Dreams, Displacement & DNA: Talking With Hala Alyan About ‘Salt Houses’


What happens when displacement enters your DNA?

"I had a dream this morning. I’m a very active dreamer," Hala Alyan tells me, leaning in a little bit closer over the cup of herbal tea she's ordered at the Midtown Manhattan coffee shop in which we've met to discuss her gorgeous debut novel, Salt Houses. "I had a very unsettling dream this morning. I was going into my grandmother’s apartment and walking through the rooms and the doors, and I went out onto the balcony, where we spent so much time, and it was just completely... empty."

It doesn't take a psychologist (which, besides being an extraordinarily gifted novelist, Alyan is) to interpret a dream like that; after a long battle with dementia, Alyan's grandmother had just died, only a few weeks before Salt Houses was published, a book which has no shortage of powerful matriarchal figures and in which the meaning of home is explored in multiple manifestations.

Salt Houses, as I recently wrote, spans over 50 years and several generations in the life of the Yacoubs, a Palestinian family, who have relocated their homes—sometimes by choice, sometimes decidedly not—multiple times and in multiple locations across the world. An epic in every sense of the word, due in no small part to its geography (the novel is set in locations as far-flung as Kuwait, Paris, Boston, Beirut, and Jaffa), its incorporation of world-changing events (the Six Day War, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the 2006 bombing of Lebanon), and the fact that the narrator changes chapter by chapter (ranging from a man in his 70s to an adolescent girl), Salt Houses also shines in its intimate details; notably, in the ways in which no character is allowed to be a stereotype, and in the way it grapples with those all too human-scaled experiences of alienation and belonging, displacement and rebuilding. Alyan might be grappling with universal problems like war and brutality, but since she renders them through the perspective of one family, through their personal triumphs and struggles, she keeps these issues on a recognizable scale.

Throughout the book, one theme resonates with extreme clarity: When you don't have an actual home, no country to call your own, no neighborhood to return to where everybody knows your name, your family becomes your home, your legacy becomes its stories. And so when Alyan spoke to me of her grandmother dying, and her disturbing dream of running through her grandmother's apartment and finding nothing, the despair which such a dream must have manifested became palpable.

Alyan continued, "And there was something about being in that space, and that space being stripped down, and my dream-self had this really intense realization of, 'Oh, she took it with her.' It’s not just that she died, but she was the matriarch of the family, and that history was lost.” 

The history of a family and, by extension, of a specific culture is a funny thing. It feels at once completely stable—after all, this is history; these are things that really happened—and then also essentially ephemeral, since the type of records upon which history is dependent can vanish in the blink of an eye thanks to things like death or sudden displacement.

Like Salt Houses' Yacoub family, Alyan's family is also Palestinian and has also dealt with generations of displacement. She tells me that this is the main similarity between her family's life and that of the Yacoub's, and also explains why she couldn't draw too closely from personal experience: "I have a family that would murder me if I drew too much from them, but I took quirks. I borrowed the most from just the structural displacement. I’m very fascinated by the idea of being displaced several times over, the intergenerational trauma and movement and restlessness. I know, intimately, what it’s like to be displaced several times over, I was in Kuwait when Saddam invaded. I was four, but my earliest memories are from that time period."

This idea that displacement enters into your DNA and becomes a part of your personal and shared experience is a compelling one, and it has borne out in many studies of diasporic communities around the world. There is a pervasive sense of alienation, of not having a real home in the world. Alyan tells me, when recounting a trip that she took to Palestine not long ago, one that is mirrored in the book by one of the younger generation of the Yacoub family's own trip to her ancestral land:

Going to Palestine was a really disorienting and kind of unsettling experience in that I kind of just kept waiting for an epiphany and it didn’t come. The entire time I felt weightless and like I could float away at any moment. It was a very strange; I felt so ungrounded the whole time. I just wandered around in the heat. There was a lot of me being like, Am I intruding? Is this my space? Am I allowed to be here? Palestine becomes this thing you grow up with, and you hear about it, and your understanding of Palestine is a memory of a memory of a memory. It’s so filtered down. 

But while Alyan's personal experience of visiting Palestine came, of course, with internal conflict, what she's given the reader—particularly the American reader—with Salt Houses is a chance to see a different perspective of a community that has long been dismissed and marginalized in everything from popular culture to history books. There are, in fact, few better examples of history being written by the victors than the erasure of the Palestinian people over the last 70 years; Alyan's novel goes a long way toward giving readers a glimpse into the lives of Palestinian people, not Palestinian stereotypes. Alyan says, "It’s unfortunate to have to use verbs like humanizing, but that is part of the process... [making] them think of the people as people. I do wonder if the most effective way is the simplest way. Like, I’m going to tell a story of the family, and that’s it. There is something to be said about telling the story of one person or one family, and hoping it can do something for the larger community."

This isn't to say that the Yacoub family is a stand-in for every Palestinian family or every refugee family; there is no doubt that the Yacoubs enjoy real levels of privilege, including economic and educational, that not everyone of their cultural background (or any cultural background) shares. But that is okay; in Alyan's hands, this family's pain and joys, which are intensely personal to them, speak to more universal feelings and ideas. Alyan traces a family's history and shows how a family becomes its own home, how maintaining ties like this can make you feel that rather than nowhere in the world being your home, anywhere in the world is your home—as long as you have people you love. Or, as Alyan says to me, "Your history is with other people. What you share isn’t in your neighborhood. Memory is this place that you occupy, and maybe that person lives several thousand miles away, but they share your history, and that history is your home."

Which is why, after Alyan had that disorienting dream about her grandmother's empty apartment and woke up feeling devastated, the first thing she did was call her brother on the phone, to speak to him about the loss she felt, to despair about their newly missing history. But her brother had some words of wisdom for her, ones that echo the themes in the novel Alyan had just written. He simply said to her, "Well, that’s where we come in." 

Salt Houses is available for purchase now

Photo by Imani Givertz

Premiering today via NYLON

Small Talks, aka Cayley Spivey, has come a long way since starting a band, then becoming the entire band herself and forging her own fan base from the ground up. On her recent album A Conversation Between Us, she began to unpack any lingering baggage with one particular song: "Teeth." Today, she premieres the accompanying music video exclusively via NYLON.

"'Teeth' is about my personal battle with letting go of the past," Spivey tells NYLON, admitting that it's easily her favorite song off of A Conversation Between Us.

Watch the video for "Teeth" below.

Small Talks - Teeth (Official Music Video) - YouTube

Photos by Joe Maher/Getty Images, Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for TIME

Must have been pretty awkward

Taylor Swift and Sophie Turner were guests on the U.K.'s The Graham Norton Show together, which must have been awkward for Turner's husband, Joe Jonas, seeing as he also happens to be Swift's ex. I wonder if his name came up?

The interview doesn't come out until Friday night, but promotional photos show the two sharing a couch. Swift is making an appearance to perform her new single, "ME!" while Turner is promoting her new film, X- Men: Dark Phoenix. But it seems necessary for the two to be asked about Jonas.

Swift was just on the Ellen DeGeneres Show earlier this month, where she brought up the fact that she felt bad for putting Jonas "on blast" on DeGeneres' show back in 2008 by telling the audience that he broke up with her in a record-setting short phone call. But, according to Swift, she and Jonas are chill now, since it happened pretty long ago, which means she's probably already hung out with Turner and maybe even gossiped about him with her.

We can only hope that they get the chance to spill some tea on television.

Screenshot via YouTube, Photo Courtesy of HBO

"That's! His! Auntie!"

Leslie Jones has rewatched the Game of Thrones finale with a beer in hand, Seth Meyers at her side, and a full camera crew ready to take in all her glorious reactions. Spoilers ahead, but, if you haven't watched last week's episode already, that's kind of on you at this point.

When Jon Snow started to make out with Daenerys, also known as his aunt, only to stab her through the chest moments later, it was emotional whiplash for everyone watching. And, Jones' reactions—both from her first and second viewing—sum it all perfectly.

"That's! His! Auntie! [gagging noises]," Jones says before making an aside about calling the police if her uncle ever tried to do the same. But then the knife goes in, and Jones screams. "Did you see that?!" Jones asks, "Yeah bitch, that's a knife in you." Meyers points out the funniest part of all: "Why are you so upset about someone kissing their aunt but totally fine with someone killing their aunt?" Jones replies, "Because that bitch needed to go," and, well, same.

Other highlights from the comedians' rewatch include comparing Dany's victory speech to a bad improv gig, predicting that their dogs would have less of a reaction to their deaths than Drogon did to his mother's, and more.

Watch all of Jones' reactions from this Late Night clip below.

Game of Jones: Leslie Jones and Seth Watch Game of Thrones' Series Finale

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These lyrics are a lot

Robbie Tripp, aka Curvy Wife Guy, is back with a music video, titled "Chubby Sexy," starring his wife and a trio of models. In it, Tripp raps about his bold choice to find women with an average body size attractive.

The video begins with a series of statements laid over some pool water: "Curves are the new high fashion," "Chubby is the new sexy," "We Out Here." Tripp posits that these queens deserve an anthem, which they do. What they do not deserve is this Cursed Song. As he lists all the names he knows to call them by (thick, thicc, and BBW), one model (who I really, really hope was paid well) squirts some lotion down her cleavage, and Tripp begins dancing.

"My girl chubby sexy/ Call her bonita gordita," Tripp states in his chorus, before going on to compare "big booty meat" to the peach emoji. Another thing he mentions is that his wife can't find a belt that fits her waist, and that's why he calls her James and the Giant Peach. He then tries to dab. Here are some of the other Cursed highlights from his, uh, verses:

Got those Khaleesi curves/ Knows how to dragon slay
She like a dude that's woke/ We like a girl that's weighty
Some say a chubby girl that's risky/ But they ain't met a curvy girl that's frisky
Imma dunk that donk like I'm Andrew Wiggins.
Thick like an Amazon/ Built like Big Ben.

Tripp says one thing in the video that I couldn't agree more with: "She don't need a man." No, she does not. Please run. If you must, watch the entire video, below. Or send it to your nemesis!

Robbie Tripp - Chubby Sexy (Official Music Video)

Photo by Emma McIntyre / Getty Images.

See the promo here

It was bound to happen. The Kadashians and Jenners have committed themselves to letting the cameras roll on their lives, for better or for worse. So if you thought that the Jordyn Woods and Tristan Thompson cheating scandal was off limits, you thought wrong. The trailer for Sunday's episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians was just released, and it involves the famous family working through the fallout of what happened when Woods went to a party at Thompson's house.

The teaser includes the infamous clip of Khloé Kardashian screaming "LIAAAARRRRRR." It's still not explicitly clear who prompted that strong response. She could be responding to Thompson, who clearly isn't always honest. Or she could be reacting to Woods account of the events on Red Table Talk. But the most revealing moment comes when we see Kylie Jenner—who was Woods' best friend before all of this happened—react for the first time.

In a heart-to-heart conversation, momager Kris Jenner says, "For you and Jordyn, it's like a divorce." Kylie only offers this in response: "She fucked up." Based on Woods' version of events—which I'm inclined to believeThompson is the one who fucked up. Still, I'm hoping for some kind of reconciliation between the two longtime friends. Perhaps we'll have to wait until next season for that.

Check out the promo video below.