Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel, and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will all soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.
Salma is forced to leave her home in Nablus; Alia’s brother gets pulled into a politically militarized world he can’t escape; and Alia and her gentle-spirited husband move to Kuwait City, where they reluctantly build a life with their three children. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Alia and her family once again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it, scattering to Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond. Soon Alia’s children begin families of their own, once again navigating the burdens (and blessings) of assimilation in foreign cities.
Lyrical and heartbreaking, “Salt Houses” is a remarkable debut novel that challenges and humanizes an age-old conflict we might think we understand—one that asks us to confront that most devastating of all truths: you can’t go home again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hala Alyan was born in 1986. After living in various parts of the Middle East, she completed a doctorate in psychology and now divides her time between private practice and teaching at New York University. She has been published in Guernica and other literary journals, and is the award-winning author of three poetry collections and the novel “Salt Houses.” She lives in New York City.
Q & A with Hala
Why did you write Salt Houses?
I grew up in a family of storytellers, and it was the combination of this tradition of storytelling and the larger historical context (of Palestinian immigrants) that led to my fascination with writing about diasporic memory and loss. For a long time, I had to pretend I wasn’t writing a novel, but rather just following my curiosity about this one family and where their immigration took them. I’ve always been intrigued by how we are all broken and remade by family and wanted to write something about that, against the backdrop of political turmoil. In many ways, I’ve been writing this book my entire life.
What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
The truth is Salt Houses taught me a lot about how to write. I was challenged and pushed to become more patient, to let the story breathe, to accept that, sometimes, characters will be a little disobedient. The biggest technical difficulty was the editing process since I wrote in a chaotic, non-chronological fashion, so going back and stitching all the scenes into one coherent narrative was exhausting. Emotionally, I struggled with writing about Alzheimer’s, as I watched my beloved grandmother suffer from dementia.
How might fiction help us to explore contemporary issues?
Telling a story of emotional inheritance in the context of immigration, of how a single family can be torn apart and mended against the backdrop of political chaos. I felt an urgency to create a narrative where a Palestinian family wasn’t just Palestinian, if that makes sense, but rather transcended their circumstances. This felt crucial to me. When I wasn’t working on the novel, I’d sometimes imagine the characters in their frozen lives, waiting for me to finish. It was an intense but sustaining process.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I can vividly remember receiving praise from a teacher in elementary school for a little story I wrote about a girl with superpowers. I was a gawky, painfully shy kid who couldn’t bear to speak up in class, so to have her take me aside and tell me the story was beautiful — I still remember how she said it, emphatically, like she knew I would doubt her words—made me realize that I had the ability to impact others.
What book(s) have made you see the world differently? How?
Books like The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri completely upended my worldview—in the best possible way. Here were characters who spoke different languages at home, who ate food that others found unpalatable, who had to find a home in the emotional borderland to belonging (and not belonging) to two cultures at once. These books helped me hold my head up high at a time when I would’ve given anything to be like everyone else.