Faculty Profile: Hala Alyan

The poet and novelist is on her sixth book in eight years, all while practicing clinical psychology

There are those who moonlight as writers — and then there’s Hala Alyan.

Since 2012, the clinical psychologist at New York University Student Health Center has published four collections of poetry and a novel. It would have been two novels but a certain pandemic postponed the release of The Arsonists’ City, the highly anticipated followup to her 2018 debut Salt Houses.

Spanning four generations, five decades and six countries, Salt Houses is the saga of one Palestinian family. For it, Hala drew heavily from her own family narrative. Like many Palestinians, the author’s life is one of constant movement. She’s lived across the midwest, eastern, and southern United States, as well as Kuwait and Lebanon, but never balaad itself (Arabic for “homeland”).

That sense of being “caught between present and past, between displacement and home” is squarely captured in the novel, which reads like a masterclass in empathetic characterization. No wonder it won the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for fiction, alongside We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, its nonfiction counterpart.

Hala followed it with The Twenty-Ninth Year, a poetry anthology that continued an impressive publishing streak that only a global pandemic could sideline.

Despite her prolific success, Dr. Alyan, 33, still practices what she studied at Rutgers University, specializing in trauma and addiction, themes that run through her work as potently as her cultural identity. That makes her the perfect instructor for two classes in our Summer Semester.

On Jul. 22, she’ll demystify the feat of publishing short fiction, poetry, and novels, and help you create an effective system for submitting your work. She returns on Aug. 24 with Poetry and the Body, a subject all too pertinent right now.

To prepare for both classes, PanU asked Hala how she palate-cleanses between pursuits, what publishing has taught her about herself, and what stories got her through the lock-down in one of the world’s hardest hit COVID-19 hotspots.

Register now for Demystifying the Publication Process (C$20) Register for the Poetry and the Body(C$20)

How do you balance clinical psychology with your busy writing career?

Psychology is definitely my day job but it’s one that I have tremendous love for! I only write generally for about half-an-hour per day. So it’s not very time-intensive.

I also feel like both fields complement each other nicely. So much of what it takes to be a good psychologist helps you be a better writer, and vice versa. Whenever I am receiving training or investing into one, it feels like I’m doing the same for the other.

How do you switch gears between careers and genres? Do you have a favourite palate cleanser?

I tend to do 30 minutes a day in either fiction or nonfiction because they require more discipline. Poetry is always a favorite palate cleanser because I feel less concerned about its presence in my life. I trust it more, if that makes sense. It comes and goes without me worrying about it.

You have to think of the process, not outcome, of being a writer. … The focus and energy should be put on the day-to-day grind of putting words on the page.

Why did you want to help PanU students “demystify” publishing?

There’s a lot of stuff that I wish I’d known about the publication process. Not everybody ends up doing an MFA or being in spaces where they talk about this sort of thing. If I can help someone save a little bit of time, or avoid unnecessary missteps, I’ll be so happy!

Since releasing your first book in 2012, what’s one important thing that you’ve learned about this industry?

The main thing that I’ve learned is that you have to think of the process, not outcome, of being a writer. Getting something published is obviously such a privilege, and can be a very fulfilling experience, but the focus and energy should be put on the day-to-day grind of putting words on the page.

Which books, movies or TV shows are getting you through the pandemic?

Oooh. Ozark and Community for television. Recent books I’ve enjoyed have been How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Demystifying the Publication Process (C$20) Poetry and the Body(C$20) Buy Her Books