The Story of Displacement: Q&A with Hala Alyan

Salt Houses, Hala Alyan’s multigenerational first novel about a Palestinian family, is a richly layered story of devastation, rebuilding, and making your way home, when you’re not even sure where that is anymore. As a Jew who believes strongly in the importance of a Jewish homeland, I wanted to read Salt Houses for a different perspective—to hear the stories I might not have heard otherwise. I asked Alyan some questions about the book and our current sociopolitical climate.

Q: You’re Palestinian-American. How much of this story is drawn from your family history and how much is part of the larger cultural story?

A: I borrowed structural elements from my familial history, in terms of the countries that appear in the book and the way the family in Salt Houses is displaced more than once. I wanted to keep the focus on this one particular family’s story, while also nodding to the larger sociopolitical context that housed it. I was inspired by the tradition of storytelling in Arab communities, and how that is a way of reclaiming history and identity. More generally, I was inspired by the resilience of refugees and immigrants I’ve come across in my personal and professional life, and I wanted to honor the story of displacement by unpacking it as honestly as I could.

Q: Like you, I have a background in psychology, and I always found writing and clinical psychology to be bedfellows of a sort—the business of stories, of telling and sharing and listening, of making sense of something. How does your role as a psychologist inform your writing, and vice versa?

A: I totally agree with that! Being a psychologist has helped me pay more attention to the world in general, and to honor the balance between bearing witness to stories and creating them myself. My training taught me how to focus my curiosity and ask questions about intent, desire and motivation, all of which have been useful in character development. Similarly, being a writer means I think in terms of narrative, which helps “order the chaos,” so to speak, when it comes to working with clients. It has also been a wonderful tool when coming up with therapeutic interventions that center around creative expression as a mode of coping.

Q: How have the political events of the past year or two affected the story or your decision to tell it?

A: This story is being released into the world during a particularly salient moment, as we consider things like Brexit and Trump’s presidency. But I felt the need to tell this story long before that; I started writing it several years ago. Recently I find my art has felt more urgent, like I have more of a responsibility to tell certain stories. I find myself thinking of audience more, as well as the political and moral imperative of utilizing one’s voice to amplify those of oppressed and marginalized communities.

Q: What do you see the role of writers and artists in the world today, especially those who are immigrants or first-generation?

A: I believe our role involves translating narratives for those that may not otherwise come across them, as well as humanizing stories of communities that have long been marginalized, such as LGBTQ populations and refugees. Those who are immigrants or first-generation have a unique vantage point into two cultures, and are usually fluent in the tensions that exist between cultures and the ways they overlap. This sort of understanding is essential at a time of such blatant “othering,” particularly of already marginalized communities.

Q: You’re also a poet. What made you switch genres, and which are you most at home in?

A: I always wrote both, but had only published in poetry. I found myself hungrier for a longer form of storytelling, which is ultimately how this book was born. I would say I feel pretty much at home in either genre, but it really depends on what kind of story I’m trying to tell—sometimes a narrative is better honored as a poem than as a piece of prose, and vice versa. I’d definitely say I feel more comfortable identifying myself as a poet than a novelist; the latter still feels very new.

Q: What are you reading right now? 

A: I just finished The Turner House by Angela Flournoy and am currently reading The Lonely City by Olivia Laing.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I like working on a couple of things at once, so I’m working on a new poetry manuscript and a new novel about a Lebanese family of expats that return to Beirut to sell their ancestral home. It’s tentatively titled The Arsonists’ City.

Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others.

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