Palestinian-American author and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan has, at 32, already published four acclaimed books of poetry, as well as a novel, Salt Houses, which won the Arab American Book Award for fiction and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. In depicting the roller-coaster ride of exile and nonstop adaptation to new worlds, the speaker in her latest book, The Twenty-Ninth Year, is both a clear-eyed, freewheeling daughter of the Arab diaspora and an ecstatic, risk-taking celebrant of life.
For a place I hate, I invoke you often. Stockholm’s: I am eight years old and the telephone poles are down, the power plant at the edge of town spitting electricity. Before the pickup trucks, the strip malls, dirt beaten by Cherokee feet. Osiyo, tsilugi. Rope swung from mule to tent to man, tornadoes came, the wind rearranged the face of the land like a chessboard. This was before the gold rush, the greed of engines, before white men pressing against brown women, nailing crosses by the river, before the slow songs of cotton plantations, the hymns toward God, the murdered dangling like earrings. Under a redwood, two men signed away the land and in history class I don’t understand why a boy whispers sand monkey. The Mexican girls let me sit with them as long as I braid their hair, my fingers dipping into that wet black silk. I try to imitate them at home—mírame, mama—but my mother yells at me, says they didn’t come here so I could speak some beggar language. Heaven is a long weekend. Heaven is a tornado siren canceling school. Heaven is pressed in a pleather booth at the Olive Garden, sipping Pepsi between my gapped teeth, listening to my father mispronounce his meal.
This excerpt from Hala Alyan’s The Twenty-Ninth Year is the second in our year-long series featuring the work of leading American poets who address issues of racism, human rights, and exile, among other social themes in their work. The series is curated by Cyrus Cassells, a Pulitzer Prize–nominated poet and frequent contributor to these pages, whose own book of poems, The Gospel According to Wild Indigo, was recently listed as a finalist for the prestigious NAACP Image Award.