Witness the Hour: Conversations with Arab-American Poets Across the Diaspora

Led by poet Claudia F. Savage, a mostly quarterly interview series

Hala Alyan

The fourth installment of the series, a conversation with Hala Alyan.

There are poets who use metaphor with such skill that you feel their images as a part of your body — “because a woman/ who knows war knows deliverance, her mouth a sea/ of sharks trapped in coral,” Hala Alyan writes, and, “do not underestimate me… I can fashion a corset out of horns.” Alyan, a Palestinian American poet, novelist, and clinical psychologist, has lived all over the globe and wears ancestral memory like another skin. In her work, war and devotion and displacement and sex mingle: “Even the plundered would have smiled/ at our singing….We must have looked careless, licking jam from our fingers…/ I kept a bullet from that spring.”

Pleasure is often mixed with guilt, as in “Winter Altar:”

I do ballerina stretches.
I twirl
for every smiling man.
They will all die. I know that now.

In her early 30s, Alyan has written three books of acclaimed poetry (Atrium, Four Cities, and Hijra) and the novel, Salt Houses, about a Palestinian family that is uprooted by the Six-Day War of 1967 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. ( The Twenty-Ninth Year, Alyan’s fourth book of poetry, is forthcoming in January 2019).

With each book Alyan delves further into what it is to be exiled and how love makes it possible to continue— “When the army burst through the city walls…the mother got into a car and drove east…she pulled the blue passport into the air, she cursed it and cursed it and raised it to her lips.”

Nablus, a city in the northern West Bank (photo by Hala Alyan)

Claudia F. Savage: Your poems capture a kind of Arab American heart that always seems to be breaking. In “Dinner:”

We light taper candles to give the meal
a crown. The sangria you made with ice
and lemon and real cane sugar. I fish out morsels of
cherry and apple with bare fingers.
 What we do not say crowds us with manic teeth:
the failing light, the junkyard coffins,
 the forests receiving bodies like wife.
The names, they shutter with distant lights:
 Gaza. Homs. Alexandria. O, Damascus.

Do you set out to place every day moments alongside ancestral heartache or does that heartache just arise naturally?

Hala Alyan: That sort of heartache transpires organically; it’s almost prosaic in its simplicity — if your ancestors were displaced, you by extension are displaced as well. If people that share your kinship and legacy are being occupied or marginalized, then you are carrying that with you, through breakfasts and subway delays and spousal arguments. That doesn’t mean that those of us who contain significant privilege shouldn’t acknowledge it, but the reality is that we inherit ancestral loss along with eye color.

Jbail, Lebanon (photo by Hala Alyan)

CFS: “Beirut never/ saved me” you say in your collection, Four Cities, and, in the phenomenal poem, “Push” you list a dozen places and what they mean to you. It seems that certain places might offer some level of succor for what ails the speaker. In your NPR interview you said, “for a very long time I felt like I belonged nowhere. The last couple of years I’ve sort of been reconceptualizing it — like, I kind of belong everywhere.” Are there landscapes that have provided peace for you?

HA: Absolutely. Landscapes can be a sort of balm. For me, the places that have provided comfort have shifted throughout the years, often corresponding with the phase-of-life I’ve been in at the time. For instance, Beirut mirrored my years of adolescent upheaval; a quieter neighborhood in Brooklyn my pull to domesticity. Throughout it all, however, there have certainly been consistent landscapes or backdrops that I seek solace in — the sea, dive bars (even though I’m sober), trains, anywhere the adan can be heard regularly, places that are warm in December (like the Gulf), balconies in Lebanon.

Hala Alyan at TEDxBrooklyn reciting “Dear Gaza” and talking about the power of storytelling and remembrance, “history sheds land shamelessly as clothing”

CFS: What is it about dive bars specifically that provides solace?

HA: That sense of familiarity, even if it’s the first time I enter one. I know this is a controversial thing to say as someone sober, but dives always feel well-loved to me, like a worn sweater or cozy couch. They feel like places where people will share their secrets.

Bethlehem (photo by Hala Alyan)

CFS: The smells in your poems leap off the page. What is your favorite scent? Where does it originate or what do you associate with it?

HA: Oh, I love this question. It has to be jasmine. I associate it with my grandmother, with the Middle East, with the first perfume my mother bought me. It’s so quintessentially Arab in my mind. It reminds me of dusk, when the light is perfect and you’re hungry and it’s time to go home.

Hala Alyan “What I Mean to Say When I Say I Loved Him”

CFS: That’s delicious. How have the languages you speak or inhabit changed the quality of your poems? The line, in “The Letter Home”: “Tell her…how [your son] says his name all wrong in this country, like someone has cleared his mouth of bells” gutted me. Are there particular words that hold a lot of weight for you? Are there others that you are afraid of losing?

HA: Whenever people can’t pronounce cities in their native (or mother) tongue, that’s always a bit heartbreaking for me, but the truth is that’s not some personal failing — it’s the result of systems of displacement, colonialism and occupation. The most effective colonizers are the ones that replaced the native language with their own. Many of us are victims of that. I feel beyond fortunate that I can speak and understand Arabic but, having grown up between the United States and Middle East, my reading/writing capability is at a third-grader’s level. I can’t write poetry in my grandmother’s language. I can’t read the books she read. That always feels like a profound loss for me.

CFS: And what of the line: “I want to say teach/ me how to love one country/ without hating the other.” This is one of my favorites because it speaks to the experience of so many displaced peoples. It also has incredible intimacy, as if you were talking about a failed relationship with a person. Have you reconciled this question or do you feel it is an ongoing conversation?

HA: Thank you. It is certainly an ongoing dialogue, with myself and with others. I feel like I’m learning to sit with the dialectical realities of loving a place but also hating what it does to its most vulnerable, for instance. No place is immune to that. I think for a long time it felt intensely like if I was to love a country, it had to mean I was loving all of it, but that’s proven to be an impossible feat. And in fact, I’d say that hating parts of a place (discrimination, political conflict, violence, etc.) is an act of love, because it’s choosing to invest emotional real estate in something outside of yourself.

Ramallah, in the central West Bank (photo by Hala Alyan)

CFS: I completely agree. Since our past presidential election, far too many artists I know have left the country. But, we need those people, especially those people, to stay and resist right now. Do you feel like your poetry offers you a method of resistance to what is happening here and in Palestine?

HA: Absolutely. Writing and other forms of artwork challenge the status quo and highlight underheard narratives, which often times have undergone erasure. Telling our stories is resistance. Not forgetting is resistance. I believe in the power of writing — poetry or otherwise — to impact other because, by virtue of consuming these stories, people change. I think it’s important to supplement poetry and story-telling with donating,

CFS: Can you recommend any organizations you would donate to?

HA: I’ve recently been donating to:

CFS: Speaking of maintaining stories and language, your books have a lot of myth in them — Greek and Arab. I’m obsessed with your line, “I am the fable with a mouth.” Does this have to do with rewriting history or just the need to tell the history of a people constantly relocated?

HA: Both for sure. For a fable to be bred it needs mouths or, at the very least, a mouth. It also needs a witness, but that’s another story. We become the stories we tell over and over again, and that’s what I’m most interested in about mythology and folklore — how they become embedded in our families, our larger societies, even our sense of selfhood. To retell a story or rewrite a fable, you also need a mouth — and a loud voice, be it written or spoken or painted or imagined.

Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem

CFS: And with that notion of the poet’s mouth, you’ve said you write certain poems for the page and others for performance. How does embodying, or performing your work, fuel your poetry? Are there poems you put on the page that you could never perform? (I’m thinking of the poem, “Amna” — where a woman kills her child before soldiers get to her — which, as a mother, I could never perform.)

HA: I’d say most of my written poems never get read aloud, mostly because it feels like the wrong form for them. It would be like trying to sing a dance. My embodiment and performance work certainly helped me pay more attention to rhythm and musicality in my writing, and I think I keep a subconscious tempo even when I write things like essays or fiction. I think in particular I’d have a difficult time ever reading my longer prose poems aloud, because those seem like they’d be changed — in meaning, in function — if performed.

Bethlehem (photo by Hala Alyan)

CFS: I read that you tried for a time to dismiss your dreams but now you embrace them:

I dreamt of it again. The blood everywhere.
They tire you, I know,
irksome,
these catastrophes
I bed.

How do you retain and capture the intricacies of your dreams so well? What do they offer your poems?

HA: I truly think of my dreaming as a blessing nowadays. It’s an uncluttered channel into my subconscious, into the part of myself that might be too ashamed to lucidly admit what it wants or fears or needs. I wish I could explain the mechanism that allows me to recall dreams relatively well; it just happens. It’s as true for good dreams as it is for nightmares, which feels like a beautiful metaphor for life.

CFS: Your work has that kind of balance in it. It also has a lot of blood. Blood is everywhere — menstruation, war wounds, sacrifice of animals and people, “the red desire of our bodies.” What does the word “blood” mean to you?

HA: Blood is birth and rebirth and the very essence of life. Alongside breath, it’s the visceral manifestation of what keeps all of us singing and laughing and existing. It’s interesting because until you pointed this out, it had never even occurred to me that blood is a constant theme of my work but as I reflect on it — of course it is. It’s what courses through us every second of every day of our lives.

CFS: Do you believe there is a way through intergenerational trauma when the war continues? Please help me ask the right question here. What is the right question?

HA: I think that’s a wonderful and intuitive question. Yes, there is, but only if fundamental human rights are met. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — it’s absurd to ask someone to pursue their career dreams if they don’t have a place to sleep every night. Healing requires some semblance of stability, even if that stability is scrappy. I know people who have recreated their culture and heritage in basement apartments crowded with extended families, who’ve taught their mother tongue to their children in foreign countries, who’ve memorized old recipes by heart. This is how culture persists. This is how intergenerational trauma is faced and ultimately mitigated.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, SALT HOUSES, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and was longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize.

Claudia F. Savage is one-half of the improvising performance duo and parent-artist podcasters Thick in the Throat, Honey. Her poems and interviews have been published in Water-Stone Review, Denver Quarterly, BOMB, Columbia, clade song, Cordella, Late Night Library, and Bookslut, among others. Her latest book, Bruising Continents, was described as “a love story that reveals eros properly seen is a force as monumental as continental drift.” Her collaboration on motherhood and ephemerality, reductions,with Detroit visual artist Jacklyn Brickman is forthcoming in Chicago and Columbus in 2018. Find her at Claudia F. Savage.