Heart-wrenching yet delicate words from Williamsburg-based author, poet and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan have appeared everywhere from The New York Times and The Missouri Review to Poetry Magazine and Guernica. At intimate readings hosted for Brooklyn’s literary community in her own backyard, Alyan can appear soft-spoken. Don’t be fooled.
There’s real power behind this Palestinian- American’s voice, encapsulated in stanzas of her acclaimed poetry volume “The Twenty-Ninth Year,” an elegiac autobiography that leaps from war-torn cities in the Middle East to Brooklyn brownstones as easily as it does from alcoholism to recovery. One poem titled “Moral Inventory” offers a particular gut punch: “Maybe I’m more like Manhattan than I want to admit: prettier when lit.”
Born in Carbondale, Illinois, Alyan also grew up in Oklahoma, Texas, Maine and Lebanon. Her family moved to Kuwait but sought political asylum in the U.S. when Iraqi forces invaded the country. She holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from Rutgers University and has practiced part-time at NYU’s Counseling Center — an intense technical training that taught Alyan to navigate the tenuous emotions at play throughout her own writing.
She’s also a novelist and actress. Her 2017 debut novel, “Salt Houses,” won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Arab American Book Award. Her sophomore novel, “The Arsonist’s City” (2021), shares a rich family story and a personal look at the legacy of war in the Middle East. Kirkus Reviews called it “painful and joyous, sad and funny — impossible to put down.”
In addition to publishing Alyan’s poetry, The New Yorker reviewed “Tallahassee,” a short film Alyan created and stars in with Darine Hotait, where “a woman covers up her struggles, and finds herself disconnected at a family celebration.” The film was nominated for Best Narrative Short Film at the Cairo Shorts Film Festival last December.