KETR

'I Belonged Nowhere': A Story Of Displacement, From A Novelist Who Knows

May 4, 2017
Originally published on May 4, 2017 11:21 am

At the very start of Hala Alyan's novel Salt Houses, a woman buys a coffee set — a dozen cups, a coffee pot, a tray. It's a simple act that unexpectedly becomes painful. The woman is Palestinian — part of a family displaced after the founding of Israel — and the tray reminds her of an old one she lost in one of the family's many moves.

Alyan builds her story on little moments like that — a peek into the lives of several generations, forced to relocate and resettle. Her characters are lost and looking for a home.

The Palestinian-American author writes from experience. She says she imagined her fictional characters with her own displaced family members in mind.

"I definitely think there was an intergenerational trauma that went along with losing a homeland that you see trickle down through the different generations," she says.


Interview Highlights

On the importance of objects

I've always been really interested in the meaning we imbue [in] objects. I grew up kind of watching my mother's attachment to certain objects, my grandparents' attachment to certain objects. ... It becomes especially valuable because the place ... you attach it to is no longer — it doesn't exist anymore.

On not having heirlooms

When I wanted to get married, one of the things that I didn't really have the luxury of was ... asking my mother if I could wear her wedding dress, or asking my grandmother if I could wear her wedding dress. ... My grandmother lost hers when she moved to Kuwait. My mother lost hers in Kuwait after the invasion. ... They're lost in the rubble of time and movement and displacement. ... We don't have heirlooms. ...

My mother I've noticed ... she'll buy pieces of jewelry and talk about how: "You'll give this to your children, and then your children will give it ..." It's a little bit morbid, right? And it took me a while to kind of put it together, and be like: You're putting together a fractured history. You're trying to start over again.

On her own family's story

My parents met and married in Kuwait and then when my mother became pregnant with me — in the Middle East you get what your father has in terms of passport. My mother had a Lebanese passport my father had Palestinian travel documents.

And so she — sort of in the stroke of foresight and genius — she went to "visit" her brother who lived in Carbondale, Ill. She was this eight-month pregnant brown woman and they let her in, no problem ... it was the '80s, it was a different time. And then she gave birth to me, and I was there for the first week or so of my life.

We returned to Kuwait and then after the invasion we were in Syria for a little bit and then they sought asylum in the States. So my passport in a lot of ways enabled us to then go to the States. ... Of course, she couldn't have known that in anchoring me she was anchoring the entire family.

On whether her family discusses their past

It sort of depends on who you talk to. I definitely think it's a wound that never quite healed over, so we sort of talk around it. We'll talk about my father's restlessness and the fact that he likes to move every year or two. We'll talk about the fact that my mother really loves homes, and loves to think about decorating homes, and nesting, and settling.

You see this in other traumatized populations like Holocaust survivors. A lot of the times it's something that's really not brought up which then leaves it to the later generations to reimagine, reconceptualize, kind of recreate what it was that was lost.

On whether she feels like she has a home

I would say for a very long time I felt like I belonged nowhere. The last couple of years I've sort of been reconceptualizing it — like, I kind of belong everywhere. I belong wherever I am because I'm bringing with me whatever culture, whatever history, whatever love for food, and music, and memory, and photographs, that have been passed down to me. I've gotten a little bit less attached to the idea of a physical place needing to be big enough to hold me, and hold my culture, and hold everything that's important to me.

Radio producer Noor Wazwaz, radio editor Shannon Rhoades and Web producer Beth Novey contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At the very start of a novel by Hala Alyan, a woman does what seems like a very simple thing. She buys a coffee set - a dozen cups, a coffee pot, a tray. It's a simple thing that becomes painful because she is a Palestinian woman. She's part of a displaced family forced to move from one country to another. And the coffee set makes her cry out because the tray reminds her of one she's lost in her moves. Hala Alyan builds her story on little moments like that, moments in the lives of several generations of a family unwillingly on the move.

HALA ALYAN: They're characters that are very lost in a lot of ways and are trying to look for home. I definitely think that there is an intergenerational trauma that went along with losing a homeland that you see trickle down through the different generations.

INSKEEP: The novel is called "Salt Houses," and its author wrote it while working out her own family's story. Hala Alyan is Palestinian-American whose family has moved about since the founding of Israel and the wars that followed. That woman who lost the coffee tray, her story grows out of the writer's personal experience.

ALYAN: I've always been really interested in the meaning we imbue with objects. I grew up kind of watching my mother's attachment to certain objects, my grandparent's attachment to certain objects, and a lot of the times, I mean, it becomes especially valuable because the place with which you attach it to is no longer - it doesn't exist anymore.

INSKEEP: What was the story of your mother and your grandmother?

ALYAN: Well, you know, one of the things that I'm (laughter) always thinking about is sort of how - when I wanted to get married, one of the things that I didn't really have the luxury of was wearing or asking my mother if I could wear her wedding dress or ask my grandmother if I could wear her wedding dress because my grandmother lost hers when she moved to Kuwait. My mother lost hers in Kuwait after the invasion. And so there is these milestones in our life that don't ultimately end up getting passed down because they're lost. They're lost in the rubble of time and movement and displacement.

INSKEEP: Your family just doesn't have the heirlooms of another family.

ALYAN: We don't have heirlooms, and it's very - you know, I mean, one of the things that my mother, I've noticed, is very kind of keen on and intent on is talking about sort of how she'll buy pieces of jewelry and talk about how, you know, this is - you'll give this to your children and then your children will give it - it's a little bit morbid, right? And it took me a while to sort of kind of put it together and be like, oh, I mean, it's - you're sort of putting together a fractured history. You're trying to start over again.

INSKEEP: Where did you grow up?

ALYAN: That's a loaded question (laughter) - all over. My parents met and married in Kuwait. And then, when my mother became pregnant with me, in the Middle East you get what your father has in terms of passport. My mother had a Lebanese passport. My father had Palestinian travel documents. And so she sort of in the stroke of foresight's ingenius, she went to, quote, unquote, "visit" her brother who lived in Carbondale, Ill. And she was this eight-month pregnant brown woman, and they let her in, no problem, no worries.

INSKEEP: It was the '80s.

ALYAN: It was the - it was a different time, right. And then she gave birth to me, and I was there for the first week or so of my life. We returned to Kuwait, and then after the invasion, we were in Syria for a little bit, and then they sought asylum in the states. So my passport, in a lot of ways, enabled us to then go to the states.

INSKEEP: This was totally your mother saying this child I'm about to have is going to be a stateless person, in effect.

ALYAN: Exactly. And in a really beautifully symbolic way kind of, you know, being like I want her to be anchored to something. And of course, she couldn't have known that in anchoring me she was going to anchor the entire family.

INSKEEP: So is this drawn from your real life when you write in this novel of people not quite telling the family story to each other? They're half-revealed facts and images that they sort of have in their memory and sort of don't. Is that an experience you've had yourself?

ALYAN: I have. I mean, I've sort of seen it - you know, in my family, it kind of depends on who you talk to. I definitely think it's a wound that never quite healed over. And so we sort of talk around it, right? We'll talk about, like, my father's restlessness and the fact that he likes to move every year or two. We'll talk about the fact that, you know, my mother really loves homes and loves to think about decorating homes and nesting and settling. And you see this in other traumatized populations, like Holocaust survivors. A lot of the times, it's something that's really not brought up, which then leaves it to the later generations to sort of re-imagine, re-conceptualize, kind of re-create what it was that was lost.

INSKEEP: There's a lovely paragraph I'd like to ask you to read...

ALYAN: Of course.

INSKEEP: ...That gets at this sense of family memories that you don't quite have. The character's name is Riham. She's one of the younger characters. There's some discussion of a garden, and this reminds her of something. Could I get you to read that paragraph?

ALYAN: Of course. (Reading) There was another garden, Riham has been told, though the details of it are hazy to her, almost fictional. All she knows is this garden was in Palestine, and it burned down. It is linked to the war she learned about in school and to her father being away a long time ago. The adults rarely speak of these things, giving vague responses to questions. It is clear they find this talk painful, and Riham isn't the type of girl to ask for more.

INSKEEP: This has got to be a really common experience in this time when so many millions of people are displaced, people are refugees and many of them from war zones where the physical landscape that you note just literally isn't there anymore. It was destroyed. It was burned. The name has been changed. Different people are there.

ALYAN: Absolutely. I mean, I think, and you add on to that, this other kind of complicating factor of having to defend one's existence or having to assure people that in seeking refuge in a different place, you know, you're doing that because you simply can't go back home again.

INSKEEP: Years ago, I heard the story of a woman who made it all the way from war-torn Afghanistan to New York, I believe, and concluded after that experience that she belonged nowhere. She was not getting accustomed to the United States but after her experience could not imagine returning to Afghanistan. Do you feel like you belong anywhere?

ALYAN: I would say for a very long time I felt like I belonged nowhere. The last couple of years I've sort of been re-conceptualizing it. Like, I could kind of belong everywhere. I belong wherever I am because I'm bringing with me whatever culture, whatever history, whatever love for food and music and memory and photographs that have been passed down to me. So I've gotten a little bit less attached to the idea of physical place needing to be big enough to hold me and hold my culture and hold everything that's important to me.

INSKEEP: Are you bigger than any one place? Is that what you're saying?

ALYAN: I think so. I think we all are. I mean - and I don't - you know, and I don't mean to undermine - like, I don't say that in the sense of Palestine isn't important to me anymore. Not - to the contrary. I think because Palestine is so important to me, I insist on bringing it everywhere I go.

INSKEEP: The new novel by Hala Alyan is called "Salt Houses."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HADI YA BAHAR")

MANAL MOUSA: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.