Interviews

How Hala Alyan Creates New Memories through Poetry

A conversation with the poet/novelist on 'The Twenty-Ninth Year'

Hala Alyan’s The Twenty-Ninth Year is a poetry collection about transition, age, experience, and memory. Sifting through identities tied to place, from the Middle East to Middle America. The award-winning Palestinian American poet, novelist, and clinical psychologist creates exceptional images of how an untrustworthy memory, or an untrustworthy former self, can influence how we view our history. I had the opportunity to ask her about her stunning new collection.

Meredith Boe

Why the twenty-ninth year?

Hala Alyan

It chose me. It was a year of evolution and role transitions for me, and I found myself reflecting on the concept of metamorphoses, both real and imagined, in myself and the women around me. There’s also something about burying a decade and bracing yourself for a new one that makes the year a powerful one.

Meredith Boe

In the poem, “You’re Not a Girl in a Movie,” time rewinds seven years, and you say “I was older then, if that makes sense.” How do you think circumstances, life events, trauma, age us more than our years in numbers?

Hala Alyan

By marking us, psychically, emotionally, even physically—we classify things temporally as a society because it’s convenient and culturally sanctioned, but some things transcend chronology. There are decades that pass by quietly; there are months that can wreck you. The reality is that it’s what’s happening within those parentheses of time that either rejuvenate or age. Trauma can age us, but it can also arrest us—leave us stranded at a certain developmental stage in our lives.

Meredith Boe

“Common Ancestors” begins with the word “echolalia.” Meaning to repeat, to echo, which is sometimes used when describing a disorder or when a child learns to talk. How do you find that you mimic your ancestors? Or even, your own past?

Hala Alyan

Through longings, mostly: for certain foods and places and times that long predate me.  I think I’ve learned to treat nostalgia almost like a hormone at this point: something nonnegotiable and elemental. I learn to pray, breathe, dance, exist according to nostalgia’s ebbs and flows, and I’m grateful for this lineage and inheritance, even when it is complicated and painful—it belongs to me, it was gifted to me.

Meredith Boe

“I’m not here to talk to you about Fatima; we both wanted to become her and we failed.” Talk to me about Fatima.

Hala Alyan

Fatima was my maternal grandmother and one of the true, enduring loves of my life. She was gentle and fierce and a conduit between past and future for me and many of my family members. I think much of my life has been assembled around wanting to be like her, and the last few years I’ve been slowly learning how much she’s already imprinted onto me without my being conscious of it. There’s a lot of joy and relief in that knowledge, especially after her passing.

Meredith Boe

Can you discuss what pushes us toward self-destructive behavior? Certain lines in the collection show a deliberate resignation to being used for one’s body, for example. Is it trauma? A way of dealing?

Hala Alyan

One of the things I love about genre of poetry is how liberating it is—unlike memoir, for example, the poet can take liberties with imagining and reimagining history, with rewriting endings and playing (as you mentioned earlier) with temporal narratives. I think what pushes us to destroy isn’t dissimilar from what pushes us to love—a hunger for something different than what is, moving towards something that pulses hotter and louder than what we have right now. Trauma certainly can prime somebody to engage in self-destruction; we learn certain stories about ourselves from childhood and it can take a lifetime to unlearn them. That’s a lot of years in between where we can do a fair amount of damage.

Meredith Boe

Lying comes up a lot. “New Year” ends with “I made it all up.” “I Can’t Tell Which Haircut in the Photograph Is Me” ends with “everyone thought / I was lying and I was.” Can you discuss that? Do you feel like we fabricate our memories half the time? Our stories?

Hala Alyan

I think we fabricate without meaning to. Remember something changes it. Retelling something changes it. I don’t think we realize how much memory is imbued by emotion and place, how much it can be changed and rebuilt. I really wanted to play with that idea in this collection, to push myself to challenge my own memories, and even create new ones. One of the most cathartic things I’ve encountered is reconstructing a story, taking a metaphorical left instead of right and then writing from that place, as though I’ve embodied that new life.

Meredith Boe

What’s next for you?

Hala Alyan

I’m finishing up my second novel, titled The Arsonists’ City, about a Californian family’s return to Beirut to sell their ancestral home. I’m also starting to work on some poems about the women in my lineage.

POETRY
The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan
Mariner Books
Published January 29, 2019

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