Hala Alyan is an award winning Palestinian-American poet who has lived in various cities in the Middle East and the United States. Her poems reflect her life – the life of searching, making and remaking, longing and surviving on the food of memories. All of her torn anchors found new waters in her poems.
Alyan was the winner of the 2012 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Festival Competition and her first book of poetry, Atrium (Three Rooms Press), a powerful debut, won the 2013 Arab American Book Award. Her third collection, Hijra, won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry contest and will be published in the fall this year.
I was thrilled to be able to exchange thoughts with Alyan and dive into her world – the world of captivating poetry, untamed emotions and new ways of seeing, feeling and thinking through words.
How did you start writing, did you feel the great need to express yourself through words, was it a calling in a way?
I’ve written for as long as I can remember; it was a way to feel less lonely as a child and also to escape into other worlds. As I got older, it also became a way to make sense of chaotic environments, messy breakups and the general grit and loveliness of life.
/Hijra by Hala Alyan/
Atrium was the winner of the Arab American Book Award in 2013. Did the success and experience of your first book make it easier to write the second (and the third)? What was it like to go through the process of writing another collection?
Winning that award was wonderful for me, and I definitely think it helped me get the second book published. It also was such lovely reinforcement for my writing, which enabled me to take more risks in the second and third manuscripts.
The process was a lot easier after the first manuscript, perhaps because I knew what to expect and also knew that it would take time; for Atrium, I was so impatient to see it out in the world!
You are doing your post-doctoral training in the field of clinical psychology. How do you manage writing and working? Does it take away the energy for writing, how do you keep the motivation?
I’m a licensed clinical psychologist now, and it can be a challenge to balance both lives. For the most part, though, I feel very lucky to be able to exist in the two worlds. I’ve said often that I believe each field complements the other. My work as a clinician allows me to be a more effective and compassionate writer.
Also, something I’m learning about myself is that I’m not the kind of writer that can sit and write for several hours at a time. I like the urgency of only having a lunch hour to write; I’m more productive when there’s a time limit.
What do you do when “dry days” come along, how do you feel when you are not able to write anything?
I’ve learned to stop resisting those days, just accepting that sometimes I won’t be able to write but also trusting that it will come back. I used to struggle with that a lot, believing myself to be an imposter just because I couldn’t always sit down and summon the “muse”. But now I recognize that it’s just all part of the process.
Your third collection of poetry, Hijra, will be published in the fall this year. Poems in Hijra explore what it is like to lose home, language, and culture as the result of political conflicts over which you have no control. Could you tell me more about the book?
They are basically poems of exodus and flight, a mediation on how physical space is refashioned, transmitted and remembered. The hope was to write poetry that creates a dialogue between two worlds (land of origin vs. new land), using language as a cultural vehicle. Many of the poems follow women from unnamed, war-torn villages/countries as they migrate to the West.
Your poems deal with exile, with being a refugee. With all the conflicts around the world, climate change and poverty, migrations became inevitable for so many people. Do you feel the responsibility to bear witness to these hard times with your poems?
Yes, I do feel that it’s a universal responsibility to bear witness, using whatever tools one has at their disposal: whether that’s through poetry, journalism, art, song, photography, law, etc. Those of us with the privilege of having a voice that’s heard have the responsiblity to amplify the voices of those that don’t.
How do you keep the connection with Palestine? Do you visit often? Do you feel the pressure, like some of your poems reveal, to at least watch the news and be constantly informed about the situation there?
I hope to visit again soon. I think the connection stays alive through family, stories, reading the wonderful writing that comes from Palestinian writers. I do feel like it’s important for people (not just myself) to remain informed on and invested in the situation in Palestine.
/photo © Sama Alshaibi, Linking the Body and the Desert/
What are some Arab writers (poetry and prose) you hold dear to your heart, whose writing inspires you?
So many! Etel Adnan, Fady Joudah, Naomi Shihab Nye, Khaled Mattawa, Philip Metres, Mahmoud Darwish, Deema Shehabi and more.
What is the beauty and power of poetry, in your words – why is it important?
It’s important for many reasons, not least of all that it grants the reader access to another world, another mind. Poetry rearranges things, which can help us see things not only in a different way, but sometimes in a clearer way. The best poetry tugs at you, releases something authentic—an emotion, a memory, even resistance.