Ten Questions for Hala Alyan

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Hala Alyan, whose fourth poetry collection, The Twenty-Ninth Year, is out today from Mariner Books. In wild, lyrical poems, Alyan examines the connections between physical and interior migration, occasioned by the age of twenty-nine, which, in Islamic and Western tradition, is a year of transformation and upheaval. Leaping from war-torn cities in the Middle East to an Oklahoma Olive Garden to a Brooklyn brownstone, Alyan’s poems chronicle a personal history shaped by displacement. “Alyan picks up the fragments of a broken past and reassembles them into a livable future made more dazzling for having known brokenness,” writes Kaveh Akbar. “This is poetry of the highest order.” Hala Alyan is an award-winning Palestinian American poet and novelist as well as a clinical psychologist. Her previous books include the novel Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) and the poetry collections Hijra (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), Four Cities (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), and Atrium (Three Rooms Press, 2012).

Hala Alyan, author of The Twenty-Ninth Year. (Credit: Bob Anderson)

1. How long did it take you to write The Twenty-Ninth Year
I wrote it in bits and pieces over a year, and then stitched it together into a coherent collection in a few weeks, which is usually how I work with poetry.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Much of it was written from a state of pain—psychic, emotional grief, a time in my life that involved a fair amount of evolution and “lying fallow,” as my friend put it. At times I found it difficult to write about an experience I was still in the middle of, which is why I had to wait to iron out the narrative until things felt more settled.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
I’m not picky about location. I make sure to write thirty minutes a day, though that generally is for fiction, which I have a harder time being disciplined about. In terms of poetry, I usually wait until I need to write, which makes for a really thrilling, cathartic experience of creation.

4. What was the most unexpected thing about the publication process? 
Just how involved and long the process can be! How many beautiful, moving parts have to work together just to create a book, and how much you need dedication and love for the process from every single person involved.

5. What are you reading right now?
At the moment, I’m rereading Virgin by Analicia Sotelo as well as The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner.

6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
That’s such a difficult question, because I wish all good writing (especially by writers of color) had equal recognition—an impossible want, I know. There’s several books coming out or recently out by women of color that I’m really hoping soak up a ton of recognition: Invasive Species by Marwa Helal, To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari and A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum.

7. What is one thing you’d change about the literary community and/or the publishing business?
I wish the different parts of the community were more integrated. Starting off, I knew virtually nothing about the publishing industry, for instance, which seems like an oversight. I would love to have more interaction with different members of the writing, reading and publishing community—to know more about what publicists do, to talk to more booksellers and libraries, to really be reminded that we’re all in this together!

8. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life? 
My easily distracted nature: laundry, walking the dog, making oatmeal. Although I also think that these are necessary parts to a writing life, as is work (for me) and procrastination and daydreaming.

9. What trait do you most value in an editor (or agent)? 
A combination of honesty and empathy, which I’ve been lucky enough to find both in my agent and the editors I’ve worked with so far. I also like a bit of tough love, because it brings out the eager student in me.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? 
I like to toss Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird at anyone who is even remotely interested in writing. In particular, I love her approach to breaking down a massive writing task into small, digestible pieces, and finding joy in those pieces.