The Moor's Account and Witness
Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account is historical fiction told from the perspective of the first Black explorer of America, an enslaved Muslim man from Morocco. The book centers a voice that has historically been left out of the record. The novel also recognizes that this telling necessarily de-prioritizes other marginalized voices. Lalami uses some smart techniques to include those voices in other ways.
The passage I want to explore follows some very horrific content. A group of Spanish explorers have taken over a Native American village, stolen their food, and locked up all of the women and children. Then a small band of Spanish men drag some of the women and girls from their prison to rape them.
The narrator and the men he is talking to hear this occurring and try to ignore it. When it finally quiets, they attempt to resume their conversation as if nothing has happened.
But then the women who were not dragged off call out in a different way:
A tremendous chorus of drums interrupted him. It came from the earth mound, where the women and children were held, and its sound rose so steadily that it now reached every part of the town. Then, over the sound of the drums came the voices of the Indian women, mourning for their abused sisters. Their cries briefly rose to a high pitch, before extending into a low note, sustained and anguished. It was a communion of pain, and no one in the city could pretend not to have heard it. The women had made witnesses of us, even those of us who had chosen to close our eyes.
I love the way this passage is explicit about what it's doing in making the men witnesses and that we have a narrator who can recognize humanity in people who look and live differently than him, even though most of those around him do not.
Beyond the narrator hearing the real pain of real human beings, the drums and cries of these women are made to be recognized by the reader.
When they "interrupt," it's powerful. We're about to hear the words of the man who has enslaved the narrator, but his words are cut short. This man is free, rich, European, and high-ranking on the expedition. When he can't continue speaking because of the cries of imprisoned Native American women, that's something.
It's also important that these wails are presented as triumphant even as they are enormously painful. It's an act of resistance that is felt in subtle ways. The sound is called a "tremendous chorus," which makes the drums seem both musical and powerful.
Even though the text tells us of the pain, the subtext is all about rising up. The sound of drums "rose so steadily that it now reached every part of the town," "over the sound of the drums came the voices of the Indian women," and "cries briefly rose to a high pitch." When the sound lowers in pitch, the words "extending" and "sustained" are used to show that it does not lose power.
"Communion" is a noteworthy word to me in this context. Of course, it's referring to a spiritual or emotional bond created by the women with their drums and their voices. And like the word "chorus," it implies the voices are united and organized.
It also feels like a particularly Christian word, as it makes me think of "Holy Communion," the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist. But I'm not sure that subtext makes sense when neither the narrator nor the voices described are Christian. Then I remember that the oppressors are Christian, sent not just to steal gold but to force their religion on other people. Maybe the use of this word is a subversion of sorts. Maybe word implies that the Native American women are using what is meant to be a weapon against them in a very different way.
We should also think about how power and agency work in the structuring of sentences. "The women had made witnesses of us" puts the women as subject and thus as the ones acting. What if the sentence was "We witnessed" or "We were made to witness"? It would describe the same happening, but it would erase the women who made it happen.
Lalami's example is explicit and I love it for that. But we can also use the lesson it teaches in ways that are more subtle.
Even if a character is not centered, you can allow for their agency by making them heard—and then turning whoever is centered into a witness, witting or unwitting, to what they say. Words are magic because they make you hear them. Even if you have characters without the power to physically fight back, they might at least have the power to make themselves noticed. It's a smart way to make minor characters into real people with agency.
All of this has real-world implications. When fiction refuses to look at non-centered characters, it teaches us to do the same in our lives, normalizing the erasure of real human beings.
It has literary implications, too. It lets the world be bigger, richer, and more complex. Including the voices of minor characters helps the reader to triangulate beyond the limited perspective of the character doing the talking.
Because of this, "witness" can even be a strategy for presenting a moral viewpoint that doesn't match the main character's. A challenge when writing about evil is that if you showcase the viewpoint of the oppressor, that viewpoint becomes normalized. We can learn by reading about people who do bad things, understanding the frightening nuance of evil, but we must also be reminded how bad those things are. And the line between critique and endorsement can be so thin.
Showing how the oppressed "make witness" of those hurting them is a powerful tool for giving agency to minor characters and enriching our fictional worlds. It's also our ethical responsibility as writers.
Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Booth, Lunch Ticket, Jellyfish Review, and (less recently) elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft's blog. She tweets, often about writing, as @allisonwyss and here's her website: www.allisonwyss.com