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Salt Houses


From a dazzling new literary voice, a debut novel about a Palestinian family...
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Discuss Salt Houses by Hala Alyan:
Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

Created: 06/11/18

Replies: 15

Posted Jun. 11, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
sharonj

Join Date: 01/26/17

Posts: 7

Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

I think we as readers gained a strong appreciation fro the personal hardships the family members experienced but I would have liked a more realistic picture of life especially in war torn areas. She provides glimpses of this but the reader is not exposed to the devastation that many experienced. Every opportunity to understand the plight of refugees would help us in our current times.


Posted Jun. 11, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
naomib

Join Date: 05/02/12

Posts: 9

RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

I do agree, Sharon. First, many refugees do not have the financial opportunities that this family had. They leave with only what they can carry. As you say, the hardships and devastation caused by war were often glossed over. I think, too, that the format of the book, with so many timelines and POVs made it difficult to focus on the in depth stories of the characters. In the first chapters of the book I did feel that personal focus, but alas (for me), it was largely lost.


Posted Jun. 11, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
brendaw

Join Date: 11/29/17

Posts: 5

RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

I also agree that the true loss of so many people of the middle east area were not realistically portrayed. Also, they didn’t show much concern for their servants who apparently got back to their children and families in India one month a year!


Posted Jun. 11, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
janicea

Join Date: 04/20/17

Posts: 10

RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

Salt Houses was about a family that was economically well off and had the resources to move when the danger of war and political upheaval became more apparent. I think for most of the characters the war, although at times bombings may have shaken the building they lived in, was experienced through televised news programs. I posted in another discussion that it would be interesting if the author would write another book using the same time line and events but involving a family from a lower socioeconomic class who are much closer to the actual war, bombings, and fighting.


Posted Jun. 12, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
joyb

Join Date: 02/17/18

Posts: 6

RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

This was the point I was trying to make in my posting about the main takeaway from the book. This family was above the fray. They did not suffer in the way that their poorer neighbors did. They also did not try to help those who were suffering more from their displacement, except perhaps the doctor in Amman. Perhaps the comment in the Manar section (p.288) sums this up--"But she just felt like an interloper, trespassing on memories that had nothing to do with her."


Posted Jun. 12, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
reene

Join Date: 02/18/15

Posts: 311

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RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

The author has the right to her story, however in this case the historical part of the story was glossed over or barely mentioned. Perhaps the novel should be listed as fiction. Yes, the setting was a war torn country, but we learned little about that situation. The novel was basically about an affluent family and their interactions with one another.


Posted Jun. 12, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
JLPen77

Join Date: 02/05/16

Posts: 229

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RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

A novel is fiction by definition.
I don’t agree that she missed an opportunity— no single novel is ever going to portray every aspect of an historical experience, certainly not without an even larger cast of characters. If her book was intended to be a nonfiction history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, one could criticize her narrow focus, but fiction is different, the writer gets to choose what story to tell. The story Alyan chose to tell is the impact of displacement— the Palestinian diaspora— over multiple uprootings, as it plays out psychologically over three generations. (She is a psychologist, after all, according to the dust jacket.) She chose to show us what it is like for one family who—like many. though not all, Americans—are professional, middle class, with homes and careers. They didn’t live in war zones with bombs, they were able to escape that due to extended family ties. But their resources did not protect them from loss. I can only speculate that the fictional Yacoub family was to some degree like the author’s as she was born in Palestine but is now a professional in NYC, that she chose to write out of personal experience. Other writers have written and will write, no doubt, about other perspectives.

She did try to bring in the wartime reality through the character of Atef, and what happened to Mustafa, and to the family of the radicalized imam, very early in the novel —maybe to show us why most people with the means to escape would have fled before they were physically driven out (if they did not choose to fight). She showed the impact of the conflict through Riham’s husband Latif, the doctor, and the victims he treated, how it radicalized her stepson Abdullah. It seems to me she was intentionally focused upon the inner conflicts of ordinary middle class people, maybe so Americans of the educated, book-buying classes could more easily identify, given that our national policies have more often been based on treating Palestinians as though they were all terrorists.

I understand from reading memoir and fiction about India, Africa and other places in the Middle East, that having a servant is fairly common for working and middle class families, there is a different economy and social structure than here -- more like the way it used to be here in the 19th century. It is more a reflection of how poor the poorest are, than an indication of the Yacoub family being wealthy. For an example, in "Girls Burn Brighter," by Siobha Rao, published earlier this year, a relatively poor family of weavers in an Indian village takes on a servant. Another example is in "A State of Freedom" by Neel Mukherjee (2017). Or in "A Thousand Splendid Suns," Khaled Hosseini.


Posted Jun. 13, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
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taking.mytime

Join Date: 03/29/16

Posts: 97

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RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

I think we could have learned more about the every day realization of life in a war torn time. However, I believe that people with affluence probably were at an advantage and may not have suffered as much as the average person in this same situation.


Posted Jun. 13, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
dianaps

Join Date: 05/29/15

Posts: 256

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RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

The author grabbed my attention to the struggle taking place in Palestine and so many other countries. Now I intend to look for more books about the suffering going on in our world and become more educated.


Posted Jun. 14, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
scgirl

Join Date: 06/05/18

Posts: 34

RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

I think the author did a good job of providing a realistic picture and here is why...

The family and life she describes could be middle class Westerners, that, statistically, is her primary audience. With developing the family as reasonably comfortable, she has affiliated them with her readers. I might feel sympathy for a poor refugee family but I can feel empathy for a middle class family forced from their homes.
I think she wanted the reader to be able to relate to her story and think, "Hey, this could happen to me." She gives us some social and historical context as well.

Like dianaps said above - she opened my eyes to the Palestinian view.


Posted Jun. 14, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
paulagb

Join Date: 08/16/17

Posts: 33

RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

I don’t think this family was middle class Palestinian. From reading statistics and other information about this area of the world, the family in this book was in the top 5-10% of the economic status of that society. I think we are fooling ourselves if we believe that life would move forward so easily without hunger or significantly more tragedy and loss if a similar displacement occurred here in the US. All you have to do is look at WWII Europe and Asia to see that only the very wealthy and occasionally the very lucky escape unscathed. For a more realistic picture perhaps you might want to read The Girl Who Smiled Beads. That is a story about the very lucky, who survive horrible side effects of war, but in the end survive. Incidentally the family in that story was wealthy also.


Posted Jun. 14, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
JLPen77

Join Date: 02/05/16

Posts: 229

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RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

I guess I wonder on what basis anyone would conclude that this is an unrealistic story. Perhaps there is some confusion between being realistic and being typical.

This family had resources to relocate -- due to an inheritance from Salma's family, due to Atef's academic background, being able to get a job, due to Riham's husband being a doctor in another country -- and I haven't seen anyone offer evidence of whether or not they were typical-- it may be that only people of means were able to leave Palestine at all. But their story certainly is realistic. Many academic Jews from Germany and other threatened European countries near the start of WW2 came to the US through connections they had or friends had with universities willing to sponsor them -- despite our country refusing to take in most refugees. They were the ones lucky enough to have connections to escape, and prescient enough to see the need to do so, before it became too late. Not typical, but it really happened, and telling their story through fiction would be realistic, too, though not typical.

This novel looks at the Palestinian diaspora -- which did happen, after all, even if it wasn't typical for most Palestinians. (Does anyone here have statistics on that?) By definition of a diaspora, the people who flee are no longer living in a war zone, so that is not what the author focused on. Her fictional family had resources, as some refugees from other countries have, that is not unrealistic, either. Not every refugee ends up in a refugee camp, not every refugee who does is poor, or is condemned to poverty. Middle class professional Syrians resettled in my area, for example (just before our country stopped allowing this).

It wasn't a missed opportunity for Hala Alyan to choose to write about something else, the longtime impact of displacement, even for people of means. Wanting to know more about what it was like for people without means is one thing, criticizing the author of an excellent book (to my mind) because she chose to focus on a different piece of the overall picture is another.


Posted Jun. 15, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
louisee

Join Date: 06/29/15

Posts: 91

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RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

I agree with JLPen77 and others that the author chose to write about one middle class family's experiences of long term displacement because of war. We don't always get this point of view. People of different economic levels are affected by war in different ways. I as well as others was expecting a story of a family with fewer resources. I didn't fully appreciate this story until I started to see how multiple moves affected the different members of this extended family. The author didn't miss an opportunity, I think the story is realistic.


Posted Jun. 16, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
acstrine

Join Date: 02/06/17

Posts: 59

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RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

I appreciate the comments of JLPen77 very much. Thanks to most coverage of the Palestine-Israeli conflict, for example, ALL Palestinians are lumped into two categories- -terrorists or citizens being used by terrorists. Look at what happened recently with the U.S. Embassy moving to Jerusalem. Major news networks pushed the idea that all those near the fence were aggressive and trying to cross through to attack or being used as human shields by Hamas. There were comments on social media posts about how the people, who were legitimately angry about a U.S. decision to further cement Israeli control of a supposed neutral city, deserved to be shot down. Alyan tried to change the narrative by showing us that all Palastinians are not joining angry imans in the mosques, not all are strapping on explosive vests and standing in front of hotels, not all are using children to draw sympathy. It seems there are Palestinian families who want their children to receive good educations, to avoid conflict and still be a help to one another, to be happy, healthy, and safe. This is not the narrative many want portrayed. I think this was a powerful work for that reason. We can relate to these families. We may be more similar than we let ourselves believe.


Posted Jun. 18, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
janeto

Join Date: 06/05/18

Posts: 7

RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

Given that the book covers so many settings and time periods, it would have been difficult for the author to give much more detail about living conditions. I was impressed with how effectively she created a feel for each of the environments though. Perhaps it is her talent as a poet that she is able to place the reader in any given environment and allow them to feel the heat of the Kuwait summer days, the smell of the foods in the market, the brilliant colors of the flowers, etc. I found her writing to be very sensual which gave me a unique feel for the places her characters called home.


Posted Jun. 19, 2018 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
scgirl

Join Date: 06/05/18

Posts: 34

RE: Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?

I agree with acstrine, based on media coverage our understanding of Palestinians is either as refugees or terrorists. The author has given us another perspective, one more in line pehaps with our own social standings. I found this very realistic and relative because of that. The plight of the family struck me in a different way than it would have if the family had been refugees, for example. It was easier to get my head around the thought that this type of displacement could happen to anyone, not just the poor.


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