Writer Hala Alyan Gives Reading at Holy Cross

Nicole Letendre ‘23

Staff Writer

On Nov. 14, accomplished Palestinian-American poet and novelist Hala Alyan came to College of the Holy Cross, as the final guest of the fall semester Working Writers Series, to give a formal reading of some of her literary works, as well as a craft talk about the writing process. Alyan has advanced degrees in clinical psychology, particularly with trauma and addiction, and much of her prose examines her cultural background from a psychological perspective. Her works include the books of poetry “Atrium,” “Four Cities,” “Hijra,” and “The Twenty-Ninth Year,” as well as the novel “Salt Houses,” which was recently published in 2017. She has received numerous literary awards, among them the Arab American Book Award in Poetry in 2013 and the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. Born in Carbondale, Illinois and moving extensively to places such as Kuwait, Oklahoma, Texas, Maine, and Lebanon, Alyan’s enriched world view adds to the power of her writing. At the craft discussion, Alyan proposed several pieces of advice she wished she had known as a young writer. Alyan stated confidently, “Difference is ultimately going to be your greatest currency.” Her overarching message to writers is to accept an aspect of themselves that is unique; and in turn, to infuse this individuality into their writing.

In Rehm Library, she began reading an excerpt from her novel “Salt Houses,” which chronicles the life of a Palestinian family through various character narrations, from the 1960s to present day. From her novel, she read about the experiences of a character named Linah, who lives in war-grappled Beirut during the summer of her twelfth birthday. She is forbidden to go outside, yet in her childhood, she navigates ways in which to find freedom alongside her cousin Zain. Alyan juxtaposes the childhood perception of warfare with the brutal reality of ruin. Alyan acknowledged the time spent researching historical information, as well as the guidance she received from family members as to the environment of Kuwait in the 1960s, which was a critical setting in her novel. Additionally, she read several of her poetic works, such as “Oklahoma,” which is included in her book of poetry “The Twenty-Ninth Year.” Alyan began her literary career writing and presenting poetry in open mic settings in New York. She admits that writing poetry feels natural, while writing novels takes a higher level of discipline: “One is a marathon, one is sprinting.”  

Alyan finds joy in the craft. She understands the stylistic differences in written versus spoken poetry, and she finds herself modifying poetry in preparation for reading aloud. Additionally, she enjoys creatively altering time in her works, which is made clear through the multiple perspectives in her novel “Salt Houses.” Currently, she has found an interest in interactive poetry, in which the reader is able to decide the ending. Alyan revealed that her husband has created a website which allows readers to select a particular word to add to a poem, which alters the ultimate ending, somewhat resembling the “Choose Your Own Adventure” poems. Ultimately, through the Working Writers Series, Alyan was able to read from some of her literary works, as well as offer creative insight to members of the Holy Cross community. For more information about Hala Alyan and her literary works, visit the website: http://www.halaalyan.com/

Photo by Kim Fetherston ’22

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