Hala Alyan’s debut novel Salt Houses spans four generations in the life of a family on the West Bank, following their journey from the early 60s to the present day. Through all of the challenges the family endures—wars, invasions, love affairs, and displacement—they are held together by the luminous Alia. Equal parts headstrong and effervescent, Alia loves her family with a fierce compassion and remains bonded to them as various forces compel them to move to Kuwait, Beirut, Boston, and Paris. Alyan’s background as a clinical psychologist is evident throughout the novel, as characters big and small thrum with an emotional complexity that stays with the reader long after she’s finished the book. The Millions praised Salt Houses as a “heartbreaking and important story” while Bustle said that it “illuminates the heartache and permanent unsettledness experienced by refugees all over the world.” Alan spoke with Brendan Dowling via telephone on April 18th.
The book follows a Palestinian family over four generations. What was it like to approach the same character at different points in his or her life?
I actually had the most fun with that part of it. I think this is where the psychology training comes in, where it took a lot of imagination to delve into these people’s minds and ask myself, “What would a person who had been raised in Nablus miss ten years later when they’re in Kuwait? What sort of ways in which not having the community that they grew up around affect how they’re raising their children or how they feel connected to their children?” For lack of a better word, it required diving into the characters’ psyches and trying to imagine what it would be like to be these people.
I also feel very lucky that I know a lot of people who lived in the West Bank during that time, who lived in Kuwait during the times that are outlined in the book, people who lived in Paris during those times. Once I got some of the environmental details fleshed out from people it was just a matter of trying to be as curious as possible.
You touched on this a little bit in your previous answer, but how has your background as a clinical psychologist affected your writing?
A lot of the skills that require you to be a good therapist and a good writer are similar. You have to be very curious in both fields, you have to be observant, and you have to pay a lot of attention. One of the things learning about psychopathology and family dynamics helped me with is character development of the narrative.
More than anything else you’re trained to pay attention and to look for patterns. People will come in and give you jigsaw puzzle pieces of symptoms and it’s your job as the therapist to help the person build a coherent narrative around that. And fiction works very similarly. A lot of the times you’re working in the dark and aren’t sure what the characters are going to do or if any of this is going to turn into anything. It requires a certain amount of patience and a belief that the whole will eventually emerge if you remain faithful to the details.
In terms of building a coherent narrative for your characters, did you have an idea about where certain characters were going to end up during your writing process?
Nope! (laughs) I’ve learned a lot from this first book and I’m trying to learn from it for future things I write. I did not write chronologically. I would write whatever scene came to me at whatever random time and it was hell to stitch it together. In some ways it allowed me to remain really engaged and excited by the process. I felt like I was the vehicle through which these stories were being told and I was just as surprised when someone ran away with someone else or they decided to move to Paris.
I wish I could say this was really thought out and I had a beautiful outline. I did not. (laughs) Everything had to be tightened up in the editing process for sure. The first draft in no way looks like what it ultimately ended up looking like because there were a lot of loose threads. Things had to be rearranged after the fact just for the plot to make more sense and the story to be tighter. But as I was writing it was more like, “What do I think this person would do next? What setting do I want to write about?”
“Where do I want to see them in twenty years?”
Exactly! It was a very whimsical process that worked really well for a debut but is not super sustainable for someone trying to be a writer in the long term. But it made it fun.
In terms of writing from that sense of whimsy and following different members of the family, was it hard not to follow certain characters?
You have to understand the book was probably five or six chapters longer. In the process of the editing, it was really like killing my darlings. In the end it was one hundred percent the right call because it made it all tighter and make a lot more sense.
I had a lot more attention paid to the younger generation—shockingly, because I’m a narcissist. (laughs) I belong to the newer generation and felt like we need to know what they’re going through! (laughs) So I had a lot more stakes in them. It took several people being like, “Listen, we like these things. Turn them into short stories maybe, but when you zoom out, the heart of this story is Alia. The heart of this story is that marriage and everything else is a branch that comes out from it, so we just have to tighten it a little bit.”
So I had a hard time not following the newer generation further, but at some point it was like, this book has to end eventually. I can’t just keep writing about this family forever! So that’s what ended up happening.
How did you land on Alia as the character you wanted to follow?
You know I didn’t, or I did unconsciously. In the process of having these interviews and answering these questions a lot of the times people point out patterns and things that existed that I wasn’t consciously even trying to create. I don’t know that I ever sat down and thought, “Alia’s the beating heart of this book and I want to start with her.” I knew early on that I wanted her to have the last word and I wanted the book to end with her. But I don’t remember ever thinking, “I’m going to check in with her regularly and she’s always going to make an appearance.”
But the more that I wrote and the more that I got to know this quirky scattered family, I realized the thing that holds them together and the continuous thread throughout is Alia. Even if it’s not in person during a chapter—even if it’s over the phone or someone randomly thinking of her when they’re trying on a garment—she really is part of the consciousness of this book.
She’s a woman who was born in the late 40s or 50s, what kind of research did you do to flesh out the world that she would have grown up in?
I based her in a lot of ways on my grandmother, in the ways that I wish my grandmother had been—a little feistier, a little more selfish, and a little more self-interested. I loved the idea of someone having those characteristics long before feminism came along and said you could have them.
In terms of making it seem authentic, it was looking to how she lived her life and what were the things she seemed to miss the most about all the houses and cities and places she left behind. More practically, she couldn’t be a source of a lot of it because she had dementia. So while I was writing the book she had lost a lot of her memory. This book really felt like a race against the clock to recreate memory, even if it was fictionalized. I had to ask my father’s oldest brother who’s in his late sixties what was it like when they had to leave Gaza. There was a lot of just getting in touch with random family members—second aunts, third cousins, who I didn’t really know.
I also tapped into the community I already have in New York. So asking people who had been in Nablus during the Six-Day War, what day would they realistically have been able to leave? What day would they know something was going wrong? A lot of it was trying to piece together teeny-tiny details from all these different narratives and ask myself how would it have fit into this particular person’s life to try to make her as authentic and fleshed out as possible.
With that kind of primary research on family members, were there stories you had never heard before?
Absolutely. My family isn’t quite as shut down around the topic of Palestine as the Yacoub family, where at some points it’s described as a wound. It wasn’t quite as much like that in my family, but certainly it was something that had to be asked about. The older the family members were the less likely they were to bring it up. I discovered how much profound loss has been experienced in the last eight or nine decades, just how much loss has been experienced in a single lifetime by all of these people—from my immediate family to my grandparents to my uncles and my aunts.
It had never really occurred to me the courage it takes to start over, because my perspective was as a child, which was hard in its own ways. You’re moving constantly, you’re in a new school—that’s hard. But it hadn’t really occurred to me how difficult it would be to open a bank account in a country where you didn’t speak the language, or go about getting social security numbers, or have to deal with people giving you nasty looks at the gas station where you work.
It has made me more aware of my privilege as somebody who speaks English without an accent and looks relatively ethnically ambiguous if my hair is tied back. It gave me information and insight into my family, but it also gave me insight into how my siblings and I have had a vastly different experience than my cousins who never left Kuwait, or my cousins who went to Syria and only left a few years ago, or my cousins who went to Wichita and never left and are Kansas through and through.
In your TedTalk you discussed the role that storytelling plays for members of displaced communities and the diaspora. Did you find that idea significant when writing this book?
Absolutely. To be honest with you, I haven’t quite made sense of what this is going to mean for me yet. But I can say it was incredibly healing and cathartic to write this down. It felt like I was doing my tiny part in trying to keep these narratives alive. It was just a very small nod in the direction of my family and my legacy and the things I’ve inherited from the people who came before me.
I come from a family where storytelling is very important. The vehicle of that storytelling is different depending on the member. For some people it’s writing, for some people it’s telling bedtime stories, for some people it’s journalism. The idea of reclaiming that voice and putting it towards writing as detailed a glimpse as I possibly could of several generations of a family where the most interesting thing about them wasn’t that they were Palestinian, but that they were people who were living their lives—it felt like an emotional exorcism of sorts. It felt very grounding and centering by the time it was done. It was very painful to write at times. I’m finding it painful to reread right now, but I’m just happy that it’s there and it’s done. I’m just very grateful that it’s there.
And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?
So when we first moved to Oklahoma I didn’t speak English-
And how old were you?
Well technically five. [Hussein] invaded when I was four, then we were in Syria for a little bit of time. We were in Oklahoma for a bit, Texas for a year, and then back to Oklahoma until I was in sixth grade. We didn’t have any money, we were on food stamps because my parents lost everything in the war, they were asylum seekers. So my parents would take me to the library because that was the only way we could afford books. It was partly how I learned how to read English.
There’s something about wandering those aisles and being reminded that all of these people felt so compelled to put pen to paper and create something that was a testament to themselves is so gratifying and it reminds me of the best parts of myself. So the library is a very important archetype in my life.