Salt Houses author Hala Alyan talks Immigration Through Poetry and Her Upcoming Collection of Poems


Hala Alyan is an award-winning Palestinian American poet, novelist, and clinical psychologist and most recently, the author of Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). But after the long-form fiction, Alyan’s already back to working within poetry, a place she knows well–past collections include Atrium (2012), winner of the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry, Four Cities (2015), and Hijra (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry.

I talked to Hala about the work, its thematic concerns, and her poetic process.

Laura Metter: Why poetry after a novel?

Hala Alyan: These pieces came organically after I was finished with Salt Houses and had sent the novel off to my publishers for editing. I wrote many of them during a trip to Marfa, Texas last year. I don’t usually plan which genre follows the other; actually, most of the time, I’m working on several projects at once. It helps me stay excited about what I’m working on.

LM: Is there a connection between these poems and your novel?

HA: My new collection is a meditation on the transforming landscapes of womanhood, wifedom, loss and exile. To a certain extent, both the collection and the novel use language as a cultural vehicle of sorts, trying to create a dialogue between two worlds: my American existence and my Arab one, exile and the rebuilding of life in its aftermath.

LM: What went into your process of selection or sharing?

HA: They were painful ones to write, but completing them felt particularly cathartic. Given the legacy of immigration and war in my ancestral homelands, I wanted to share poems that examine that migration, both literally and emotionally.

LM: How do these poems connect to yourself?

HA: They were all written during my actual twenty-ninth year, which was a strange and difficult and marvelous one. In many ways, this collection is my most honest, the one in which I am most transparently myself.

LM: Is there a theme?

HA: If I had to pick one, it would be—the creation of home when all one knows is exile and flight.

LM: What were some of your biggest challenges getting this book finished?

HA: In terms of Salt Houses, I would say discipline when it came to editing was particularly overwhelming. I would keep losing interest and want to start writing something new. I have the easiest time with the “freeflow” part of the writing process, and am most stumped by editing, rereading the same passages over and over. I get so bored…

LM: What helped you finish this collection?

HA: I was lucky enough to secure a couple of residencies over the last year that gave me enough time and space—not to mention access to nature and inspiring artists—to put the final touches on the manuscript.

LM: Do you see yourself continuing more with novels or poems?

HA: Hopefully both. The one thing I’m really excited about experimenting more with is non-fiction, especially personal essays.

LM: What do you want your audience to take away from this collection?

HA: Honesty requires a little fear, at least the way I do it. I’m hoping readers can recognize the truth in these pieces, that they felt urgent and necessary to write. Also, I hope I’ve done the narrative of immigration—as I experienced it in my family—justice.


Laura Metter is a young fictionist and poet based in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her poems and essays have appeared in Adanna Literary Journal and The Artifice among other magazines.


Below is an excerpt of Hala Alyan’s forthcoming poetry collection:


Dirty Girl


See, I knew I’d make my mama cry if I stole the earring and so into my pocket it went. I asked America to give


me the barbeque. A slow dance with a cowboy. Pop goes the grenade. Pop goes the Brooklyn jukebox. Give me male hands, oleander white, hard, earnest, your husband in the backseat of his own car, my jeans shoved down, the toxic plant you named your child after, a freeway by the amusement park that jilted girls speed across, windows rolled down, screaming bad songs at the top of their lungs.


After the new world. Before the New one. The Peruvian numerologist told me I’d be trailed by sevens until the day I died.

Everything worth nicking needs an explanation: I slept with one man because the moon, I slept with the other because who cares, we’re expats, the black rhinos are dying, the subway pastors can’t make me tell the truth. Tonight Z isn’t eating and five states away

I’m pouring a whiskey


I won’t drink.


I count the green lights. Those blue-eyed flowers your father brought when I couldn’t leave my bedroom. The rooftop, the weather, the subway empties its fist of me, the red salt of my fear. A chalky seven stamped on the pale face of the sleeping pill.                          What I mean to say is


I’m divisible only by myself.



Gospel: Texas


Poison ivy I

never got. My grandmother


asking the Burger King cashier

for pommes frites.


First shooting

star. First silverfish. First carrot


in snowball. Kansas on the

weekends, the blade


of I-35. Permission slips.

My mother


dressing me as a

pilgrim for a school trip.


Arabic word for girl

longer than


English word for

no. First valentine card.


First grasshopper.

The seventeen windows


of that simulated

colonial town,


peering in every

single one. Pretending


the air we churn

is butter.



The Female of the Species


They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases

full of spices and cassettes. In airports,


they line themselves up like wine bottles.

The new city twinkles beneath an onion-moon.


Birds mistake the pebbles of glass on the

black asphalt for bread crumbs.




If I drink, I tell stories about the women I know.

They break dinner plates. They marry impulsively.


When I was a child I watched my aunt throw a halo

of spaghetti at my mother. I’m older than they were now.




In an old-new year, my cousin shouts ana bint Beirut

at the sleeping houses. She clatters up the stairs.


I never remember to tell her anything. Not the dream

where I can’t yell loud enough for her to stop running.


And the train comes. And the amar layers the stones

like lichen. How the best night of my life was the one


she danced with me in Paris, sharing a hostel bed,

and how sometimes you need one knife to carve another.




It’s raining in two cities at once. The Vendôme plaza

fills with water and the dream, the fountain, the moon


explodes open, so that Layal, Beirut last daughter,

can walk through the exit wound.

With EXIT WEST, Hamid turns eye to Europe’s mishandling of asylum seekers


(Riverhead Books)


Once again Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid has captured the zeitgeist. In his latest novel, Exit West, he continues to pull no punches. His earlier novels put the US and “rising Asia” under the microscope, but this time the culprit is Europe. In this novel he puts us in the shoes of the Middle Eastern refugees and we get a glimpse into what it must be like to be forced to flee from one’s homeland, the perils faced at the hands of other terrified, desperate asylum-seekers, and then being cast aside by Westerners, who prove they’re not as glamorous or as kind as Hollywood movies portray.

Hamid’s rigorous observations and capacity to represent diverse perspectives come from having lived in London, the US, and Pakistan. Those experiences appear throughout his corpus as examinations of the turbulent bumps of globalization. Altogether, he writes compelling, if not cutting, stories. His talents result achieving universality in observations and compassion of the human condition. That’s surely helped him achieve international acclaim.

Let’s consider Exit West. His latest release, based on the Syrian refugee crisis, features Nadia and Saeed, two young sweethearts thrust prematurely into a relationship when unrest roils through their city. With a bit of magical realism the couple finds secret doors leading to the safety of Greece, England, and then the US. (See if these doors don’t conjure thoughts of Being John Malkovich.)

Hamid’s essays in The Guardian and Time also take Westerners to task. In fact, most readers will find themselves looking at their patriotism in a way they’ve never been challenged to do before. His scathing essays raise a mirror to us, causing us to wonder if/when we stopped being the land of opportunity. He writes:

“A pair of runaway slaves fleeing the antebellum South, arriving in Boston. A family of Jews fleeing the Third Reich, arriving in New York. A baby boy fleeing the destruction of his home world of Krypton, arriving in Kansas. Most Americans know what must be done with such people. They must be taken in. Given a chance. Allowed to become an equal part of the ­American story.

“How many Americans today would think it right to send the slaves back to the plantation, the Jews back to Europe, the infant Superman back into space? The very idea seems abominable, absurd—un-American.

“Why, then, is there such an outcry over accepting refugees from places like Syria?”

Hamid’s other novels are also tales sprung from today’s news headlines. Consider The Reluctant Fundamentalist. (Director Mira Nair turned it into a gripping film starring Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, and Riz Ahmed.) This story takes place primarily in New York before and in the months after 9/11. Told from the perspective of Changez, a Pakistani immigrant who graduates from Princeton, earns a position with an elite Wall Street firm, and falls for WASPY, wealthy Erica. Changez exemplifies the American Dream we still want to pretend exists. Until two planes tear into the World Trade Towers, transforming him overnight into a persona non grata.

“I ignored as best I could the rumors I overheard…: Pakistani cab drivers were being beaten to within an inch of their lives; the FBI was raiding mosques, shops, and even people’s homes; Muslim men were disappearing, perhaps into shadowy detention centers for questioning or worse. I reasoned that these…(things) were unlikely ever to affect me because such things (didn’t) happen to Princeton graduates earning eighty-thousand dollars a year.”

Quotes like this give us a refreshing perspective from an immigrant, a non-American in the country’s saddest moment in almost 60 years. It sheds light on that line between nationalism and patriotism, imploring readers to more deeply consider which side they stand on.

Next comes How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, also published by Riverhead. It’s a modern day version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, structured in twelve mocking steps on how to rise to the ranks of the middle class. The author has left the setting deliberately unclear: is it India or Pakistan? Nonetheless setting matters only insofar as we get to know a young man, born into a destitute family, the kind who live in the slums that Westerners often assume are the only kind of housing in India. As the man becomes street smarter, he builds a lucrative water business and climbs the social ladder in ways that would have made Ayn Rand beam.

Hamid plugs into humanity’s natural tendency to envy/dislike the wealthy. He allows us to coast on our assumptions that they got that way by skipping morality, respect, and integrity, by marrying for convenience rather than an emotional engagement. He captures the zeitgeist by making us feel like we’re reading about a country transmogrifying before our eyes.

His use of the second person brings us still deeper into the action. Such is the case in a particular scene depicting backroom deals and corrupt alliances that form the backbone of capitalism:

“Yet he suspects it is not these obstacles giving you pause. No, the brigadier thinks, you are wary because you know full well that when the military-related businesses advance into a market, the front lines change rapidly. We get permissions no one else can get. Red tape dissolves effortlessly for us. And reappears around our competitors. So we can move fast. Which makes us dangerous commercial adversaries.”

Hamid’s debut novel was Moth Smoke. He’s also written a collection of essays, Civilization and its Discontents. His work has won or been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation award, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and others.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist film

Excerpt of the book

How to Get excerpt

Exit West excerpt

Hamid’s essay in Time


Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at

[REVIEW] Islanders by Teow Lim Goh

Islanders front cover

Conundrum Press

May 2016


How do you write someone else’s story? Where do personal and inherited histories collide? These are the questions immediately facing Denver-based poet Teow Lim Goh in Islanders. The collection constitutes something of an imagined history—Goh imagines the voices within the poems, but each one is based entirely in historical document. Between 1910 and 1940, many Chinese immigrants were detained at The Angel Island Immigration Station. Some of those detainees wrote poetry on the barrack walls. Many of those poems exist in record to this day, but not all. Only the poems of the male detainees survive. A 1940 fire destroyed the women’s barracks and, with them, every one of their poems. These are the poems that Goh imagines and crafts in Islanders.

 The collection begins with Angel Island, a Howl-esque piece that acts as both prologue and dedication. Goh acknowledges the separation between her personal and cultural history. She was not one of the women detained at Angel Island, but she understands that, decades earlier, she easily could have been.  The volume is then divided into five chapters, the first of which are Voices, Echoes and Work, a trilogy of interconnected poems that comprise Islanders’ main body. It’s here that the strength of Goh’s creation comes into play because Islanders is a work designed to be consumed as a whole. Many individual poems contain moments of subtle, formal beauty but only in the context of the collection as a whole does the true power of Islanders show itself.

Voices is Goh’s direct imagining of the female detainees. It includes poems about women trapped, waiting, abandoned, scrutinized, examined and finally freed. Most of the poems are small and self-contained, consisting of slight moments that one would record in silent isolation. Certain poems such as “Scrutiny” and “Virtue Exam” skirt at the fringes of heavy-handed but it’s hard not be drawn in by the intensity and intimacy of the images that Goh creates.

If Voices existed in isolation it would stand as a flawed but fascinating exercise in fictional history. Fortunately, it does not. The true strength of Islanders comes in the form of the following two chapters. Echoes contains the stories of those left behind and those forced to move on ahead. It becomes clear quickly that these stories exist in direct parallel with those in Voices, the unfaithful husband wracked with guilt; the widower, left in the wake of a dark and brutal suicide; and the man filled with hate at those who subject his wife to cruel humiliations. Work goes a step further and imagines the voices of those on the other side, the guards, the gatekeepers. In these chapters, Goh’s voice is muted and with them she introduces fresh layers of nuance. We shift from the hot intensity of a woman accused of being a whore, to her husband’s impotent rage, to the quiet self-loathing of the Chinese guard instructed to tell her of the inspector’s opinions. Goh builds a world so rich that it moves past history into something alive, at a time when it stands as a crucial addition to America’s cultural conversation.

Riot delves further still into history as it chronicles the 1877 San Francisco labor rally that devolved into violence in Chinatown, giving the preceding chapters context. Every moment of the collection until now is provided extra weight as Goh ties together these intimately connected historical narratives, one feeding directly into the other. The emotions of the preceding chapters turns to something even darker as four words echo through Riot, and through time: “the Chinese must go.

Islanders ends much as it begins: with Goh herself. In Pilgrimage, Goh returns to Angel Island. Here, confronted with the distance from her history as she reads the poems on the walls written “in a language I no longer understand”, Islanders comes full circle. Through her poetry Goh has found those lost voices and brought them to life in a collection that is, at times, flawed but still feels rich, vibrant and, more than half a century removed from its events, utterly necessary.