Most Americans are accustomed to not thinking much about what has happened to Palestinian families since they were displaced by the founding of Israel and the wars that followed. The novel Salt Houses seeks to change that, in its quiet, lyrical way. Palestinian-American author, poet, and psychologist Hala Alyan’s new novel Salt Houses features a family that scatters over the generations, each character seeking his or her own place to call home.
In vivid prose, Alyan takes us to Nablus, Kuwait City, Amman, Paris, Beirut, and Jaffa, focusing on several different family members over several different decades. How did she manage to create such affecting portraits of so many different times and places, all while folding in major events in Middle Eastern history? As it happens, Alyan found herself turning to JSTOR for help. We asked her all about it:
Amy Shearn: This novel sweeps across many generations of this Palestinian family. Why does the story begin in 1963?
Hala Alyan: I’ve always been interested in the period of time between 1948 and 1967; I wanted the book to open with a family that had already been displaced once but had established a life in a new city, only to have it be disrupted again. Those kind of multiple displacements are all too common in the narrative of Palestinian diaspora.
Your characters range from the devout to the secular, the militant to the apolitical, those who leave and those who stay. Why is that? Did you feel conscious of Westerners’ views of the Arab world as you were writing?
More than audience, I was thinking about doing an honest portrayal of a family whose members lived in various parts of the world, being exposed to different identities and concepts of belonging. Any community that experiences displacement and immigration is more likely to have radically different manifestations of faith, political beliefs and even moral values within it. I honestly hadn’t realized until people started reading the book just how drastically different these portrayals of Palestinians were from what most people were used to seeing and reading about.
Every scene in this novel feels so vivid and fully lived. How did you recreate, say, a dusty walk to a mosque in 1960s Palestine? Or a bustling market in 1970s Kuwait? What was researched, what was based on what people could tell you, what was imagined?
Thank you! I made a point of not writing about any cities that I haven’t physically walked around myself. In the course of writing the book, I tried to pay extra attention to things like sounds and smells, to how it felt to navigate streets at different times of day. In terms of remaining historically faithful, that’s where primary and secondary sources became necessary. I tried to find as much footage as I could, be it old videos, news reports, or photographs, and would sometimes have music from those time periods playing in the background as I wrote. The rest was imagination!
How did you balance researching with writing? I know once a novelist dives into historical research it can be sort of like quicksand—how did you avoid get mired in the complicated history of the various military and political upheavals that rock this family’s life?
Quicksand is an apt description! I think that’s where rewrites and editing come in. I played around with different ways to handle the political realities that impact the family’s history; some came out somewhat stilted and dry, others overpowered the emotional narrative. I wrote tons of scenes centered around invasions, wars, etc., until I ultimately decided to put them to the side until I felt like I’d unpacked the rest of the story. Once I had a solid understanding of the characters and the family as an ecosystem (so to speak), I began to weave them side by side.
This family scatters, so that different sections of the novel end up being set in seven different cities: Nablus, Kuwait City, Amman, Paris, Beirut, and Jaffa. How is each of these cities relevant to the story of Palestinian diaspora? Why did you decided to structure the story this way? What work did you have to do to recreate each setting?
Palestinians constitute one of the largest refugee populations in the world. The diasporic community is strewn all over the planet, with many living in Europe and other Arab nations. As such, I wanted to follow the trajectory of a single family that sought shelter in a nation (i.e. Kuwait) that was to experience its own tragic political turmoil. This is an all too common experience in the region—not that long ago, Syria was a country immigrants sought refuge in. In the case of Salt Houses, the family’s immediate members become most scattered after Saddam’s invasion, an experience faced by my own family and countless others. The adult children find themselves in various Arab and Western cities, raising their own families. Of course, this sort of experience is intrinsically tied to a certain amount of privilege and financial resources; in times of war, not everyone gets to leave.
What sections needed the most research? What were the most helpful resources?
I’d say the most research I did was centered around the 1967 Six-Day War and the Kuwait invasion in 1990; this included researching legal and social implications of these events, and how they impacted members of the Palestinian community. I used JSTOR and Google Scholar more times than I can count, researching things like the Six-Day War in the context of the larger Palestinian narrative (i.e. Jamal R. Nassar’s helpful article “The Culture of Resistance: The 1967 War in the Context of the Palestinian Struggle.”) and the history of Palestinians in Kuwait pre- and post-invasion (i.e. “From Kuwait to Jordan: The Palestinians’ Third Exodus,” by Yann Le Troquer and Rozenn Hommery al-Oudat).
What made you want to write this as a novel? I know you’ve written poetry in the past. Why fiction instead of poetry or memoir?
I think a novel felt like the only appropriate genre for this sort of story. The family is fictional, which allowed me to be more imaginative and take liberties that nonfiction wouldn’t have allowed. I don’t think poetry, at least the way I write it, would’ve been able to house the story as I envisioned it. To be honest, I kept telling myself I was just writing a series of stories only to discover it was a coherent narrative by the end.
As the title suggests, houses and homes are important in this book. How did you create each individual space? I keep thinking of Riham’s house in Amman, and how it keeps getting rooms added to, to her frustration and delight, and about her struggle to nurture a garden in an inhospitable climate—it feels like a deeply metaphorical space, almost like a house from a dream.
I researched photographs of houses according to time period and city, and printed out the ones that I could imagine the Yacoub family inhabiting. I’ve always been intrigued by the intersection of identity and physical space, so always asked myself to consider how particular layouts, rooms, balconies, gardens, etc. would impact the Yacoubs’ development as a family and as individuals. Riham’s house in particular was an exploration of how a home can feel like an ill-fitting garment, and the implications of public versus private spheres, as her home becomes opened up to other, less fortunate immigrants.
Did researching and writing this book change the way you felt about your family’s stories, or about your own identity?
Oh, absolutely! Having to delve so much into the psyche of the Palestinian diasporic experience taught me to look at my own family’s history in a different way; often, it helped me understand certain things—like my father’s discomfort with staying in any one place too long or how people speak of memory in my extended family—in the context of repeated displacement. It’s also encouraged me to explore difficult questions about the intergenerational impact of trauma, and the impact of the experiences my great-grandparents and grandparents faced on my generation.
What response have you gotten from readers, be they Palestinian, Israeli, American, or some combination thereof?
I’ve gotten a lot of lovely responses from Palestinian and Palestinian American readers, talking about what it feels like to have this narrative be published. The book was reviewed by Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper, which was very nice to see. In terms of American readers, I’ve heard from a number of people saying they hadn’t heard from this perspective before, and that the book led them to research various events in history.
You also work as a psychologist. How do you think that affects your writing? Do you ever write nonfiction or scholarly works about psychology? (And, honestly now, are your patients ever worried about confiding in a novelist?!)
My training in psychology has been so helpful, as it taught me to focus my curiosity, pay attention to details, and ask questions about individuals’ motives and desires, which was essential for character development. I have co-authored a couple of articles and a book chapter on mental health and Arab communities. Someday I’ll finally turn my dissertation into an article, I swear! I think (hope!) my patients don’t worry about working with me, because they know it’s a confidential space. Not to mention I’d be a terrible psychologist AND novelist to borrow from my clients’ lives!
Read Salt Houses to find out more about this fascinating family.
More author interviews:
Claire Cameron, on researching The Last Neanderthal
Adrienne Brown, on researching The Black Skyscraper