33: Hala Alyan
writer and clinical psychologist
Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and clinical psychologist. She was born in Carbondale, Illinois, and grew up in Kuwait, Oklahoma, Texas, Maine, and Lebanon. She earned a BA from the American University of Beirut and an MA from Columbia University. While completing her doctorate in clinical psychology from Rutgers University, she specialized in trauma and addiction work with various populations.
Alyan's poetry collections include Atrium, winner of the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry, Four Cities, and Hijra, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. She is the author of the novel Salt Houses. She has been awarded a Lannan Foundation fellowship and lives in Brooklyn.
Elena Mudd is a Brooklyn-based photographer who explores the relationship between individual and social identity from a feminist (or humanistic) perspective. The intimate portrait, conceived as collaborative process with her subject, is her specialty. Her subjects range from family members to strangers she meets on the street. She works with film media, both 35mm and medium format, and with digital.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on June 26, 2017 in Hala's Brooklyn Apartment. Elena Mudd photographed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
HALA: I had several different girlhoods depending on where I was. I was in the Middle East for the first few years of my life, and we went to the United States after the Gulf War. I was in the Midwest until I was eleven, in Maine when I was twelve, the United Arab Emirates when I was thirteen, Tripoli [Libya] when I was fourteen, and then I was in Beirut for college. So it was a very fragmented girlhood, and my understanding of what it meant to be a girl depended on where I was.
When I was in the United Arab Emirates, I went to a relatively strict British school where boys sat on one side of the room, girls sat on the other side of the room, and girls who talked to boys were considered whores. That was the language at thirteen. Literally if you talked to a boy it meant something. That early adolescence is already a pretty fragile time, where you're starting to get attracted to people and you're not sure about this body that's changing. I got my period when I was thirteen. I started to go through puberty and all these hormonal changes in an environment where people were divided into good girls and bad girls. All you had to do is make one tiny error and you were in the other category for good. So I think of girlhood as a time when I felt very lonely. I was such a weird kid. I like, watched the weather channel all the time.
HALA: I watched professional wrestling. And I read Tolstoy when I was like, eleven. Anna Karenina. I was a weird child. And I do think a big part of it was that there was no way to fit into the other groups of girls. I didn't speak Spanish so I couldn't sit with the Mexican girls. I wasn't white so I couldn't sit with the white girls. I wasn't black so I couldn't sit with the like, two black girls in our school. There was the “othered” girlhood that I experienced when I was in the states, and then the “othered” girlhood that I experienced when I went to the Middle East, because by then, I was Americanized by everybody that I came into contact with. It was such an awkward, unpleasant time. But I had such an imagination, so I would live in my head constantly.
SOPHIA: What kind of girls or women were you in your imagination?
HALA: I can still remember the idea of this woman. She was tall and thin and blonde. I don't know how I thought I was going to become blonde. She was wearing a yellow dress and walking in some European city. That was the image of what it meant to attain womanhood for me. It also depended on the place where I was. I remember in Oklahoma I vacillated between wanting to be a blonde Courtney and knowing how to speak Spanish so I could hang out with Mexican girls. When I was in the Middle East, I wished I was a local girl. I wished I could wear the veil. I just wanted something that was effortless, which is the opposite of my experience in reality. It was never effortless. It always required so much negotiation and preparation and planning things to say and how to say them. It was exhausting.
SOPHIA: Did not having a table make you feel anything in particular about your gender?
HALA: Maybe more genderless. I felt like I was in this in-between space. I never had a problem identifying with male narrators, so I think having no table to sit at made me able to read in a more liberated way, which helped me to write later on. I don't think any of these things are coincidences. There is something to feeling, “If I can't sit at any of these tables, then I guess I'm going to sit in the bathroom stall and read.” I'm going to make up another table.
SOPHIA: About the thin line between being a good girl and a bad girl, was that only located at school?
HALA: I think the good girl/bad girl [tension] was in my house always. It wasn't really in school or socially until I moved to the Middle East, which just so happened to be when puberty was hitting. It was in a setting where there are a lot of cultural values that make it hard to explore your sexuality without fear of judgement. It's not “backwards” or anything like that; in many parts of the world, losing your virginity before you're married is not culturally sanctioned, and the Middle East is one of them. Kissing other girls at sleepovers is not something that's culturally sanctioned. My parents were very typical immigrant parents. My first sleepover was when I was like, thirteen. I didn't ever mention boys. The first conversation where I was like “I'm dating this guy” was when I was like twenty three. My dad was like, “Is it serious? Talk to me when it's serious.”
HALA: Not in an aggressive way, I just don't think he could tolerate it. My parents also justified a lot of [their decisions] with this confluence of Arab and secular Muslim values, which I think can be used by immigrant parents in order to ensure obedience rather than to discuss Islam.
HALA: “This is what a good person does, or you go to hell.”
I have a sister who's thirteen years younger, so her experience is wildly different, because we were in a different socioeconomic background by the time she was born, and we were living in different cities. It would be interesting to ask her what her girlhood was like.
SOPHIA: In your book, you write from the perspective of a lot of different women. And I think what’s most remarkable is that you follow them throughout their lives. How old are you now?
HALA: I'm thirty now.
SOPHIA: So not only are you a thirty-year-old woman writing from the perspective of much older women, but you’re also writing about the aging process, and looking down at someone who’s your age now. What memories aided you in the process of writing this?
HALA: I remember when my mom got pregnant with and gave birth to my sister, and watching her relationship to her body change. I remember her losing weight after. I was captivated by existential stuff like mortality and aging, and I think I was aware of aging when I was very young. I knew, “This changes. Your body isn't going to be like this forever. Your mind is potentially not going to be like this forever. You're going to lose friends when you get old.”
I remember my mom talking about her girlhood during the Kuwait invasion, and how I was struck that now she’s an immigrant mother who packs lunches that embarrass me in front of the other kids. What did she do in order to get to this particular moment? How can I walk backwards to find that?
SOPHIA: Do you have any particularly strong childhood memories of your female relatives and their relationships to objects?
HALA: Jewelry was always one. My family lost pretty much everything in Kuwait, but my mom had this jewelry box when we were growing up. Some of it must’ve been costume jewelry —these aren’t diamonds here. But she had necklaces, bracelets, and rings that had enough emotional value to bring with her when they left. It was always like Christmas when I could watch her go through it and point out the string of pearls, the silver pendant. She had a sort of ritualistic way of going through it and holding each one up, and I'd always pretend that I didn't remember the story behind the object so she could tell it again. It was a really sweet thing.
There were a lot of rituals around food. I remember my grandmother and my aunt and my mom rolling stuffed grape leaves, doing the kousa mahshi. In the night before some big family event, they would stay up in front of the television, watching some random newscast and working on that stuff. Dying their hair out of the box. Cleaning was definitely a ritual for my mother. I think they all read the Quran relatively consistently. Most people didn't pray regularly, but they would read the Quran to their kids before they went to bed.
SOPHIA: You seem to think a lot about this chaotic, seemingly universal attempt to define what home is, and then the act of being displaced from what you consider to be your home. I feel that for women, that displacement might be particularly rattling because they are so often associated with homemaking, and no longer have that physical space. Have you observed the loss of home affecting women in a unique way?
HALA: I do think it's different for women. If we are within that framework of gendered experiences, then I would say that I do think that, especially in more collectivist cultures like the Middle East, women have been more associated with domestic roles. Males are more associated with finances and keeping the roof over everyone’s head. So when home is lost, it impacts each gender very differently. I think with men in traditional families, there's a shame that comes with it. Like, “I couldn’t even keep this for my family?” But with women I think there's a pretty severe loss of identity, and a loss of a sense of purpose. But it's remarkable how people will find ways to tend to homes, even if it’s in something like a shelter. I've seen women create homes in cardboard boxes and domestic shelters. I think the women in my life who have been displaced have felt their own sense of safety shatter, but also the safety they’re capable of providing for their children.
But the first thing that popped into my head when you asked this question is that women are displaced out of their bodies all the time. I think women are more familiar with displacement. When you think about things like sexual assault, being socialized to be dissatisfied with body image, or dressing for the objectifying gaze, women feel kicked out of their bodies pretty regularly. So it's possible, then, that the home becomes even more important because it's something concrete that you can attach a sense of self to.
SOPHIA: The Los Angeles Review of Books said that your book “breaks the conceptions that non-Middle-Eastern readers may have about the issues of female modesty among Muslim families.” First, do you agree with that? Second, if you do, what work did you do to address those misconceptions and why do you think it's important?
HALA: I definitely think it's important to address misconceptions as much as we can as artists, because I do think there's a responsibility, if you're going to tell certain stories, to tell them as authentically as you can. Having said that, I didn't write this book for white readers. It was a beautiful review, and I definitely agree with the idea that Salt Houses includes a lot of portrayals of Arab women that break stereotypes. But I set out to tell a story as authentically as I could, and that happened in the process. If you're trying to remain loyal to things like westernization, displacement, and the clash of generational values, you're going to tell a much more nuanced, comprehensive story about these people than I think the average western reader is exposed to. Perhaps white western readers know this in a cerebral sense, but I don’t think that most of them are familiar with the fact that many Muslim women aren’t veiled. A lot of Muslim people drink. There are one thousand and one ways to be Arab.
SOPHIA: In your psychological practice, you specialize in treating patients with marginalized identities. You’ve said that the lived experience of marginalization is “lonely and disenfranchised,” and it struck me that when we first started speaking, one of the first things you did was describe your girlhood as lonely. Do you consider identifying as a woman to be a marginalized experience?
HALA: Yeah, totally. [Evidence to support that] is all over the world. I think there are a lot of places where women are forbidden from learning how to read. I'm not talking about countries that are “developing;” I think this happens much more often than we think. But we also don't have to look very far. The sort of things that are going on in this country right now have a lot to do with maintaining a heteronormative, patriarchal structure that keeps certain people in positions of otheredness and marginalization. I definitely think that includes women in general. Having a room full of men deciding on what a woman can and can't do with her reproductive organs is a prime example. I can't imagine a world in which women get together and decide what you can and can't do with your penis. It's laughable because there's no framework for us to even imagine that. I think it's really insidious. Everybody internalizes this sexism to a certain extent because we're socialized to. So I do think that womanhood is a marginalized experience.
Having said that, there's layers of marginalization. There's intersectionality. To be a woman and to be a woman of color, to be a woman and a woman of color who's gay, to be a woman and a woman of color who's gay and transitioning —there’s all sorts of layers and levels to it. In my opinion, the most vulnerable group in this country is women refugees of color. They have been the targets of a remarkable amount of vitriol and violence. But I also think that part of what makes marginalization so insidious is that it involves an increased likelihood of being a victim or a survivor of certain kinds of violence. Women are one hundred percent more likely to be the survivors of violence. Female bodies are ones upon which a lot of violence is enacted regularly and casually. I think that's the biggest part of it.
SOPHIA: Your response to that question was very lingo-heavy, and there had to be a time when your relationship to femininity pre-dated the acquisition of that language. Can you talk about the experience of starting to possess your gender identity?
HALA: When I started to begin to feel attached to womanhood?
HALA: I'm sober. I think that I spent my adolescence and early twenties attempting to erase myself using different means, which is not an uncommon story. When I got sober when I was twenty four, it forced me to really confront the idea of who I am. The idea of myself as somebody who grew up in a Muslim household, the idea of myself as somebody who's American but not too American, Arab but not too Arab. Finally, my idea of myself as a woman who is in a body that has always felt relatively resonant with me. Even though there have been times when I’ve felt super detached from it, I’ve never felt gender dissatisfaction or that I wasn’t born in the right body. But most often I just ignored my body, or I tried to hurt it. So it was in my mid-twenties that I started to become more comfortable with the idea of myself as a woman.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
HALA: I think to not make it harder for each other; it’s already hard enough. We have a lot of cultural references for this trope of women as catty, competitive, and not supportive, and it’s tiresome. I think the best thing that women can do for each other is try not to fall for it, because it just hurts everybody. I think that's also the best thing that men can do for women, too. Systems of oppression don't just hurt the people who are being oppressed; they hurt everybody. Somebody who is being directly oppressed is being hurt very differently than the oppressor, but systems of privilege and systems of oppression hurt everybody involved.
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