Feature

How does immigration impact identity?

To celebrate Refugee Week, Hala Alyan, author of Salt Houses, discusses how immigration impacts identity: 'It isn't just about the new country; it's also what's left behind.'

Immigration isn’t just about the new country, fending one’s way in a foreign city, learning a new language; it’s also about what’s left behind. My work as a clinical psychologist and writer often involves contending with concepts of nostalgia and loss, but in reality, my understanding of immigration took place years earlier. I was born in the United States on a fluke—my parents lived in Kuwait at the time and were visiting family—and, had I not established American citizenship, I would have inherited by father’s Palestinian travel documents. My birthplace proved auspicious: exactly four years later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait City, displacing countless, including many Palestinians who’d been displaced to Kuwait decades earlier, and my parents sought asylum.

By the time I was thirteen, I had lived in seven cities throughout the United States and Middle East—writing became a way of ordering the chaos, so to speak. It was my way of staking out a place of solidity in the world. My first book was a way of wrestling with those themes; it started out as a short story about a young man in pre-1967 Palestine, but the more I wrote, the more I became intrigued by 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; rather, I just followed my curiosity about this family, and it turned into a multigenerational narrative of a single Palestinian family over six decades.

There are definitely parallels between the geographical “arc” of this family and my own. My parents met and married in Kuwait City then, after Saddam’s invasion, found themselves seeking refuge in the United States, while their siblings and other family members wound in places as far-flung as Amman, Kansas and Beirut. In particular, I found the multigenerational, multi-perspective approach to work really well for this sort of story, since I wanted to underscore the intergenerational trauma and inherited collective memory that takes place in diaspora. It also allowed me to create nuanced Arab characters—a community often either politicized or exotified in Western media—and unpack the contrasting personalities that can coexist in a single family, varying in terms of religiosity, age, modernity, Westernization. My favorite characters tend to be the ones that misbehave, and it was particularly liberating to abandon the “good immigrant” trope and create a story about Palestinians that tries to transcend and honor history at the same time.

While writing Salt Houses, I became absorbed with the notion of what we inherit (emotionally, psychologically, and so forth), as well as conceptualizing a single political event from the perspective of different generations. I grew up listening to my grandparents’ stories, of how the world had changed in front of their eyes, and it was always startling to hear my grandparents reference something I’d learned about in history class. In immigration, the original trauma (losing the homeland) is manifested differently for later generations’ discontents, their restlessness and anxieties, their interrupted identities. In the novel, the younger generations never even step foot in Palestine, and yet many facets of their selfhood (whether they recognize it or not) are impacted by the disruption in the family’s heritage years earlier.

If you tell a story enough times, you humanize it. You normalize it. For me, the idea of “home” has become much more theoretical over the past few years, more grounded and rooted in the idea of people, language, values and traditions—things that are moveable in ways that a house and physical land is not. I grew up reading Amy Tan, Chitra Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, brilliant storytellers who normalized much of what I witnessed as the child of Palestinian and Syrian immigrants, moving from Kuwait to Texas and Oklahoma, from Beirut to Brooklyn—intergenerational clashes over culture; an enduring sense of homesickness; the idea of misplacing and recreating “home” in foreign cities. More than anything, that’s what I’m most grateful for when it comes to Salt Houses—the idea of contributing to that canon of immigration literature. In diasporic communities like Palestinians, storytelling becomes a way of resisting erasure—you tell stories to remind yourself, and the world, that you still exist.

More about the author

Salt Houses

Hala Alyan

'A piercingly elegant novel . . . with the power to both break and mend your heart.' Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane

'Epic in scope and uniquely relevant in its concern for displacement. Particularly well-suited for our times, then.' Red

Where do you go when you can’t go home?

On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs.

Although she keeps her predictions to herself that day, they soon come to pass in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967. Caught up in the resistance, Alia’s brother disappears, while Alia and her husband move from Nablus to Kuwait City. Reluctantly they build a life, torn between needing to remember and learning to forget.

When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, Alia and her family yet again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it. Scattering to Beirut, Paris and Boston, Alia’s children begin families of their own, once more navigating the burdens and blessings of beginning again.

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