Hala Alyan: Families as Countries in Miniature

photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Hala Alyan is an award-winning Palestinian-American poet (Hijra, Atrium, Four Cities) and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in numerous journals including the Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner and Colorado Review. She resides in Manhattan. Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), her first novel, traces the lives of one family in the Palestinian diaspora as they split apart across the Arab world and beyond. A story of secrets, trauma, and, ultimately, love, it is a look into how war and conflict can, and cannot, break the bonds of blood.

Salt Houses is about, among other things, diaspora, and although some of your characters end up spending time in the Western world, the book's narrative remains almost entirely in the Middle East. Why did you decide to keep it within this geographic boundary?

I'm interested in the idea of diaspora in the Middle East because I do think that's something that happens a lot and is not really talked about. We have a very Euro-centric idea of what it means and looks like to be a refugee: those people come from way over there, they come all the way over here, they dress certain ways and talk in with accents.

On a more basic level, I was very interested in the idea of being made a refugee several times over. It's one that's part of my own family's narrative. After my father had left the Gaza Strip, my parents met in Kuwait. They had me in Kuwait, then Saddam Hussein invaded. I've always been interested in the idea of how we ended up living drastically different lives based on the snap decisions that people made in the handful of days after the invasion. I have cousins my age whose parents chose to remain in Kuwait. I have cousins whose parents went to Syria. I have cousins whose father had just moved to Wichita.

One of the things I wanted to play with in this book is the idea of inheritance, what you inherit emotionally and psychologically from the generations that came before. I'm obviously interested in that as a psychologist--intergenerational trauma. Then, as a writer, how do you see these patterns? A lot of these patterns, to be completely honest, had to be pointed out to me by other people who read them, because I subconsciously was writing them. Patterns between mothers and daughters, themes of things near the sea and those playing out generations later as the great-grandchildren return. And the idea that one of the things that you inherit is this longing, this longing that can never be satisfied by any one place. In part, I think, because you don't know which place you're missing when there's been this diaspora upon diaspora.

Many of your characters yearn to return to a life that they actually don't have first-hand experience of. Do you link the inherited trauma to that yearning?

I do. I think you grow up watching your parents, or your grandparents, speak of a place with a certain wistfulness, or not speak of a place. One of the things I wanted to show with this particular family was the idea of not talking about Palestine, and how the absence of talking about it became bigger than any conversation could have been. It really became another character in the family.

I just turned 30. In my generation (this wasn't true in my case, but for a lot of people it is), a lot of their parents haven't been to Palestine. So what you're getting is a hand-me-down of a hand-me-down of longing for a place. It's almost being filtered through someone else's fantasy. What you are receiving has already been filtered through another individual's psyche and idea of what this place will be, and all the hopes and attachments and things that they're going to pin upon this idea of belonging or this idea of home. And then you're given that to grapple with.

You mention Palestinian Arabic a number of times throughout the book, and how people get outed by their accents. And these moments are almost always points of shame. The verbal connection to one's past, or one's family's past, the vocalization of that legacy, is looked on with derision.

It gives you away. Outing is a good way of putting it. That point of shame is a powerful one. There's been a lot of work in the last couple of decades on pride, especially with younger Palestinians, a lot of the SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] groups in universities and stuff like that.

In English, if someone has an accent, you're not going to necessarily know if they're from Yemen, or Palestine, or whatever. In Lebanon, it has such a fraught history with Palestinians. A lot of people have a lot of feelings about being Palestinian. There are times when it is actually unsafe. I've been in the back of cabs, speaking with a taxi driver, going from this neighborhood to that neighborhood, and hearing "Where you from? Where's your father from?" It can get really intense.

There are so many different dialects of Arabic, and they're completely different languages. Language in diaspora is interesting, too. Oftentimes as generations go on, you'll lose language. A lot of time when there's a lack of passports, or any legal way to get back to the country of origin, language ends up being one of those last remaining ties. And that's lost as generations go on, especially when people are in the West, because you're going to grow up speaking French, or English, or whatever. That idea always saddens me, because it's a big way of losing culture.

Your characters are caught in a number of violent conflicts, and basically none of it is within the frame of the narrative. Can you walk us through that decision?

I think war gets enough air time as is. Too often in literature, in film, in art, there is an exotifying of war, making it the sexy thing. I'm more interested in the aftermath. I wanted to highlight this idea that for a lot of people war is something that happens in the backdrop of their lives. There does become this hardening towards it. For the people who went through the events of 1948, when 1967 came around, it was traumatic, it wasn't easy, it was horrifying. But I think in some way there was muscle memory there. They'd seen parts of it before. For me, I was more interested in looking at these humans, what happened to the love between these people, their dreams, their ambitions, their fears. How did this one particular marriage fall apart in these teeny tiny ways over the course of decades but still remain tenuously together? I'm interested in how the daughter who wasn't there for the war was impacted by it. She witnessed it from afar, from this bar in Paris. Is that experience any less valid than those of her parents, who were trying to get passports together and rush out of the country? I feel that when people talk about Arabs, and particularly Palestinians, they have this script, this cultural script for what it means to be Palestinian and Arab. And so much of it is exotified or politicized.

With each successive conflict, there is pain and worry, but there's no fight left in this family on a macro level. No one is going to join the actual fight for Palestinian independence, or for Kuwait.

There's a learned helplessness, right? There's a learned helplessness with "the world will do this." The world will watch as it happens and you will endure. In one of the Kuwait chapters, there's a scene between Salma and Alia where Salma says "You have to live for the people that you have, that are living." There is this sort of nodding towards history, and this understanding of what it's taken, and what cannot be taken back. As soon as Alia and Atef, and I think is true for many families, make the decision again to not really talk about Palestine (for understandable reasons, because it hurts), that's the signal that's sent out to the later generations: This hurts, we don't go here.

I'm really interested in family mythology. I'm interested in family secrets, and what we tell and don't tell each other. If you don't sort out your trauma, your hurt, your loss, you're going to keep replaying it, ad nauseam. There are these scenes of the closeness versus distance of mothers and daughters. The ways you lose different family members. You lose them to themselves, they withdraw into drugs, boys. You lose them to other countries. I think in diaspora the stakes are just higher. The family itself becomes a kind of country. What happens when an arm of that country breaks off? And so you're doomed to replay that in the next generation, and the generation after that. I've always been very fascinated by that idea, and fascinated that when you are living in exile the family structure and what it means for the different members is drastically different. --Noah Cruickshank

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