Hala Alyan (instagram.com/hala.n.alyan) is the Palestinian-American author of Salt Houses, a work of historical fiction following the story of four generations of the fictional Palestinian middle-class family, the Yacoubs. Published in 2017, the book has been named best book of the year by NPR, Nylon, Kirkus Reviews, Bustle, and BookPage. She is also a renowned poetess and clinical psychologist. We were extremely happy and honored to get to know her better.
- How can literature play a central role in introducing Palestine to the West?
I love literature but I don’t think it’s a replacement for policy change. I do however think that literature can help capture the imaginations and curiosity of communities that don’t know about a particular country/struggle. When you combine that with structural change, it can be a powerful and beautiful thing.
- Memory and destiny are the Ariadne’s thread in Salt Houses. Why do you think it is important to show and speak about this thread?
I’m very interested in the concept of destiny and, by extension, philosophical debates about free will, determinism and everything in between. It’s fascinating to me how certain cultures integrate the concept of destiny or fate into their norms, and I really enjoyed writing about that in SH, particularly as it connected to external events like war and displacement. The concept of destiny can sometimes be perversely liberating in the face of pain and despair, a way of relenting, even accepting.
- Salt Houses recounts the story of the Yacoub family from different perspectives. Why is it important to tell this story giving voice to people from different generations?
For me, the story of dispossession and diaspora is one that happens across the lifespan. As a psychologist, I think a lot about intergenerational trauma, and it felt impossible to tell the story of Palestinian diaspora without considering how that trauma would manifest different across generations. It also, selfishly, was really exhilarating to write from so many different perspectives.
- Does your work as a psychologist influence your writing? If yes, how?
Absolutely. Training as a psychologist hones your capacity to ask certain questions about human motivation, desire, fear, etc., all of which is very useful when thinking about character development. To be a good psychologist is to cultivate your curiosity and empathy, and I think that skill directly translates to novelists as well.
- In the writing process, what inspires you most?
When you surrender to the writing process; when you are in the midst of “flow.” It’s so hard to describe it, but I believe most people experience this state at some point: when you are fully attentive to the task, when it feels like you are more conduit than creator. It’s such a magical thing to bear witness to.