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May 2, 2017

Book Notes - Hala Alyan "Salt Houses"

Salt Houses

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Hala Alyan's novel Salt Houses is a stunning debut about the lasting impact of the Six-Day War from a Palestinian perspective.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Alyan's impressive first novel tracks the dispersal of four generations of a Palestinian family…The Yacoubs' distinctly personal experiences will mirror the experiences of immigrants and refugees around the world and the Palestinians' dislocation in particular…. Unexpected, deeply moving…this journey is well worth taking."

In her own words, here is Hala Alyan's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Salt Houses:

“Breathe Me” by Sia

This was a song I listened to obsessively during my college years in Lebanon, and Sia’s haunting voice was often the perfect companion to the backdrop of Beirut’s winding streets and crowded bars. When it came time to write out the Beirut scenes in the novel, I would often play this song in the background and it felt like I was transported back to being nineteen, chain-smoking cigarettes on the campus quad, the city a frenetic, moving thing around me.

“Hana el Sakran” by Fairuz

This is one of the songs that I imagine Alia and her friend Mimi listening during the summers in Amman, a cheerful tune that they’d perhaps sing along to in the evenings, when the neighborhood women would gather on the balcony, to gossip and reminisce. Alia’s unhappiness found respite during these trips to Amman, and this song strikes me as a nice portrayal of that relief.

“Who Knew” by P!nk

I like to imagine this song playing on the radio during Linah’s chapter, when she and Zain were sneaking around for cigarettes. I have a distinct memory of this song coming on in my mother’s car the summer of that war, its melancholy lyrics—“I wish I could remember/but I keep/your memory/you visit me in my sleep”—were stuck in my head for days after.

“Plump” by Hole

This is a song I believe Manar listened to as an adolescent. It speaks to the rage and frustration of a powerless young woman, not to mention it addresses the body in such a primal and visceral way. Every time I hear Courtney Love growl out, “They say I’m plump/but I throw up all the time,” I get goosebumps. During an outing in Beirut, Manar’s mother can hear loud music thumping from her headphones: I’m certain she was listening to this song.

“Tayf (Ghost)” by Mashrou' Leila

While I was writing scene about the beach party in Jaffa, I envisioned Manar and her newfound friends dancing to a lingering, mystical-sounding music. I listened to this song after the first draft of the novel was complete, and it instantly reminded me of that fictional party. The lead singer’s voice haunts as he sings in Arabic, “The mushrooms have started to grow/Tomorrow we inherit the earth,” and the final line, “For now we still have songs;/Sing with your highest heels on,” seems like the perfect anthem for anyone—the lost, the abandoned, the displaced—who finds a way to keep dancing.

“Like a Prayer” by Madonna

This song comes on the radio while Souad is driving through Beirut. She is recently divorced and heartsick. When screams along, “When you call my name/it’s like a little prayer,” the children laugh and dance around in the backseat of the car, thrilled to hear their mother sing. I’ve always thought of it as the happiest moment in the book.

“Le Vent Nous Portera” by Noir Désir

While this song doesn’t appear in the book, I played it on repeat while writing the chapter in Paris. When he sings, “Tout disparaîtra mais/Le vent nous portera” (“Everything will disappear but/the wind will carry us”), I always envision an empty, windswept road and no direction to move in except straight ahead, which is the ultimate metaphor for immigration and diaspora.

“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd

This song is played by street musicians in Paris, while Souad and her friends drunkenly sing along. The nostalgia and wistfulness of this song—“How I wish/how I wish you were here”—was a bit of foreshadowing for the story, and is perfect for that moment in the family’s history: Saddam Hussein’s army has just invaded Kuwait, and the siblings are about to end up in different countries.

“Warpath” by Drezus

I’ve often heard people talk about a sort of kinship felt between Palestinian and Native American communities. Much of the art from both communities examines the relationship to the land, as well as themes of displacement and cultural appropriation. This song is a testament to the resilient spirit of a marginalized people, as well as a nod to the generations that came before him—“I’m drawing all of my strength from my people here before me, man”—one of the driving themes of the novel.

“Enta Omri” by Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum is a legend. She was the (evocative) voice of the people in Egypt and the Arab world in general. Many times while writing the novel, I would return to a recording of her performing this song in a theater in Paris in 1967, soon after the war. It was a time of defeat and mourning in Arab history. But still—she sang and people sang along.

“Fake Empire” by The National

Although this probably wasn’t their intention, this song by The National has always reminded me of the notion of the American Dream—particularly the line, “We’re half awake in a fake empire”—that emblem of security and gratification that immigrants are constantly bred on. Throughout the chapters of the novel, characters scuttle from city to city, fleeing war and political turmoil and seeking, of course, some sort of refuge.

“Yalla Tnam” by Fairuz

This is the song the book ends with, the song that ties the generation together, a simple lullaby for putting a child to sleep. It’s a beautiful example of how diaspora survives through rituals and traditions: as long as mothers (and fathers) sing this song to their babies, the song will remain alive.

Hala Alyan and Salt Houses links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Kirkus Reviews review
Shelf Awareness review

Literary Hub essay by the author
Signature essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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