An Interview with Hala Alyan
March 16, 2021
Interviewed by Sarah Neilson, TSW staff
There’s a line in The Arsonists’ City, Hala Alyan’s newly-released sophomore novel after 2017’s Salt Houses, that reads, “A house can endure only so many deaths.” Folded into this line is the literal house at the center of the novel, an inherited house in Beirut which is the site of love, loss, childhood, pain, home, and not least, nostalgia for the characters of this multigenerational story. But on an earth that feels like it’s edging ever further into precarity and destruction, in a time of desperate illness and injustice and climate change, I couldn’t help but think of this as a kind of one-line parable. It is ominous, to be sure, but there’s something hopeful and poetic about it too. When the house has endured, what possibilities come next?
Hala Alyan is a truly wonderful multifaceted thinker, artist, and, it turns out, person to talk to on Zoom. She is the author of several poetry collections in addition to her novels, and also in addition to being a clinical psychologist. The Arsonists’ City is a sweepingly beautiful novel about family in all of its vast complexities and generational iterations, living variously in New York, California, Texas, Lebanon, and Syria. With hypnotic prose and compulsively readable characters, Alyan skillfully delivers a book that buzzes with humanity, humor, love, and grief. I spoke with Alyan over Zoom about the idea of inheritance, art as disruption, nostalgia, and the tenacity of life.
Content warning: discussion of miscarriage.
Sarah Neilson: To start off, I was wondering if we could talk about family and intergenerational relationships. Both of your novels center family. Can you talk about what draws you to write about family, and what family means to you as a person and an artist?
Hala Alyan: Family, unsurprisingly, is pretty crucial to me. My family is a really huge part of my life. My siblings are a really big part of my life, so are my parents. I think a lot about lineage and I think a lot about inheritance and the things we inherit from our families. The book talks a lot about secrets. So it’s like, what are we keeping from our families? What are we taking from them? What are we hiding? I think for me they very much feel like a fundamental relationship, like a baseline relationship. And I recognize it’s not true, it’s not that way for everybody. But at least in my life, family and lineage and place and culture and heritage are all super interconnected.
Sarah: I kind of want to hear more about the importance of inheritance as an idea as it relates to family and intergenerational relationships, in the book but also just in general — how you view what you think of as inheritance.
Hala: When I talk about inheritance, I really don’t think of physical objects at all. I think maybe it’s having an identity where that’s not what we become. This is partly Palestinian and it’s probably the region. Like when Saddam’s invasion happened, my parents lost virtually everything in terms of material, money, objects. Like it was never an option when I got married to “wear my mother’s wedding dress.” There was no mother’s wedding dress. There are no photo albums. In that sense, I think socio-political turmoil and war has, for some of us, made the idea of passing down certain objects impossible because those objects aren’t around to be passed down. So I think of inheritance far more as something theoretical, and psychological, and emotional — what do we inherit in terms of the way that we exist in the world, the things that we look for, and the things that we turn to when we’re afraid, or when we’re sad, or when we’re overwhelmed? When I think of what I’ve inherited, I think of my understanding of what it means to feel connected to the world, or what it means to feel connected to other people, and how I learned a lot of that from my grandmother, or from my parents, or my uncle. It’s much more of an intangible thing. Which is why I think it was fun in the book to play with something tangible like a house, this idea of what does it mean to inherit an object that some people want to hold on to and others don’t, and others feel like is haunted? But in general, in my own life, I think that much more theoretically.
Sarah: Does that tie into your work as a psychologist, too?
Hala: Yeah, I think so. I think I spent a lot of time learning about and thinking about the things that we learned from our caretakers and the things we learned from the people that are prominent figures — oftentimes, parents — in the first few years of our lives, and what we pick up in terms of attachment styles, or ways to deal with conflict, or what we do when we’re sad, or mad, or whatever. I think people don’t realize most of what you do as an adult, you learned when you were young, as a kid. There’s a few crucial years where we get a blueprint for virtually every emotion. Some people are really uncomfortable with being sad. Some people really feel okay getting mad or losing their temper and that’s all been modeled for you at some point. So yeah, I definitely think there’s an overlap there.
Sarah: One of the things that I really liked about the book is how the women, no matter what generation they’re in, they kind of have this deep desire and need for intellectual and artistic stimulation, and they act on it. They pursue art and science, and their curiosities and their passions. And even Eva’s passion for science feels rooted in creativity and curiosity. Not to position science and artist opposites.
Hala: I know exactly what you’re saying. I think that’s a really beautiful way to put it. Yeah, totally.
Sarah: I was wondering if you could talk about centering your characters’ curiosity and their creative lives in your writing.
Hala: I’ve never even thought of that before. The first thing that comes up is, I think curious characters are more exciting to inhabit. They’re more interesting to write because a character that’s sort of apathetic and unengaged in the world around them, it’s kind of hard to write that character. Like, what are you gonna write about? You know what I mean? It would be pretty raw. I really am drawn in literature as a reader, and I think this is reflected in the things that I write, to characters that really choose life over and over and over again, even when they’re downtrodden, even when the circumstances are really hard, they crawl their way back to life. And usually, that is through some moment. Like I’m really—and this I guess probably is a psychology thing, too—I’m fascinated with what it is that brings a person back to life. Like when a person that goes through a long depression, or a terrible breakup, or someone passes away, or a terrible diagnosis or whatever, there are little moments that tug us back to the world, tug our attention back to the present. And I really like to play with that tension in characters. I really like to think about what brings the character back to their existence. I think the answer would be they’re just kind of more fun to be with.
Sarah: There’s a scene where a couple of characters are at an art show in Beirut talking about whether art disrupts colonialism. Can you talk about writing that scene and what your thoughts are on the power and limitations of art to disrupt colonialist and imperialist power?
Hala: That scene was really fun to write because I find that subculture in Beirut to be fascinating. There were a couple of visits when I was there where I just tried to eavesdrop. I would be in an artistic setting or at a cafe or whatever, and just kind of try to listen to what people were talking about.
I think that what we produce, unfortunately, is always going to be limited by the frame in which we produced it. I definitely think art has the power to disrupt colonial legacy and whatnot, but it’s one of those things where it’s also, what is the material that what you’ve created out of? How much does it actually borrow colonial tradition? I’m a writer that’s of Arab origin that writes in English, you know? At the end of the day. And I love that. There’s a quote from Chinua Achebe that reads, “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”
I definitely think that you can write in the colonial language and completely disrupt that frame. But a lot of the times you have been educated within a particular frame, you’ve been exposed to a certain kind of writing. I came up in a time and an era where the writing of the literature that was exalted, was written by a certain kind of person, and even now, what do we consider classics, right? I think that it definitely has the power to disrupt. But I do think that in some ways the frame has its own limitation.
Sarah: I totally agree with that. I think about that all the time. I kind of want to go back to what you said about the house and how that’s an object of inheritance. Because it’s also kind of a metaphor for home, and the idea of home is something that you write and talk about a lot. In The Arsonists’ City, it exists on many levels. But the house is kind of the locus of its conflict and plot. So, I was wondering generally about the relationship between place and home for you, and how you approach exploring both of those things, together and separately.
Hala: I think you’re picking up on something that sort of had a parallel process in me personally, which is that I think The Arsonists’ City talks about home as much more of a theoretical space than Salt Houses. Even the longing for home, there’s more room for it to be kind of a theoretical abstract thing than in Salt Houses; the things the characters in Salt Houses long for are more concrete. They’re more literally the city, literally this place. And I think that has reflected an internal journey that I’ve been on where I have moved away from trying to associate or locate feelings of homesickness with a place, because it hasn’t worked. I can spend a year being really homesick for Lebanon, or Beirut, and then I go to Beirut and I’m like, “It’s not this… It’s got a little bit of this, but it’s also not this.” It’s like something that’s really intangible and hard. Like I’m homesick for a particular time that’s gone, or a particular year, or I’m homesick for being 23, or I’m homesick for my grandmother’s voice — the things are super intangible. I think that that’s reflected more in this novel, where you see people longing for, in some ways, the past, as much as they want for place, and longing for people as much as they want for place. And so I think you see iterations of home in very, very, very different ways throughout the characters and I definitely think that’s been the journey that I’ve been on.
Sarah: Staying with the idea place, how do you reckon with — or maybe embrace is a better term — the complexities of loving a place, or many places, when they are the sites of simultaneous joy and pain?
Hala: It doesn’t feel dissimilar to loving people that have been sources of pain and pleasure and delight. I can’t think of a single meaningful relationship I have that isn’t nuanced, where there have been times where I have failed them, and they have failed me, and we have hurt each other. I’m very much a personifier of spaces and places and houses and rooms. I think there’s something very similar in my conceptualization of place and location, where it’s like they are big enough to contain all of that, and I think, again, being someone whose origin is in a part of the world that is so… what’s the word? It’s so charged. It’s so complicated. These are places that are the sites of a lot of oppression, and also being oppressive, and colonialism, and also in some ways trying to emulate colonial powers and having really conflicted histories with being colonized, and places where there’s really problematic relationships with migrant workers and domestic labor. There’s really a lot going on, and there’s a lot of instability. And again, in my opinion, if you go back far enough, colonial powers set up people in this part of the world to fail 1,000%. But they still are, to your point, they’re still the sites of a lot of complexity and I think pain. But also it’s like, That’s what I associate with my grandparents. That’s where I had my first kiss. That’s where I went to college. I just try to allow for places, like people, to be big enough to contain those multitudes. And it’s hard. There’s a lot of places that I would love to make my home. I would love to go live in Beirut. I would love to go live in different parts of the Middle East, and it just doesn’t feel sustainable right now, which is, I mean, there’s something heartbreaking about that, too.
Sarah: I’m also really interested in memory and nostalgia, because I think they’re both really powerful forces in the book. Can you talk about the importance of memory in the book and the experience of nostalgia and how that intersects with memory, and how maybe it doesn’t?
Hala: Nostalgia, yeah. I think memory is the backbone of the book and I do think in this way it’s similar to the other stuff that I’ve written. I think all of these characters in The Arsonists’ City have a serious problem with nostalgia, and they have a serious problem with being in the present moment and accepting that the past is the past. I think nostalgia warps memory. Some appalling percentage of our memories are false, right? Because we totally tell ourselves stories. But I think even with that being the baseline, when you introduce nostalgia, you are completely rewriting history. You’re completely rewriting what your past meant, or what your childhood meant, or what those courtship years meant. You’re kind of paving over them with a completely different narrative.
So yeah, I think that every single character is doing some sort of battle with the past in the story. They’re all in some way or another afflicted with some sort of selective memory of their history. And for me I think immigration and memory are really, really interesting things to unpack — as a psychologist, as a writer, as whatever. If you are born and raised in the same city, or the same state, something different happens with memory because there’s other people to cue you. Remember that thing that happened when you were seven? There’s like 12 other people that can remember that thing. But then when immigration happens, there’s a dislocation where every place and person that co-remembers with you, you don’t have access to them. That’s something that I’ve seen happen a lot in my family, and with other immigrant families, where it’s like people become the holders and the keepers of memory in a way where it becomes really, really precious. And when anything becomes precious, your relationship with it gets messed up. Because you’re worried about it.
Sarah: We have themed issues here at TSW and the theme of this issue is Rebellious Joy. I wanted to ask you what you think about when you hear that phrase, or those words, and do you think they apply to your work at all?
Hala: I think so. I think of curiosity when I think of rebellious joy. I think of people turning towards life even in the most dire and worn down circumstances. When I hear rebellious joy, I think of people insisting on continuing, and continuing, and continuing — continuing because you have the belief somewhere deep down inside, like deeply, deeply felt, that things will shift. And even if the world outside you doesn’t shift or some massive external circumstance doesn’t shift, that internally… something about how you feel is not how you’re going to feel forever, and I feel like there’s something really rebellious about that in a really beautiful way.
I had my third miscarriage last week in 5 months. And I have just sort of hunkered down this past week, and I have the book stuff and it’s… I’m like, I’m gonna get through the next week. These are just days of grieving. I’m just gonna be grieving. You know when you’re kind of ahead of time? You’re like, “I’m in grief mode, this is what’s gonna happen.” It’s like announcing it to myself. And today, it’s been a week and a half since the D&C, and I walked outside, and it was warm and sunny and there was this cardinal that came down on the wooden chair in my backyard. I was looking at the cardinal and I just felt myself feel this warmth and this pleasure and delight in just existing and being in the moment in spite of myself. And that feels like rebellious joy. Like the fact that there is something in this human spirit or whatever word we want to use. There’s something in the spirit that recognizes that, and moves towards it kind of like a flower turns its face to the sun. There’s something in us that I think wakes and moves towards those things sometimes in spite of ourselves. Sometimes when we’re like, “I don’t want it.” Then you still feel part of yourself kind of waking up. It was a beautiful moment.
This past year has been so exhausting for many of us. It’s been exhausting on every level. But there is something about the survival of that, and the learning and the skill building because of it, that feels really… there’s something kind of lovely about it.