Hala Alyan knows how to balance identities. The Brooklyn-based Palestinian-American spent her childhood moving between the United States and the Middle East; at thirty years old, she’s a licensed practicing psychologist, award-winning author of three poetry collections, and, now, a novelist. It makes sense, then, that Salt Houses, her stunning debut, offers such a piercing examination of displacement, identity, faith, and what one character refers to as a lifetime of “emotional code-switching.”
The book begins in Jerusalem in 1963, with a mother reading her daughter’s future in the bottom of her coffee cup and hoping she’s seeing it wrong. From there, it follows the Yacoub family over four generations and across three continents, in a series of chapters that leapfrog years and read almost like discrete short stories. Through these snapshots, Alyan illustrates the heartache of war, the perseverance of family, and the sense of unsettledness that can permeate a life in exile. I got her on the phone to talk a bit more about these themes.
You’ve published collections of poetry in the past—what’s it been like transitioning into prose?
For whatever reason, it’s a lot easier for me to organize my thoughts around poetry collections, maybe because it’s a little bit more straightforward. I’m more of an instant gratification person; you work on a poem, and then you have a poem to show for it. Mostly up until I started working on Salt Houses, I’d done short stories and poetry collections. One of those short stories actually ended up being the second chapter of the novel.
When I wrote it, I found myself really interested in this family, drawn into the character’s life but also wondering what was going to happen to his sister, what was going to happen to his mom, and so I started working backwards and forwards through time. I keep describing it as tricking myself, but I just sort of had to pretend it wasn’t a novel, like, I’m just working for 30 minutes every day, it’s not really a novel, it’s just a longer project. Then after a couple years, it was done.
It feels so relevant to the conversation right now regarding immigration and the refugee crisis, but it also illuminates how, for a large population, this has been relevant for a very long time. Is displacement something you’ve always thought about, as a Palestinian-American?
Yes. I remember, when I was a kid, the stories I wanted to read were Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club—I’ve always found myself really interested and drawn to immigrant stories. There’s a lot more media attention on those sort of narratives right now because they’re very pressing, and relevant to the political landscape of the moment. But I was born to immigrants, and we also moved around a lot. I was shuttled back and forth between the Middle East and the States. So I was constantly thinking about place and city and home and belonging and diaspora.
And obviously there are hundreds of ways to tell an immigrant story, but it felt important for me to write this one using the multi-generational format, as a way to show how different things get inherited when we’re talking about diaspora and immigration across generations, and how things get lost.
These characters you’ve created often disagree about where to draw the line between preserving tradition and assimilating to the new culture, and there’s a lot of talk about what gets lost in that compromise. Can you tell me about what that means to you, that compromise between honoring tradition and adapting?
I don’t know that there’s one straightforward way to do it. Something always gets lost in the process of immigration, of migration and translocation. What gets lost really depends on the family norms, family cultures, where you move, what the host country is like, and whether you have access to the home country or not. I’m really interested in diasporas and refugee movements where the home country is cut off, so it’s lost not just to the people who’ve immigrated, but also to the future generations, who then end up kind of developing a relationship with a place they may never have set foot in. That place then is really just a representation of what the parents or grandparents or great-grandparents have carried with them, and it ends up being about honoring an idea more than an actual place.
And then you have the importance of stories, of carrying on those histories. Do you see writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, as an act of resistance or a form of activism in itself?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. This is a time where—regardless of what people think of the historical moment that we’re all in—you’re going to see art flourish. You’re going to see some incredible literature, comedy, artwork, and music come out of it, because these are the sort of spaces where things like that become more urgent and more important. Stories that don’t fit within the mainstream narrative become that much more compelling, not just to the audience but also to the storyteller. It’s that much more urgent for them to tell it. I absolutely think of writing as an act of resistance. It’s an act of memory-making, it’s an act of memory preservation.
How do you feel about the intersection of place and identity? So much of Salt Houses is about people who feel splintered, and about what migration does to your understanding of yourself.
It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Because of the amount of moving I did throughout my life, especially up until my college years, I became a completely different person. In order to adapt, psychologically speaking, you look at your environment’s demands, and you look at the conditions that need to be met. It’s very much a survival tactic; it’s very much an act of self-preservation. You learn pretty quickly that there are certain things you need to understand in this new environment, or else you’re not going to survive it.
Certain parts of the identity are necessarily forfeited, or they become very private—and that can involve dress, food, language, certain things that you might be able to do freely in the home country. We’re in a powerful, heartbreaking moment, because I think this is a time where people are like, “Don’t speak certain languages in airports.” Right? “Be careful with how you’re dressing on the subway.” You might still have certain beliefs and values, but those may necessarily be ushered into more of a private sphere.
Which feels like it would be really taxing, to always have to police yourself, constantly being aware of your surroundings.
Absolutely. But also there’s a privilege that comes with being of a later generation, because you might be able to put certain things on display. I can talk about certain things without fear because I have a passport, because I was born in this country. There’s a certain luxury there, that, in today’s climate, people who weren’t born in this country or who are here on a visa don’t have.
You’re a practicing psychologist—how does that inform your writing?
I feel like the two complement each other really well. Studying psychology, I had to learn about the psyche, human dynamics, and family structures, and in therapy, when I’m the clinician, I’m constantly thinking about intention and desire and motivation and what’s driving people to do certain things. That really helps in character development, when I’m thinking about fiction. My training helped me ask a lot of the right questions when I was trying to develop the characters and what would be likely to happen next within the family.
On a simpler level, I’m just a curious person. I’ve always been a little snoop-y, so it’s not shocking that I’m a therapist and like to hear about people’s lives, and that I also like to write about people’s lives. That curiosity, which you learn how to hone in a more sublimated way as a therapist, ends up being helpful in writing, because you’re like, Okay, what am I looking for here? If I was this in person in 1970-whatever, in Kuwait, what would I be most curious about?
Is it weird for you to think about your clients reading your work?
That’s a big one. I’m really dealing with that now. More and more, I’ve had people find me through my work. If you read a poem of mine in a journal, at the very bottom is a bio that says, “is a practicing psychologist.” That self-disclosure is already made before the person even walks in the door. And I’ve been relatively forthright about it because, honestly, this is an age where anybody can Google anybody, and most people do. They should. If I was about to start working with a therapist, I’d probably Google that person and see what their deal was.
I feel like when people bring it up, I try to make as much of a space and try to be as welcoming as possible and as willing as possible to have those conversations, because even if it’s at times uncomfortable for me, it’s important for the client to feel like they have a space where they can talk about what it means for them that their therapist wrote about this or that. For the most part, and I’m going to jinx myself now, I would say that it’s helped develop stronger therapeutic alliances. I’m doing a vulnerable thing in writing, they’re doing a vulnerable thing in coming in for therapy, and I feel like it sort of strengthens this idea that we’re all human here. We’re all doing the best we can.
Has your family read the book?
My father refuses to read it until it’s out properly. So does my mother. My brother has read it; my husband has read it. To be honest I was fiercely protective of it up until the advance copies came out, and then I gave it to a few family members. I was telling this to my brother the other day: Their feedback, that in itself, made everything worth it. Whatever happens next—and I do hope it resonates with people, that it’s a story people can see themselves in, or at least it’s a story that pushes people’s perspectives of immigrants and Palestinians—the feedback I’ve gotten from my family has been so lovely. I definitely borrowed from a lot of structural events with immigration that happened in my family, but not so much basing characters on them, because they would kill me. [Laughs.]
Are those stories you already knew, or did you find yourself doing a lot of research while writing?
I asked a lot of questions. My dad was super helpful in that process, and really willing to tell different stories, or ask my grandfather stories. It could be as basic as, “Did people drink in Kuwait in the eighties? And if they did, where did they drink?” Or asking my aunt, who was a bit of a wild card back then, “Where did you party?” A lot of it was gathering family stories, which was such a gratifying process in and of itself, and then culling it for details that I could use in the book.
And what’s the story behind the title?
It was actually titled something different at first, but when we finished all the edits and it was time to send it out, my agent was like, “You need to change the title. It’s not relevant.”
So I was going over different notes, and thinking about the themes that were most salient in the book, which words were repeated. Obviously there were houses, homes. And I thought about this one scene, where one of the characters talks about remembering all of the different houses that he and his family have lived in over the decades, and thinking of them as structures made of salt that the tide can come and erase. Salt houses. That was it.