Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Four Generation of Displaced Palestinian Family Seek Their True Home

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Diane Slocum

September, 2017

Salt Houses
By Hala Alyan
Buy this Book

Salt Houses, Hala Alyan, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt – Salma Yacoub, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren call a lot of places home. And for that reason, many times they feel as if no place is their real home. Salma and her husband left behind their belongings in Jaffa when they had to move to Nablus on the West Bank. When the Six-Day War with Israel breaks out, what remains of Salma’s family wind up in Kuwait, with the story unfolding through the eyes of he daughter, Alia. Alia’s daughter, Riham, has center stage during a summer visit to Amman, where Salma has moved by 1982. Riham’s sister, Souad, views Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait from the safety of Paris as her family is forced to move again. Boston and Beirut also provide homes as the next generation becomes Americanized, then watches bombs drop from their balcony in Beirut.


“the more I wrote, the more I became drawn to the character’s sister and mother.”

AUTHORLINK: What was the first aspect of this story that came to you?

ALYAN: It all started out as a short story about a young man in pre-1967 Palestine, but the more I wrote, the more I became drawn to 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; the very term has always unnerved me so instead I decided to follow my curiosity about the family. I’d follow one family member to the other, until I’d spanned several generations!

“. . . sadly, I lost a few chapters during the revisions, but I’m reworking them into short stories (I can be very stubborn!).”

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide which family members would tell his or her story at any given time? Did some of their stories get cut during revisions?

ALYAN: Yes, sadly, I lost a few chapters during the revisions, but I’m reworking them into short stories (I can be very stubborn!) I decided on the order of members’ stories based on what was most salient historically and also within the family at any particular time. So, if the family was on beach vacation, I wanted to know what that experience was like from the perspective of the adolescent daughter who was struggling with her body and loneliness. More than anything, I just went to the character I was most interested in hearing from at that time.

AUTHORLINK: You’ve been an award-winning poet of three collections. What was the biggest challenge you faced switching to writing a novel? Had you written any previous novels?

ALYAN: The first things I remember writing were actually fiction—mostly short stories, this is my first novel—although I probably started writing poetry soon after, but had only published in poetry. The biggest challenge was probably the decreased instant gratification that comes with working on a longer project. When writing a poem, you have a product to show for relatively soon after, but with a novel, it can take years before the project takes shape. So, I had to break it down into thousands of little parts, so I could feel that “gratification” when a particular paragraph was written, for instance.

More than anything, I was inspired by the resilience of refugees and immigrants.

AUTHORLINK: Did any parts of your story relate to things that happened to your own family?

ALYAN: I certainly borrowed structural elements from my familial history, in terms of the countries that appear in the book and the way in which the Yacoub family is displaced more than once. I tried to honor this particular family’s story, while also acknowledging the larger sociopolitical context that housed it. More than anything, I was inspired by the resilience of refugees and immigrants I’ve come across in my personal and professional life, and I wanted to honor the story of displacement by exploring it as honestly as I could.

 AUTHORLINK: Do you relate to any of your characters more than others?

ALYAN: I try not to pick favorites, but I definitely resonate with Souad’s restlessness and obstinate nature at times.

 AUTHORLINK: Do you think being a clinical psychologist helped you understand and flesh out your characters?

ALYAN: Absolutely, my psychological training has helped me pay attention to the world in general, and to focus my curiosity and ask questions about intent, desire and motivation, all of which have been useful in character development.

More than anything, I was inspired by the resilience of refugees and immigrants.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people gain from reading you novel besides enjoying a good story?

ALYAN: Ideally, I hope it helps people understand a narrative they might not have encountered before. I think this is a time where amplifying the voices of marginalized communities is more important than ever. I also hope that it can be a nice piece of “representation” for writers of color, “third culture” writers, who might not see themselves in most stories.

 AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

ALYAN: I’m working on a new poetry manuscript and a new novel about a Lebanese-Syrian family of expats that return to Beirut to sell their ancestral home. It’s tentatively titled The Arsonists’ City.

About the Author:

Hala Alyan divides her time between her private practice and teaching at New York University. Her poetry has appeared in The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner and Colorado Review, among others. Her collections are titled Hijra, Four Cities and Atrium. Hala lived in several different locations in the Middle East before coming to America.

See more information at:

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.