December 11, 2018KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiterature

“We transform among chaos”: A Conversation with Hala Alyan

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 the winner of the Arab American Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your stunning new collection of poetry, The Twenty-Ninth Year, takes liminal spaces — and the transformations that happen within them — as one of its primary considerations.  The speakers of these poems drift between cultures and languages, they oscillate between vice and virtue, and they are asked to choose among an array of possible selves, futures, and histories.  What draws you to these thresholds and liminal spaces as an artistic subject?

Hala Alyan:  What a generous description! I believe what draws me is lived experience. Throughout my life, I’ve been surrounded by people who’ve made homes in liminal spaces, borderlanding between identities, cultures and duties. It’s been my own experience as well. When it comes to creating authentic work, these are the spaces that tend to populate my stories and poems, not least of all because—as you mentioned—these are often the backdrops for personal transformation. We transform among chaos; that’s usually where we learn the most about ourselves.

KMD:  Your work reminds us that in these liminal spaces, the rules no longer hold.  I’m fascinated by the ways your female speakers claim power in these transitional moments. What does the space between things, that glittering aperture, that threshold, make possible for women’s voices?

HA:  I think that the borderland and the liminal become a sort of home themselves. It can be the space where things are challenged and rewritten, where new forms of storytelling flourish and occupied language can be reclaimed. The female speakers in the collection are all in various stages of evolution, and realizing how much is at stake if they don’t tell the truth.

KMD:  The poems in The Twenty-Ninth Year also exist in the space between forms and genres. I’d love to hear more about how this innovative approach to form relates to your poetics of social justice and female empowerment.  Is questioning the boundaries of form and genre an inherently feminist act?  Why?

HA:  I think questioning the status quo/standard of anything is inherently an act of protest and resistance, which of course is in line with intersectional feminism. Often times, established forms of poetics simply do service to marginalized narratives, and the stories we need to tell. The only thing that the poet can do in that situation is adapt—I think for a long time, there’s been a literary tradition of asking the poet to do the adapting, and now there’s more of an expectation for the form to do the adapting.

KMD:  You’re also an accomplished novelist.  Your debut work of fiction, Salt Houses, has garnered praise from The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and New York Magazine, to name only a few.  How has writing fiction enriched your craft as a poet?

HA:  I love this question, because I’m usually asked the reverse—how poetry has impacted my fiction. Fiction requires more discipline for me, a dedicated practice and the carving out of space and emotional resources to engage in the craft. Before I started writing fiction more seriously, I considered poetry to be more whimsical, mood-dependent: I’d write when I felt like it. But the last year or so, I’ve noticed a change in my approach to poetry—setting aside pledged time to both read and produce poems. Fiction has taught me to think in more plot-driven ways, which I think has served my poetry, allowing me to start asking myself What’s the story here, what’s the narrative?, even in the most compact pieces.

KMD:  What advice do you have for practicing poets who are interested in making a leap to prose writing?  What obstacles should they anticipate, and how can they overcome them?

HA:  The biggest piece of advice is to find a ritual that works for you and make it non-negotiable. It could be a set amount of time or words per day, a particular corner in your house set up for whenever you feel inspired—whatever it is, make a space for the practice in your life. Also, read. Read the best novels you can find. Read novels by authors you wouldn’t normally seek out. Challenge your understanding of what prose is or needs to look like. It’s hard to identify specific obstacles, since the process is so individualized, but I do think that having a community of writers and readers really helps, particularly when you get the agent-seeking stage. You’ll likely encounter plenty of rejections before you get a “yes,” and it’s good to be surrounded by a supportive tribe in the meantime.

KMD:  What poets inspire you?  What non-literary texts have been most formative for your thinking as a writer?

HA:  I’d honestly say that nearly every poet I’ve ever come across has impacted me in some way or another. The ones that I’ve been most preoccupied with the last few months are Marwa Helal, Ruth Awad, Meghan Plunkett, George Abraham, Aja Monet, Ladan Osman, Leila Chatti, Solmaz Sharif, and my brother, Talal. Also—I love dictionaries. I always have. One of my favorite things to do is open them to a random page, pick a word, and meditate on it, try to create something around it.

KMD:  What are you working on?  What can readers look forward to?

HA:  I’m currently working on a new novel about a Lebanese-Syrian family of expats living in California that return to Beirut to sell their ancestral home.