truth and pure history is not complete. Contained in Lalami’s text is the following passage:
Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories, vague reflections of what we saw and what we heard, what we felt and what we thought. Maybe if our experiences, in all of their glorious, magnificent colors, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth. (Lalami 320-1)
By combining all possible truths and all versions of the same story, readers begin to build layers of truth and history. The Moor’s Account acts as an opportunity to examine two reports of the same story side by side, and decide what we individually believe of Cabeza de Vaca’s version of this expedition turned captivity.
This essay will discuss the survivors of the Narváez expedition to North America, of which there are four: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and Estebanico. In Lalami’s fictional account, Estebanico is given the birth name Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori; in this essay, I will refer to this character as Mustafa because, as the text indicates, a name is a powerful and cherished belonging:
A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world. Losing it meant losing my ties to all those things too. So I had never been able to shake the feeling that this Estebanico was a man conceived by the Castilians. (Lalami 7).
Dorantes de Carranza is Mustafa’s legal master. Cabeza de Vaca acts as treasurer of the expedition, according to The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. In The Moor’s Account, Cabeza de Vaca is originally introduced as Mustafa’s “rival storyteller” (Lalami 3). In The Narrative of Cabeza of Vaca, Mustafa is referred to Estebanico very few times, and through the majority of the text is simply called “the black man” (Núñez Cabeza de Vaca 159-60). To me, this signifies the indifference that Cabeza de Vaca felt, and most likely Castillo and Dorantes felt, towards Mustafa and his role in the overall survival of the group. Reading an account that continually shapes a person as having little significance will lead the readers to believe that indeed Mustafa 22 was not very important to the survival of the other three men or to the journey itself, which is the very concept that this essay attempts to argue.
The Moor’s Account writes both with and against the text of The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. The narrator of The Moor’s Account, Mustafa, provides a voice to all those who have been silenced in traditional narratives. Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative is a testament to the power of story to shape the world. From the publication of The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca until the publication of The Moor’s Account, almost 500 years, readers and historians had only heard one side of the story. The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca was used extensively in its time for many reasons, like as a guidebook for explorers and as a reference guide for missionaries. It additionally was accepted as a story of miracles that legitimized all Spanish conquest. Lalami has imaginatively allowed the first true non-European explorer of North America to tell his story. This story is one originated from a minority, and not one of history’s so-called “winners.” Cabeza de Vaca believed in the influence of his knowledge and power, which is perhaps one of the reasons that his narrative may not be entirely truthful. Mustafa, on the other hand, advocates his belief in the objective attempt to share the whole truth in The Moor’s Account. Cabeza de Vaca assumes that if he tells a version of the story where he looks like a good Christian man and a hero, that is exactly how he will be seen by others upon his return to Spain.
Storytelling, as it is demonstrated in these two texts, is a primal struggle between the strong and the weak. The Europeans conquer, enslave, and justify their actions in The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. Mustafa, a slave, is thrust into an identity limbo between his enslavement to Dorantes de Carranza and his captivity to the journey for survival. Mustafa is inherently lower in status than the other three survivors, however, they are all four doing what they can to withstand their situation. All these men are explorers, but Mustafa is an explorer cut from a different cloth. 23 Mustafa believes that the only way to atone for his sins is by writing his account of the story and doing his best not to leave out a single detail. I believe he felt this way to establish his own power, to feel even a tiny sense of control regarding the journey he was on. One possible goal of The Moor’s Account is to show that Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative was written to make the Spanish men look successful in their mission, and was most likely not entirely truthful or unbiased. While Cabeza de Vaca’s account was very much about the Christians never straying from their civilized ways throughout their trek, Mustafa acknowledged that some acculturation did occur, and at times there was a breakdown of the binary of the civilized man versus the savage man, which we readers see as more historically realistic.
However, it must be addressed that The Moor’s Account is a historical fiction, and that the character of Mustafa is only an imagined counterpoint to the character of Estebanico included in Cabeza de Vaca’s account. The trustworthiness of Cabeza de Vaca as a narrator is controversial, but as a class we have agreed that there is something about The Moor’s Account that seems more historically accurate. Lalami merely supplies readers with a divergent story, and even though The Moor’s Account is fiction, it allows readers to take a step back and understand that perhaps The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is not the whole truth. A text like The Moor’s Account is a demonstration of the strength of storytelling, in that it portrays how Cabeza de Vaca’s story was extensively accepted for hundreds of years as objective truth. Because Mustafa was described as insignificant, readers probably did not give him a second thought, instead focusing on the other three survivors. The Moor’s Account breaks down the upheld credibility and esteem of The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. By judging The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca against The Moor’s Account, there can possibility be universal realization that history is partially controlled by biased stories and accounts. The beauty of this argument is that there are thousands 24 of pairs of dueling texts that can be observed with the idea in mind that no matter the context, we are only seeing one perspective, one side of the truth. The information and knowledge we stand to gain is infinite.