Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, SALT HOUSES, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and is currently longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize.
John Stintzi: While reading your debut novel, Salt Houses, there are definite moments in the prose where the language does something—usually something figurative that breaks out of the narrative mode into a purely evocative moment—that reminds me that you’re also a poet. Your fiction reads quite differently than your poetry, though. How do you find yourself working in either form? Do you go through phases of writing either poetry or fiction, or does it vary day-to-day?
Hala Alyan: I’ve always worked in both forms simultaneously, usually tackling a few different projects at once. I find that to be the most refreshing way to approach writing in general, because if I find myself burnt out with one project, I can busy myself with another. It can sometimes be a little distracting, but more than makes up for it in terms of feeling engaged with the work. Each process feeds a different part of myself: I can be more reckless with poetry, asking less of myself and more willing to leave it up to feeling inspired. I can leave poetry alone for months at a time, then write feverishly for weeks. But fiction demands more precision and discipline for me; it’s required me to build more of a muscle and dedicated practice. I’ll usually write poetry when I feel like it and write thirty minutes a day of prose no matter what.
JS: Do you find that there is a difference in what you end up expressing with either form? Do you find either form better suited for certain kinds of work?
HA: I definitely think so. For me, if what I’m trying to say feels incomplete in poetic form, it means it’s time to try prose. Salt Houses is a good example of that; I wanted to tell a multigenerational story that spanned time and space. Poetry didn’t seem like the best fit for that sort of narrative. I think I also tend to rely on poetry to process more intrapsychic emotions and experiences, while fiction is a place I can imagine those of others.
JS: Salt Houses is set in the middle-east and is a family epic about the Yacoub family, a Palestinian family who—at the beginning of the book—are displaced by the Six-Day War. Did you find that, knowing a majority of your western audience was likely unfamiliar with the particulars of that region of the world (and particularly that conflict), that you had to act as a sort of ‘translator’? Did knowing your audience might not be familiar have any effect on how you decided to tell this story?
HA: I have to say, I wasn’t thinking much about audience at all, which is probably the best way to get through writing a first novel. Otherwise, I would’ve been crippled by it. Whenever I did envision a reader, it was usually my brother or another family member. I think that freed me up to just tell the story of the Yacoub family, paying attention to whatever details regarding the political realities I wanted to. Of course, once the book was in the editing process with the publishing house, I had to clarify certain details. I never did put a glossary of Arabic terms in the back, though, because we live in an age where these things are fairly easy to research. It might require a little more of the reader, but I feel okay asking for it and grateful when it’s done.
JS: Do you find that living in New York, at a remove from cities in the novel, like Kuwait City or Beirut, makes it a harder job to place your work there? Did you find yourself needing to revisit some of these cities when writing the book?
HA: Not so much harder as more nostalgic. I found myself yearning for a lot of those cities, and spent a lot of time looking at photographs and listening to music. I even found some ambient street noise! It helped that I was able to visit nearly every city I reference in the book in the years I spent writing it. I wasn’t always writing about the particular city I happened to be visiting, but even just sitting in a café or wandering around the streets at night helped recharge my emotional and cultural memory.
JS: As well as a writer, you’re also a clinical psychologist. In another interview you talked about how this helps you develop your characters, but I’m interested in how emotionally taxing that job must be and how that aspect might affect the work. Is it ever a challenge to put your patients’ troubles aside when you sit down to write?
HA: That’s a great question, and not one I’ve thought a lot about. I suppose there’s a lot of emotional labor put into learning to separate clinical work from personal life, and I actually think that the bulk of that work happened during my training years. I definitely found myself inundated by clinical material, particularly traumatic stories of displacement and asylum seeking, and had some brilliant supervisors and peers along the way who helped guide me to a place where I can be present for my clients but also recognize the need to keep my private life separate. Of course, some days I’m more successful than others!
JS: In Salt Houses, I find a lot of the characters have these moments where their emotions swell up and they either are washed over with them, or—more often—the characters tamp the feelings back down. It feels like there’s a lot of denial of reality, which is not surprising for characters dealing with the grief and displacement many of your characters are. These moments in the book feel very real, and seem like things you’d either hear about or see a lot as a psychologist. Do the ways your characters in Salt Houses exist with their emotions come partly from your work as a psychologist?
HA: Of course I can’t take the actual experiences of clients and then fictionalize them, but I suppose there is a certain “lifting” that happens when thinking about what trauma does to memory and emotional processing. In both my clinical work and in “regular” life, I see and experience the ways in which displacement, loss, and intergenerational trauma impact the way emotional regulation takes place (or doesn’t) and how emotions-as-currency are dealt with in general.
JS: I found the choice of writing Salt Houses chronologically an interesting one because it pulled us through the lives of characters who are increasingly further from the family’s displacement from Palestine, a conflict that ripples throughout. Was that structure there from the start? How did you find it?
HA: The story began as a short story about Mustafa, as I was interested in his experience living between 1948 and ‘67, experiencing young adulthood issues alongside occupation and displacement. From there, I decided the narrative should be told chronologically, which, yes, pulls the characters further from the original displacement, but also shows the ways its impact plays out intergenerationally. The truth is, I found most of the structure accidentally. I’m a messy writer and rely a ton on editing. So for the most part, I just stumbled along in the dark. I wrote sections based on which character I was most interested in hearing from at that time.
JS: What can you tell us about your forthcoming poetry collection, The Twenty-Ninth Year?
HA: The new collection is a meditation on the transforming landscapes of womanhood, wifedom, loss and exile. It’s a way of looking to the past to determine my future: making sense of my American existence and my Arab one, exile and the rebuilding of life in its aftermath. It was the most difficult collection to write, and the most gratifying so far; I feel very thankful for where these poems took me.