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In Conversation with Hala Alyan

By Simone Marie

Palestinian life is inextricably linked to the liminal experiences of migration, both voluntary and forced. Though the anthropological roots of the term 'liminality' have traditionally been used to characterise the ambiguous stage between pre- and post-identity that are inherent to ceremonial rites of passage, liminality takes on a new but congruent form when describing the experience of the migrant. It can be best understood in both cases as the space in between, or the existence that resides neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’. While liminality makes processes of categorisation, identification, and recognition particularly difficult to any observer keen to find comfort in boundaries and borders, liminal spaces afford their occupants a sense of agency in unfounded terrain, and provide a place in between places that are not recognised.

A Palestinian-American poet, novelist, and clinical psychologist, Hala Alyan brings to life the radical agency of the poetry of her latest work, The Twenty-Ninth Year. On its face, this is a book about the last year of her twenties and a life lived straddling many life experiences. But Alyan also invites the reader towards what she characterises as her ‘raw exposed nerve’ of dual and conflicting identity, preservation as an act of warfare, and combating the socialised practices of self-erasure—in doing so, she brings a trained lyrical eye to the spaces we occupy.

Alyan was born in Carbondale, Illinois, and has lived in Kuwait, Oklahoma, Texas, Maine, and Lebanon. She attended the American University of Beirut, Columbia University, and Rutgers University for her BA, MA, and doctorate respectively, and has picked up various awards along the way—including a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. Her writings cross many thematic categories, but often return to trauma and the many branches that stem from its seed. I chatted with her via WhatsApp voicenotes, a testament to our new forms of cultural interrogation, as we attempted to unpack what her work means to her and her readers.

‘Migration and exile have been intricately linked with the world of artmaking’, says Alyan, ‘realities that have coloured my world view since childhood, and so, everything is seen through the lens of exile, through the lens of diaspora’. In describing the difficulty of even measuring the how exile and diaspora have affected her work, she references David Foster Wallace’s ‘This is Water’ speech: ‘kind of like the fish in water metaphor . . . I know that I think of milestones and love and human connection in terms of migration and exile and how that impacts my family, how that impacts my marriage, how that impacts future parenthood’.

All of these grounds are explored in The Twenty-Ninth Year, as Alyan takes an unchained leap over and beyond boundaries. It is a collection that not only gives to us, but also ‘gives [her] the capacity to tell the truth in all of its broken and fragmented versions in a way that no other form does’. Afterall, poetry, she asserts, ‘is the only space that I can sit with the truths that I have that I am not even sure about . . . the truths that I’ve imagined and reimagined so many times that it is no longer a truth. Truths with so many fingerprints on them that you don’t remember what the original memory was’.

The ambiguity of truth and the uncertainty of ‘what is what’ is clear not only in Alyan’s poetry, but in her existence. In an attempt to present the duality of her Palestinian-American identity, Alyan’s art illustrates an unsettling and at times contradictory belonging in the experience of diaspora and migration. I asked her to shed light on the uniqueness of both Palestinian and American being, and how these two particular identities bring about an antagonistic cohabitation in her life. She noted that even with having ‘spent more years on American soil than Middle Eastern soil, I still very much feel Arab, very much feel like I come from Palestinian roots’, though ‘I also very much feel American’. Her responses recognise the capacity for both her Palestinian and American identities to coexist without negating one another but still laying claim to the fact that this communal existence is often far from harmonious.

Alyan says, ‘two halves don’t make less than a whole, this too is a whole, it is just a different type of whole’. She elaborates on this balance: ‘when one identity, ie American, literally doesn’t recognise the other identity or give it respect or space or advocate for its human rights, it is difficult,’ and this forces her to sit ‘in that tense, liminal space of not really knowing which flag to raise higher, which allegiance to feel stronger . . . it is very dialectical. They don’t feel like they complement each other’.

And yet, as this internal conflict of national identities grows as a result of exterior realities, there is a power in embracing tension. She says, ‘the more there can be an acceptance of that messy, but very fertile, in-between ground . . . the more we claim that space, the more that space starts to actually feel like a space’. It begins to be just as valid as all others.

Coinciding with the strain that stems from a life of dual identities, Alyan has particular interest in generational harm and the ways in which trauma is passed down through and inherited by communities—how we carry trauma, how we deliver our traumas to those around us, and ‘how trauma gets reimagined depending on the space that you’re in and when it’s rearing its head’. In the process of recognising the perpetuality and lasting nature of trauma, Alyan never abandons us while we reconcile with this truth, instead striving to provide a pathway towards healing.

Alyan writes, ‘What do we do with heartache? Tow it’. This is an incantation; after all, her work centres around love and all its offspring, the good and the bad. And so, I found myself eager to inquire about where she sees the space for redemptive love in the process of healing. It cannot be ignored that in the history of Palestinian exile and ethnic cleansing—the Nakba of 1948 and the ongoing forced migration—there is a forcer, a cleanser. While her work often calls on a redeeming love to heal our pain, I struggle to be satisfied with this means of healing alone.

To an extent, she agrees: ‘while I very much believe in redemption, I don’t believe redemption can happen without accountability first. The order of operations is first a fracture or wrongdoing and then a recognition, accountability, reparation, and then redemption’. Calling upon our black feminist foremother, she continues, ‘I really believe in the Audre Lorde idea of self-care. It is an act of self-preservation; it is an act of warfare’.

In this war we face, we are not only battling an enemy, we are also battling ourselves. Alyan poses a striking question to us all: ‘If you have an identity that is constantly trying to be erased, like a Palestinian identity [...] How are you participating in your own self-erasure?’ The answers to these questions, for her, are what line the pages of The Twenty-Ninth Year, a radical exposure of self that reveals the ways in which alcohol and drunkenness, food and refusal of it, sexuality and penetration are all pursued in some capacity to destroy the self, or some version of the self. It is precisely in this destruction that we see the inescapable liminality of the Palestinian condition—the risk Alyan takes in her work is to illustrate a deep vulnerability, an antidote to the loneliness of the home you lost.

Another means of upending the generational transfer of trauma is in tackling the traumas we survive in our own lifetime. Alyan speaks to the influence of regained agency through metaphor:

‘One of the things that has been shown in trauma research as a protective factor that can help prevent someone from forming PTSD after a really traumatic event is a sense of agency. Let’s say there is a natural disaster and one person is stuck, one person is literally trapped and can do nothing but sit and wait for someone else to come help or save them. And another person has the capacity to run, to save people, to pull people away from fire, to put to use the fight or flight system that has been severely activated, to put to use the adrenaline, the cortisol rush. The person who does the latter is less likely to develop PTSD because there is a sense of control and agency as they were able to mobilise. The person who is trapped and helpless and has nowhere to go is more likely to develop PTSD because there was not that same sense of agency.’

This example left me curious and conflicted. While Alyan expresses the agency of non-belonging, she also often includes references to ‘countries’ and cities into her stories, in some way emphasising the relevance of national identifiers and the State. Though experiences of exile will always rely on the existence of the State as a comparative foil, I wondered whether an effort towards de-emphasising statehood was important to her thesis. I asked about the ways in which she simultaneously pushes us to be comfortable being neither here nor there, while still enforcing a livelihood of the ‘here’ and the ‘there’.

She spoke to this in the context of her own belonging in the Palestinian diaspora, affirming the power of de-prioritising statehood from the narratives created by Palestinian art: ‘there is a luxury in transcending borders and transcending states that first requires certain conditions to be met to in order to even have the next graduated conversation about these things being illusory, non-existent, tools in the hand of the powerful’. There is a suggestion here; that only in understanding statehood as a tool of the master can her work achieve two seemingly oppositional tasks at once: quantifying the role of the State in the pursuit of home while also de-centring its necessity in providing that home to us.

What might this suggest about nationality or nationhood for a Palestinian community that has seen its right of return attacked on all accounts, and the contiguity of its land confiscated through the strategic placement of illegal settlements? All of these seemingly essential aspects of identity as linked to nationhood are shaken when interrogated through the lens of exile, the bitter fruit. What Alyan expresses to us is that it is in this pursuit of home, a community and space of acceptance, we are able to establish a new sense of belonging predicated on non-belonging, and its mutual dance. In doing so, yes, we can heal the migrant in exile, that reject of the State, but we can also heal those who enforce that exile. This requires reaching for both the oppressed and the oppressor with a radical spirit of accountable acceptance, whispering to them in poetic justice: ‘the interrogation of what home is can become our new home’.

SIMONE MARIE is a graduate student at Oxford University.

Art by Abigail Hodges


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