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Salt Houses Hardcover – May 2, 2017
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From the Publisher
A Conversation With Hala Alyan
The author of Salt Houses talks about the influence of her family history & other immigrant stories
How did the idea for Salt Houses come about?
It started out as a short story about a young man in pre-1967 Palestine, but the more I wrote, the more I became intrigued by the character’s sister and mother. I found myself wondering what came before and after this man. There was no specific moment where I decided I’d write a novel; rather, I just followed my curiosity about this family, and it turned into a multigenerational narrative of a single Palestinian family over six decades. More generally, I wanted to write something that avoided the usual (media and art) portrayal of Palestinians and Arabs, which often involves politicizing or exotifying them.
In what ways does the narrative mirror your own family's history?
There are definitely similarities in terms of the geographical 'arc,' since my parents met and married in Kuwait City then, after Saddam’s invasion, found themselves seeking refuge in the United States, while their siblings and other family members wound in places as far-flung as Amman, Kansas and Beirut. Beyond that, I took certain elements of various family members’ archetypes (i.e. the strong matriarch, the Americanized grandchildren), but stayed away from emulating anyone too closely, since my family would never let me hear the end of it!
What was it like to write from the perspective of characters as young as 11 and as old as 75?
I loved it. Like many people, I remember my prepubescent years (too) vividly and I felt a certain catharsis in delving back into that world of self-doubt, fickle adults, and painfully elaborate crushes. One of the chapters takes place during the 2007 war in southern Beirut and I debated for a long time how to portray it, ultimately choosing to keep the focus on the youngest character. I was a college sophomore in Lebanon during that war, and I remember wondering how my younger sister and cousins were absorbing the news reports, distant sounds of bombing and frenzied adults around them. As for the other end of the spectrum, I spent a lot of time around my grandparents growing up and have always loved listening to them, stories of how the world had changed in front of their eyes. It was always startling to hear my grandparents reference something I’d learned about in history class. Writing this book, I became really fascinated with the idea of what we inherit (emotionally, psychologically, etc.), as well as conceptualizing the same historical event from the perspective of different generations.
How have immigrant stories influenced you?
I grew up reading Amy Tan, Chitra Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, brilliant storytellers who normalized much of what I witnessed as the child of Palestinian and Syrian immigrants, moving from Kuwait to Texas and Oklahoma, from Beirut to Brooklyn—intergenerational clashes over culture; an enduring sense of homesickness; the idea of misplacing and recreating 'home' in foreign cities. More than anything, that’s what I’m most excited about—the idea of contributing to that canon of immigration literature. To paraphrase what my father recently told me, one of the implications of a post-Trump America is that these stories will become more urgent and necessary than ever before.
Longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize
An NPR Best Book of 2017
One of NYLON's Best Fiction Books of 2017
One of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2017
One of Bustle's 17 Best Fiction Books of 2017
One of BookPage's Best Books of 2017
An Indie Next Pick
“Moving and beautifully written, Alyan’s debut chronicles three generations of a Palestinian family as they face two life-altering displacements – the first after 1967’s Six-Day War, and the second following Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.”
“Spring's most powerful novel...mystical, compelling...sweeping.”
—Town & Country
"[Salt Houses] illustrate[s] the inherited longing and sense of dislocation passed like a baton from mother to daughter."
—New York Times Book Review
“Some family stories we pass on, adding chapters like rooms to a house; others are burned into our subconscious. Poet Hala Alyan's ambitious debut novel, Salt Houses follows the scattered generations of one Palestinian family for whom 'nostalgia is an affliction,' moving from the Six-Day War and a future glimpsed in a daughter's lipsticked coffee cup, to 9/11 and its aftermath.”
“Alyan is doing important work through this novel...Salt Houses can be read very simply as a family drama, proving Alyan’s talent as a master of both the family drama genre as well as the depths and complexities of the Palestinian displacement.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
"What does home mean when you no longer have a house – or a homeland? This beautiful novel traces one Palestinian family's struggle with that question and how it can haunt generations. Hala Alyan's own family history – for years, she felt as if she belonged nowhere – clearly informed her book, but her professional life as a clinical psychologist who has worked with refugee clients plays a part too. Along with another favorite from this year – Mohsin Hamid's Exit West – this is an example of how fiction is often the best filter for the real world around us."
"Read Salt Houses...In Hala Alyan's novel about a Palestinian family in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, children rebel and return and the matriarch's memories fade with age, fraying the brood's ties to their homeland. In the process, the book reveals the inner lives of people too often lumped together in the service of politics."
"Alyan explores the human agency in the face of the harshest realities without compromising the complex nature of the Palestinian diaspora. This is a heart-wrenching, intimate look at the intergenerational impact of losing a homeland."
"Gorgeous and sprawling...In many ways, Salt Houses is about the displacement of millions in war-ravaged lands. But more precisely, it's about the significance of 'home'— what it means to make a home, to lose it, and to go home again when nothing looks or feels the same...Heart-wrenching, lyrical and timely, Salt Houses is a humanizing examination of a family torn apart and remade by conflicts both too complex to grasp fully and too personal to not recognize in ourselves, wherever we might call home."
—Dallas Morning News
"What happens when displacement enters your DNA? This is the questions that Alyan's brilliant debut novel both poses and answers, and—to borrow a heavily used phrase—it feels like one we particularly need to be asking ourselves right now...[Alyan is] an extraordinarily gifted novelist...[Salt Houses is] an epic in every sense of the word...[It] shines in its intimate details; notably, in the ways in which no character is allowed to be a stereotype, and in the way it grapples with those all too human-scaled experiences of alienation and belonging, displacement and rebuilding. Alyan might be grappling with universal problems like war and brutality, but since she renders them through the perspective of one family, through their personal triumphs and struggles, she keeps these issues on a recognizable scale."
—NYLON, Best Fiction Books of 2017
"Each new chapter of Salt Houses shifts perspective and jumps in time...These perspectives touch back on each other through small details, fashioning a collective, familial history. One character’s revelations illuminate the life of another...Alyan’s talent is immediately apparent in her exquisitely detailed scenes and the complex ways her characters relate to one another...Alyan is also a poet, and the last pages of Salt Houses drop like the end of a poem—they crush the reader while also lifting her up...Narratives like this one complicate and humanize America’s simplistic view of Arab cultures, toppling the flimsy idea that Arab people are intractably Other."
“In her debut novel, Alyan tells the story of a Palestinian family that is uprooted by the Six-Day War of 1967 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This heartbreaking and important story examines displacement, belonging, and family in a lyrical style.”
—The Millions, “Most Anticipated: The Great 2017 Book Preview”
“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 . . . 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.”
—NPR, "Morning Edition"
“This sweeping family drama brings history to life by imagining events that befall a Palestinian family from 1963 to 2014. Buffeted by war and political turmoil — the Six-Day War in 1967, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 — the family is constantly uprooted, forcing its members to adopt new cultures in Paris, Beirut and Boston. It's a lyrical exploration of identity.”
“Stunning...[Salt Houses] offers such a piercing examination of displacement, identity, faith, and what one character refers to as a lifetime of 'emotional code-switching.'”
“Joyful...full of lovely details about tradition, history, and those quotidian acts between husband and wife, parents and children, grandchildren and children that comprise a life...The opening paragraph of Salt Houses [...] is one of those wonders in which the reader is pulled in by lovely writing that is also serving as the piece of string that, if the reader picks up and begins to tug, will pull them into a story they may not want to emerge from for hours.”
“Salt Houses illuminates the heartache and permanent unsettledness experienced by refugees all over the world, reminding readers of the burdens and the blessings of home.”
—Bustle, “15 New Authors You’re Going To Be Obsessed With This Year"
“[Salt Houses is] for those who understand the importance of family and culture, and how easily both can be riven.”
“A dazzling debut...Salt Houses speaks to the specificity of the Palestinian diaspora, but it also mirrors the experiences of immigrants and exiles all over the world, making it very much a book for every reader.”
“There’s a subtle, unassuming power that accumulates in Hala Alyan’s debut novel Salt Houses...This is a heartfelt book but also an unobtrusively skillful one...Impressive.”
—Open Letters Monthly
“Hala Alyan’s debut novel Salt Houses spans four generations in the life of a family on the West Bank, following their journey from the early 60s to the present day. Through all of the challenges the family endures—wars, invasions, love affairs, and displacement—they are held together by the luminous Alia...Alyan’s background as a clinical psychologist is evident throughout the novel, as characters big and small thrum with an emotional complexity that stays with the reader long after she’s finished the book.”
—Public Libraries Online
“This timely historical does for the Palestinians what Khaled Hosseini did for the people of Afghanistan. By placing readers inside the hearts and minds of one Arab family scattered from Paris to Boston to Lebanon, she beautifully illustrates the resilience of the human spirit.”
“Alyan's impressive first novel tracks the dispersal of four generations of a Palestinian family...The Yacoubs' distinctly personal experiences will mirror the experiences of immigrants and refugees around the world and the Palestinians' dislocation in particular.... Unexpected, deeply moving...this journey is well worth taking.”
“Alyan blends joy with pain, frustration with elation, longing with boredom inthis beautiful debut novel filled with the panoply of life. These lives full of promise and loss will feel familiar to any reader; Alyan’s excellent storytelling and deft handling of the complex relationships ensures that readers will not soon forget the Yacoub family.”
—STARRED, Publishers Weekly
“The war may have only lasted six days, but its impact echoes through generations of a Palestinian family in this ambitious debut novel...This is a moving story about a family’s battle to salvage what remains when their home is taken away.”
“Reading Salt Houses is like having your coffee grounds read: cosmic, foreboding and titillating all at once. In this magnificent debut, Alyan’s powerful and poetic voice guides us into the dark recesses of history and leads us right up to the present tensions between East & West, the modern & ancestral, the hopeless and the hopeful.”
—Aline Ohanesian, author of Orhan's Inheritance
“Hala Alyan's Salt Houses flies like a searchlight between history and fiction, unearthing the life of a single displaced Palestinian family among the rubble and illuminating it so deeply, so brilliantly,we cannot help but connect the story's richly imagined past to our very real present.”
—Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalkers’ Guide to Dancing
“A striking debut of the disruptions and dispersals of exile, Salt Houses is a heartfelt portrait of the Palestinian diaspora. Powerful, lyrical, and deftly layered with multiple voices, Hala Alyan has done the near impossible: illuminated a half-century of wrenching history with great intimacy.”
—Cristina García, author of King of Cuba and others
“Salt Houses is a piercingly elegant novel that registers Palestine with deep resonance for what it is: a once beloved home, known, lost, and re-imagined into life. A place where families decide between security and happiness, religion and heritage, where war is constant, yet peace is found. In the exquisite prose of a poet, Hala Alyan shows how we carry our origins in our hearts wherever we may roam, and how that history is calibrated by the places we choose to put down roots. This is a book with the power to both break and mend your heart.”
—Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane
“As accomplished a poet as she is in her excellent collections of poems, Hala Alyan exceeds those measures of brilliance in her moving, deeply felt, powerfully realized first novel, Salt Houses. I can't think of many writers, older or younger, who have so adeptly written of family relationships—spanning five generations here, between all manner of older and younger, between siblings, cousins—all, at different ages and stages of life, and all against a vividly rendered backdrop of exile and migration. From Palestine to Jordan, Lebanon to Kuwait, Boston to New York, and back to Palestine again, this is a story of people losing, finding, and making their way. Salt Houses gives voice, body, and love to people whose lives in this country tend, at most, to be featured anonymously in news accounts—and at that, in the negative. This is real life, beautifully written, graciously enlarging the sense of who we are.”
—Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company
“A gorgeous archeological dig of a novel. In Salt Houses, Hala Alyan delicately uncovers layers of Palestinian history, giving successive generations of a family voices that tell of survival through the loss of treasured homes, beloved family members, and ideas of self, through war and displacement. A much needed story of the endurance of a people, a family, and the joy that glistens everyday moments, even in the shadow of war.”
—Chrysler Szarlan, Odyssey Bookshop
“As the Yacoub family is uprooted and separated time and time again, it becomes clear that this book’s ultimate and bittersweet beauty lies not solely in its depiction of the many places it touches, but in its depiction of the uniquely painful experience of the displaced, to carry and salvage fragments of identity across generations and borders. A book that transports in so many different ways is too vital to be missed.”
—Margaret Sweeney, Odyssey Bookshop
“Hala Aylan first novel takes us through the history of a Palestinian family and their search for ‘home’. Having to leave their natural born city they move through out the world trying to find that peace that only a true home can bring. Her character development teaches us what it means to grow up searching for that home. It's a timely book about being displaced and how a family deals with it and war everywhere they go.”
—Anna Flynn, Watermark Books & Café
“A powerful and moving novel about several generations of a Palestinian family whose lives are repeatedly uprooted and disrupted by war. All the while they confront the common problems and rites of passage for families in any culture--conflict between parents and teenagers, the discovery or rejection of religion, caring for aging parents. A masterful debut from a major talent.”
—Stan Hynds, Northshire Bookstore
“I thoroughly enjoyed this multi-generational tale of a Palestinian family who found themselves fleeing different homes due to war. The roots of family, of place, and of religion are explored through intimate views into love, parenthood, sibling rivalry and loyalty. Told from alternating perspectives of different members of the family, spanning from 1963-2014, the reader gets a window into how larger conflict can affect personal and familial identity.”
—Jessica Fowle, Bookbug
“Salt Houses just pulls you into the fabric of the life of this Palestinian family through one tumultuous decade after another. I could rave about how important this book is for humanizing a Muslim family in a time of radical stereotyping, but it's also just a damn good read. The draw of these people is irresistible! Every character is flawed, everyone is beautiful, each struggle with issues that are at times like those of any family, and at times unique to the social and cultural struggles of war-torn communities. Plus, Hala Alyan's writing is infused with color and grace - a phenomenal fiction debut!”
—Katie Plumb, The Country Bookshelf
“In her moving debut, Hala Alyan, traces the story of four generations of the Yacoub family, Palestinians displaced by the Six Days War and then again by Sadam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. It seems that as long as there are borders there will be refugees and in telling this particular story Alyan beautifully illuminates the trials of all displaced people.”
—Sarah Baline, East City Bookshop
“Hala Alyan’s debut novel is a portrayal of war and displacement on the individual, the family, and the generations that follow. Salt Houses follows a Palestinian family as they are uprooted and exiled over a span of fifty years. Told through the perspective of different characters, Salt Houses allows the reader to understand the conflicts that mold who they are as individuals, and how it affects them as family. At times heartrending, this is a beautiful, powerful, and timely novel.”
—Susan Schlesinger, Books on the Square
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Each moment is fully realized, and historical and personal changes and events push Alia and her family further and further from that home in Jaffa. Saddam Hussein and the war of 1990 again brought the family to point of crisis with a loss of land, fortunes and home, and from here they start to scatter to varying points, including the US. Each moment brings a new change of place, of voice and new struggles as setting up a life and assimilating into yet another new country, with new expectations, changing levels of acceptance and challenges ranging from simple and obvious (language) to more wrought with difficulty (safe housing, racism, gangs, social acceptance) and layered with misguided or uninformed opinions. Still, that nugget of “home” and just what it means, what it will become, and just where it exists now are omnipresent.
I can’t speak to this title without thinking about how palpably Hala Alyan presents the struggles, conflicts and questions from each of her characters, anyone who has ever moved from a childhood home will instantly connect to the emotions of the characters as they struggle with the sense of being suddenly untethered and removed from familiar and comforting. When you then follow this family and story and see the repeated uprooting, even as they try to clutch at the familiar, the determination and energy to move on and do it all again, for the choice to do nothing is not an option, the simple act of putting one foot forward along a wholly unfamiliar path is a quietly laid out and provides moments to cheer, wonder, mourn and learn. What Alyan has done here is to highlight and show the humanity in these characters, while their language, situations and faith may differ: there is no difference in the hopes and dreams that they have: home, family, love, opportunity and security, all while trying not to lose those connections in the varying steps made to assimilate, relocate or even rebuild as the story moves on.
A wonderful debut, Hala Alyan uses words precisely to present scene and description, the writing moves between wholly lyrical moments that set a tone, mixed neatly with historic facts and events presented with an ‘on the ground’ sense and non-western view of the moments that were often, at best, just marked at yet another in the long line of “middle East quandaries”. Having little familiarity with a perspective that brings a view of Palestine and her people so accessibly, I can only hope for more to come from her pen.
I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
Before the novel begins Salma, her husband and their three children are forced out of their home in Israel due to the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. Now it is 1963, they live in the West Bank and the youngest daughter, Alia, is getting married. Four years later and war has entered the West Bank and brought the death of Mustafa, Alia’s beloved brother and her husband’s best friend. This death will be an unexpected, but pivotal part of the family’s history. They split between Kuwait and Jordan, until Sadaam Hussein invades Kuwait and they move again. By the time the novel ends Salma’s great-granddaughters live in places like Boston and even Beirut. Some maintain their close ties to tradition, but for others the only movement is forward and the past is something to be forgotten.
What gives Salt Houses its intimacy is that the focus is not violence or the specifics of Middle Eastern conflict. Rather it is the constant struggle to retain a sense of self when one of the most basic premises of that sense—where am I from?—is lost. This could be enough to sink the novel but Alyan chooses to play it off against another foundational dynamic that can be just as shifting and hard to understand—the mother-daughter relationship. She balances the unfamiliar concept of displacement with an all-too familiar reality for a lot of us. For each generation there is the push and pull of tradition, with mothers trying to pass on values that many daughters are determined to rebel against. In this way, Alyan beautifully melds the universality of family relationships with the singularity of Muslims uprooted time and again from their homes. For those of us who have never had to contemplate leaving our home, friends and possessions behind it is a much needed glimpse into the plight of families who have no choice but to escape for their own safety and then must deal with being unwelcome outsiders wherever they go. Salt Houses left me weighted with sadness, but very glad I read it.