PROFILE: Exploring fractured Palestinian identities with author Hala Alyan

Phoebe Leila Barghouty

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When Hala Alyan started writing the stories that eventually became Salt Houses, she didn’t realize she had started writing her first novel. It happened little by little.

She’d get one story on paper, then realize she wanted to know more about the characters she had just brought to life – their family tree, their treasured heirlooms, their paths to displacement.

Salt Houses is an intergenerational story that follows the diaspora of a displaced Palestinian family. The novel hops between decades and generations, painting intimate portraits of how Palestinian identity is molded by place, era, and inheritance.

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As a Palestinian-American herself, much of the inspiration for Salt Houses came from Alyan’s own experiences.

Born in the United States, but raised across the Middle East and elsewhere, Alyan has spent much of her career – as both a writer and a practicing clinical psychologist – helping those with fractured identities reconcile their sense of self.

“For those of us who have hyphenated identities – who feel bicultural, who feel like we belong to more than one culture or have allegiance to more than one part of the world – often times it feels like we don’t belong 100 percent anywhere,” Alyan explains.

Adversity and prejudice

As Arabs, Muslims, and all people of color in the United States begin to face more adversity and prejudice under the country’s current administration, the prevalence of this kind of cultural isolation has become even more palpable.

“Especially today in the States, the amount of safe spaces that exist for people who are are marginalized or different in any way are shrinking,” Alyan says, “And so I think it becomes more important than ever for people to feel a sense of belonging somewhere.”

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Illustrating these conflicting feelings wasn’t easy for Alyan, even though she had her own life to refer to. While Western media and Eurocentric narratives tend to push a pan-Arab experience, the reality is that there is no single way of telling this story.

“There is not one representative experience. There are just as many experiences of being Arab as there are Arabs,” Alyan says. And that goes for all identities, not just hers or the ones she explored in her novel.

Justice to characters

Recognizing this reality early on was paramount in Alyan’s writing process. Instead of focusing on how her audience might interpret her stories, she focused on doing justice to the characters she was creating – getting to know them and satisfying all the curiosities she had about them.

“I really think curiosity can save the world as naive as that sounds,” Alyan says. The more curious we are, she goes on, the more likely we are to expose ourselves to narratives and realities that might make us uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is often the first step in learning, changing, and evolving.

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Salt Houses follows the cracks and fractures created by displacement through one specific family’s history.

Exploring themes of belonging, kinship, and both tangible and intangible inheritance, Salt Houses asks the question that many displaced people, regardless of origin, are often haunted by their entire lives: who am I in relation to everyone around me?

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