"...there's always a dark darker than the dark you know."
Three days after reading those words in Hala Alyan's The Twenty-Ninth Year, I was still thinking about them. It's a short line and alliteration makes it easy to memorize, but the reason it stuck with me is that it points to something deeper: the differences in the way people experience life, the variances that remain unseen by those who haven't gone through certain events but that can become crucial for those who have.
Reaching the age of 29 is seen as a milestone in both Islamic and Western traditions because both cultures assign value to entering a new decade of life. In The Twenty-Ninth Year, Alyan looks back at her life up to that point, writing her memoirs in the form of a poetry collection. She remembers family, partners, and struggles with loneliness, an eating disorder, and alcoholism. The events remembered happen in different places and to different versions of Alyan, and she is honest about all of them.
I will never be as beautiful as the night I danced in a garage, anorexic, decked in black boots, black sweater, black jeans, hip-hop music and a girl I didn't know pulling my hips to hers.
Nothing is taboo here. There are honest discussions about sex, drinking, and trauma. Sometimes these are coping mechanisms and sometimes they are things that arise by themselves. Regardless of their origin or context, these elements offer a candid, unique glimpse into the life of a woman as she deals with the complexities of being a Palestinian in exile, a young woman navigating cultures where womanhood is treated differently, and a person looking for love. Alyan exposes her life and her roots without shame, even when her words could lead to judgment. In poem after poem, there is raw emotion, straightforward storytelling, and unapologetic truth.
Everything worth nicking needs an explanation: I slept with one man because the moon, I slept with the other because who cares, we're expats, the black rhinos are dying, the subway pastors can't make me tell the truth.
The migrant experience is at the core of The Twenty-Ninth Year. War forced Alyan's family into migration, and that lead to a variety of places, which all appear here: Beirut as a memory and a beginning, Oklahoma as the main chapters of a novel, Philadelphia as a place "so old it only knew how to tell the truth," and Brooklyn as a massive collection of lights impossibly larger than the poetess. The constant movement creates a sense of disconnection, which Alyan sometimes communicates to the reader by broken lines and abrupt endings. As a result, the reader, like the author, is never on solid ground, never entirely comfortable. Alyan is aware of how the shifting geography, languages, and cultures affect her psychologically. She understands that the variations create dissimilarities in her being and her narratives, that "the story changes depending on where I am Marfa/or Tulum or/my own bathtub."
While geography plays a big role, the most important space Alyan inhabits isn't on any map; it's the dividing line between cultures and, more importantly, the interstitial space between whiteness and otherness. Because she moved to the United States at a young age, Alyan occupies both spaces, sometimes separately and sometimes simultaneously: "I am everyday white until I am in the subway and someone says b***ch." This constant crossing makes her the embodiment of otherness, an Arab American version of what American scholar of cultural and feminist theory Gloria Anzaldúa would call a "new mestiza," a woman caught between cultures. This sounds problematic, but the poetess embraces it and accepts she can wear a cowboy hat in Texas one day and read the Quran in Beirut the next. It's all part of who she is.
My favorite kind of poetry is the type concerned more with exploring and exposing the human experience than showcasing linguistic filigrees. The Twenty-Ninth Year stuck with me because it contains stunning lines, while being entirely about going through things and learning to cope with them. This is a book about drinking too much, loving the wrong way, and battling demons. The poems here read like scars and sound like heartbreaking stories told by a friend in the darkest booth at a gloomy juke joint. Sometimes they are up-front and easily understood. Sometimes they show up sporting shattered lines or jump from one memory to the next, making you think of a bird that abruptly changes direction mid-flight after hearing a gunshot. That intimate feeling is hard to find, and Alyan offers it here in spades. Sharing is uncomfortable, both for the speaker and the listener, but it's ultimately what makes this a memorable collection.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.