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A Brief But Spectacular take on making and remaking identity


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Hala Alyan is an award-winning poet, author, and clinical psychologist.

She was born in Illinois, but, growing up, spent time in several other states, as well as in Kuwait and Lebanon.

Alyan shares her Brief But Spectacular take on how those experiences formed what she calls a hyphenated identity.

Hala Alyan, Writer: I was born to Palestinian and Syrian immigrants, and my childhood was spent between the Middle East and different parts of the United States.

I think, like anyone with any sort of hyphenated identity, there was a lot of emotional and literal code-switching that went on in my house. And so I think a lot of my writing and creative expression has been thinking about ways to sort of bridge the gap between these two identities and really kind of create a third hybrid one.

My parents sought asylum in the Midwest after Saddam's invasion in Kuwait, and I went back to the Middle East for high school and did my undergraduate in Beirut, before returning to finish my education.

It is 1990. My mother is crossing a border, I mean, desert, I mean, life. I'm at her heels. I'm paying attention. I mean, I'm learning the colors of the flag. I mean, I'm learning English. I mean, I'm forgetting Arabic.

Or it is 1994. I'm falling in love with a white boy, a habit I will never kick.

I feel like I was one person in my house in Oklahoma or Texas or Maine, and then another person trying to fit into a lot of the American mainstream and societal expectations. And then, around 12, that flipped, and, suddenly, I was the Americanized kid that was now in the Arab world.

When they say pledge allegiance, I say my country is a ghost, a mouth trying to say sorry, and it comes out all smoke, all citizen and bullet and seed. My country is a machine, a spell of bad weather, a feather lacing my mother's black hair, I mean, her dyed hair, I mean, her blonde hair, I mean, her hair matches this country, so shiny and borrowed and painted over.

My writing also intersects a lot with diaspora, immigration and what it means to be in different places and carry the memories and the heritages and the inheritances of other places.

It's 2003, and I am in Beirut watching Baghdad burn because of America. I mean, I am in my country watching my country burn because of my country, or it is 2020 and the women in Beirut are a sea. I mean, my country looks beautiful in red. It is every year, and my country is taken.

I mean, my country is stolen land. I mean, all my countries are stolen land. I mean, sometimes, I am on the wrong side of the stealing. My country is an opening. I mean, bloom. I mean, bloom, not like flower, but bloom like explosion. My country is a teacher. I mean, you want to see my passport? I mean, do you like my accent?

I mean, I stole them. I mean, I stole them. I mean, where do you think I learned that from?

Thank you.

(cheering and applause)

Hala Alyan: My name is Hala Alyan, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on making and remaking identity.

Geoff Bennett: And you can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos at

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