Palestinian-American Writer, Poet and Psychologist Hala Alyan Presents at MARS Event

by Victor Franco, Staff Writer

The Major Author Reading Series (MARS) featured author Hala Alyan, who presented poems and excerpts from her written work to faculty, students and staff of Manhattan College this past week. 

Alyan captivated the audience through her passionate read-throughs, allowing insight into all of her characters. Alyan has written about diverse characters battling personal problems in their lives regarding politics, culture, religion and much more. The problems Alyan’s characters face can relate to what many readers deal with on a daily basis. 

Alyan first began with a poem called “Naturalized,” in which the character describes their struggles regarding injustices around them.

 In the poem, Alyan writes, “I stretch my teeth into a country when they congratulate me on the ceasefire as though I don’t pray in broken Arabic.” 

Alyan conveys the deep confusion there is in her character on what is right and wrong in her culture and religion. 

After her poem, Alyan continued with an excerpt from her book “The Arsonist City” which involved a character named Nash, a young American woman and musician who moves back to her hometown Beirut, but struggles to come out to her parents about her queer identity. 

In the excerpt, Nash is talking back and forth with her father about her moving to Beirut and how she enjoys being in a humble apartment. 

“You are making a stupid mistake,” said Nash’s father to which Nash responded, “I don’t think so. I don’t have to pay the same taxes here…I am going to be great.”

Alyan continued reading her poems while students listened carefully. Alyan’s passionate dictation of her poems enhanced the way many students and faculty reacted. After Alyan’s reading, there was a slight moment of silence, almost as if everyone related to something Alyan had mentioned. 

English professor Dominia Wrozynski, Ph.D., who attended the reading, described this experience.

“[Through] Alyan’s work, we are shown the raw and vulnerable experiences of speakers affected by war, speakers who struggle with addiction and eating disorders, and speakers who navigate multinational and multilingual identities,” said Wrozynski “In a world where collective and personal loss, grief, and trauma are never in short supply, Alyan’s work is so important for us today because it continues to teach us empathetic ways in which to live.”

Psychology professor Nuwan Jayawickreme, PhD, also attended the MARS event, and noted the emotions that came from the experience.

“Hala Alyan writes about feelings of dislocation, feelings that the homeland is disappearing and all your past goes with it and I think many of our students can relate to that,” said Jayawickreme. 

What resonated with Jayawickreme the most was Alyan’s ability to challenge someone’s identity through her poetry. 

“I think her poems captured the lack of stability in one’s identity that I think a lot of immigrants feel, and young people in general,” said Jayawickreme. 

“The Arsonist City” by Hala Alyan is a fictional novel and has become one of her bestselling books. THE NEW YORK TIMES /COURTESY

Alyan also shared her experience as both a psychologist and author, describing that as a psychologist she was able to gain perspective of diverse groups. 

“From a site perspective, I was fortunate enough to experience a lot of different settings in my training years that involved communities of color and many marginalized international communities,” Alyan said.  

Alyan ended her MARS event with questions from the audience. She took her time with everyone’s questions and answered wholeheartedly. In response to one question, Alyan explained why she enjoys writing.

“I find writing to be very transformative, particularly when it comes to anger, frustration, and helplessness, which I think are a lot of experiences which we all feel,” she said.