Doha, Qatar – March 25, 2019 – Novelist Hala Alyan discussed how her experiences and the experiences of her family inspired her to write about the struggles of identity in exile during a lecture at Northwestern University in Qatar. A Palestinian-American author, poet, and clinical psychologist, Alyan, was invited to NU-Q to discuss her award-winning novel “Salt Houses.”
The novel, which tells the story of a Palestinian family’s displacement in the 1960s and follows the intergenerational trauma they experience as a result of their constant transitory status and their lack of a sense of belonging, was selected by NU-Q for its annual reading program One Book.
“Hala Alyan’s accomplishments are very inspiring to our students, many of whom relate to her personal experiences as well as those of the characters in her book,” said Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO. “She was able to speak to much more than just writing, but the greater role that she and other novelists have in steering the narrative on the region and creating content that is both informative and accurate on the Middle East.”
At a school-wide event to discuss the book, which was awarded the Dayton Peace Prize for fiction, Alyan said that she felt the responsibility to use her craft as a means of relaying accurate historical events while using her creativity to tell stories that put people’s experiences in context. While her focus is mainly on Palestinians, Alyan argued that much of the “thematic things that happen in the novel are not just unique to the Palestinians,” but are rather common struggles of refugees and immigrants who try to “create a home on foreign soil in very disruptive environments.”
Like the characters in her novel, Alyan also grappled with issues of diasporic identity. “My idea of home has, over the years, veered away from the idea of it being related to one specific plot of land, or a specific house etc., because these things keep changing. I now define home as the place where the people I love are, where I can speak the languages I want to speak, and where I can cook and eat what I want to eat.”
Most importantly, Alyan explained how “impulsive, in-the-moment, often very emotional decisions that people make” when they are confronted with conflict “alter life completely for many generations.” As a daughter of immigrants, Alyan felt the need to convey the depth of the internal and external struggles that come with such circumstances.
Alyan’s background in clinical psychology combined with her passion for writing made her more curious, inquisitive, and attentive to the world around her. She explained that both career paths complement each other because “they deal with narratives and fractured narratives. Often people go into therapy because they feel like some story about themselves or about the world isn’t working anymore. The role of the therapist to help them reclaim or recreate that narrative, so I am working the world of storytelling in both careers.”
The conversation with Alyan was moderated by NU-Q Professor Sam Meekings and was attended by members of the NU-Q community and students.
One Book One NU-Q is an annual program that aims to engage the Northwestern community in a common intellectual experience that promotes critical thinking and interdisciplinary learning. The shared read is chosen to promote discussion and understanding of broader issues we face both regionally and globally.