(Soho Press, 2017)
You might call Hannah Lillith Assadi’s first novel, Sonora, a work of superstitious realism. Though the book’s events are grounded in reality and plausibility, its narrator, Ahlam, is a young woman of such elegiac, mystic perception that one comes away from her story as if awaking on a post-lysergic morning: memories feel slanted and opaque, scenes haunted and possibly dreamed. In Sonora, cause-and-effect seems reliant on soul rather than science and the departed (whether people or past-selves) don’t feel definitively gone—they linger energetically in mind and spirit. Ahlam believes she’s cursed; the reader wonders if she’s a person gifted with heightened senses, an empath of rare insight.
Her voice is difficult to pull away from, and is a perfect guide.
Sonora’s elliptical narrative follows Ahlam and her goth-tinged, oblivion-seeking counterpart, Laura, as they journey from their suburban home in the Arizona desert, “a land wrought for ghosts,” to the bohemian outskirts of early-aughts Brooklyn. Attempting to flee a “curse” brought on by the unexpected tragedies inflicted on Ahlam’s teenage lovers, the young women—both aspiring artists—find themselves adrift in a new city, either consummating their foretold misfortunes or faced with altogether new hauntings. Interspersed are flash-forward, present-day scenes depicting Ahlam and her mother in an Arizona hospital as they endure long, uncertain hours waiting for her father to regain consciousness following a risky surgery.
Thematically and spiritually, these pieces wrap together in a way that encapsulates a portrait of a young woman’s otherworldly journey through the harshest realities of love, family, friendship, and youthful oblivion.
What compels this mesmerizing novel is Assadi’s enchanted prose and her narrator’s liminal observations about family history, desire, and relationships in which the lines between self and “other” blur, sometimes beautifully, sometimes tragically. It’s not a story of a young woman finding herself, but, rather, dancing to the edge of the abyss and peering down, looking deeply, and ultimately realizing she cannot save those who’ve crossed over—only carry them with her as the dream of sentient life continues.
Sean Madigan Hoen (Rail): So, Hannah, Sonora is your first book, and by the time this interview runs it will be available for all to read. I’m wondering how you’re feeling about that and, more specifically, if your impression of the novel has changed since you “let go” of it and turned it over for publication?
Hannah Lillith Assadi: The day I went to the Soho offices and held the galley in my hand for the first time, I felt estranged from the book. Here was this beautiful object I was holding, the thing I had been working to achieve, contained inside a real jacket (it was nearly a real book!)—and at that instant, I also knew it wasn’t mine at all any longer. I think, ever since that day, I began to let it go as something that was mine, and started to think of it as something that was once mine…sort of like the lingering feelings we have for exes. I love everyone I’ve ever loved but not with the passion I once did. Also, I haven’t been able to read it all the way through since I received the galley. Maybe one day I’ll be able to, but not now.
Rail: Your novel covers a dramatic few years in the life of its narrator, Ahlam, and is organized in seven sections, each detailing a particular month. There’s an elliptical use of backstory, as well, within the sections. You often hear writers talk about a book’s form “revealing” itself through the work, but I wondered if Sonora’s structure might have been more preemptively deliberate, relating, perhaps, to some aspect of the “curse” that permeates the story? Could you talk about your process in structuring the book?
Assadi: The structure was very important to me. The “August, February, April” sequence of chapters repeats itself until the final chapter, “October,” the only autumn month to appear. I wanted it to feel recursive, the curse functioning like a wave spreading its echoes through time. Though all the characters move away from their origin points in time and space, they also repeatedly return to those origin points whether willingly or not, and their ends are written in their beginnings: the father searches for his ship home to Palestine; the last time we see Laura, her face is covered with mascara, she’s wearing a grey dress, as she is in the first vision Ahlam has of her on the mountains, etc. The only break from that cycle is at the very end when a new month, also coinciding with a new Jewish year in the book, arrives and then of course with that new beginning, the novel must end.
Rail: That’s so fascinating. I felt there was a secret logic at work but I couldn’t crack the code. I love that it’s not overstated, that it’s a practically hidden device.
Assadi: I guess there was also just an intuitive poetry to the months themselves for me: August always being the time of monsoons in the desert; February (at least until this last one) always being the coldest, snowiest month in New York; April, “the cruelest,” but also when things bloom in both the desert and the city.
I think that this structure was the only thing I knew from the very beginning and the only thing that remained intact over the course of the various (many) drafts. It’s almost as if I wrote the book for the sake of its structure. Strangely, the new thing I’m working on has been developing oppositely. The structure has been revealing itself as I’ve been treading along, which is terrifying but also exciting.
Rail: Ahlam’s “curse” could be read as a symptom of the narrator’s pathology. Her family history, after all, is rife with superstitions: a father who’s seen “a lot of ghosts, angels,” and who drives at night hoping to glimpse astral visions; a mother whose “pact of sadness” with her husband sustains a martial unhappiness that Ahlam perceives as “special… holy.” On the other hand, as Ahlam’s friendship with Laura deepens, tragedy begins to unfold in ways so haunting and synchronous it might cause even the sanest character to reckon with the notion of “curse.” (Not to mention that Laura deems Ahlam “a witch.”) Can you speak to your perception of curses; or, if it’s more apropos, the book’s perception of curses?
Assadi: This goes to the very heart of what I was trying to figure out in this book (if all books revolve around questions rather than answers, which I think they do). The parents’ marriage, and what lies behind it (the Jewish diaspora resolving itself in the Palestinian) is something, because of my own background, I thought about a lot. What is the history of humanity but this ever-migrating curse? A similar cultural clash and its consequences also informs Laura’s character: on one side, she is of the pioneering European settler coming to the new land for a better life, and on the other, she is from the indigenous people whose land was stolen among other atrocities, as a result of that arrival. The founding of both lands (Israel/ United States), and maybe all lands, seem in their very inception, cursed. The tragic deaths that seem to shadow Laura and Ahlam are in some sense a reckoning with the angry ghosts that crowd their ancestral pasts.
Rail: I hadn’t thought about it like that; at least not consciously. I love how multidimensional it is, the “curse.”
Assadi: I’m probably being too heavy-handed! But, on a less global level, it would have been a much different book if it resolved with the reader knowing that Laura really was a witch who cast these spells on the men the two girls meet, or if the narrator really was supernaturally cursed, or the desert was haunted by one specific ghost like La Llorona, but that isn’t the case for them as it isn’t in life. Life is a fairy tale absent of the wicked witch and the charming prince.
At the same time, isn’t it more beautiful to believe that our suffering might be guided by an intangible, malevolence, rather than just being random? There is solace in finding a pattern between things which the girls in this book, like the mother and father characters, cling to, however darkly. And I’d prefer some solace for my characters as I prefer it, however obscurely in my own life, by pretending there is a certain architecture, or “life story,” to the numbered days I have on this planet.
Rail: In Laura I met a uniquely complex yet somehow familiar, almost archetypal character: the precocious, poetic, beautifully-damned friend who lures you towards both self-discovery and destruction at once. What, to your mind, is the ultimate gift Laura is able to give Ahlam?
Assadi: It’s funny, because obviously there are autobiographical aspects of this novel, so many people ask me: who’s Laura? And the answer is that she’s pure fiction but also that she’s so many people I have loved intensely, for better or worse. So, what’s the productive answer to that sort of love? I don’t know. I’ve asked that of myself many times, sometimes wishing I could erase years of my life “wasted” on someone. But maybe it’s the people who bring you to the edge who are the ones who see who you really are, what you’re made of on the brink, what your demon looks like, what your angel looks like. Maybe the Lauras of the world are more primal, more true in their inability to function inside the rules. Fundamentally, I’m not a moralist in this regard, though I like to keep those I love around, and it’s also true that the Lauras of the world don’t stick around for long.
Rail: While it’s a pedantic question about a novel like Sonora, I’m not surprised that people find it impossible to refrain from asking about the extent to which you mined your own experience…
Assadi: I come from a similar background as my protagonist (though my mother is not Israeli). And like my protagonist I grew up in Arizona, where at my own high school many kids passed away, albeit in very different ways than drawn in the novel. The experiment here was in some ways to take certain facts of my own life, and see how those facts might be worn by someone with a slightly different nature. Also, there are many ways in which I am very much like Laura, have lived inside Laura’s skin, though to a reader glancing between my bio and the novel, that’d probably be a lot less obvious! The two represent a sort of split in me that I’ll probably never be able to talk about straightforwardly.
Rail: The book is also, in its way, very much about place. I’ve heard it said that a person—writers, especially—doesn’t understand their home until they leave. Was this book, in some way, a means of understanding your relationship between your home in Arizona and your life in New York?
Assadi: I think that despite the fact I’ve called New York home for the last twelve years (also I was born here and lived here the first five years of my life), part of me will forever long for the desert. Sometimes that’s resolved by taking the train out to the Rockaways or Long Island and seeing the ocean. But the desert is unique, and unique in the way it can be haunting, perhaps because it hosts a lot of memories for me. My next book is set by the ocean, though. And I’m longing to immerse myself further into it, so opposite to the desert, and in some ways so similar. Place to me as a writer is perhaps my most important “toolset,” equal only to my dreams which I transcribe every morning that I remember them.
Rail: Your depictions of 2001 Brooklyn—Gowanus, in particular—also feel like evocations of a bygone time and place. Do living spaces like Dylan’s loft still exist for young drifters and artists arriving to Brooklyn? Have the rapid changes to the borough influenced your treatment of those scenes?
Assadi: I was lucky enough to live in two spaces like that depicted in the book in my early years in Brooklyn. I guess they still exist, though probably not for three or four hundred dollars in rent. People live in lofts in Williamsburg and pay more money for them, I’d bet, than I make in a month. They were magical for me, and formative, and I imagine they will, at least in the iteration I knew them, soon disappear if they haven’t already. So yes, there was a certain nostalgia in the way I treated Dylan’s home in the book. I’ve been lucky enough to call the same place home for the last four years, on the top floor of a brownstone which I share with my boyfriend, but still sometimes, I long for that communal feeling of living in those spaces as I did in my early twenties, though I probably wouldn’t be able to handle now the winter I lived without heat and hot water!
Rail: The novel ends with a literal and figurative farewell, and the sense that Ahlam has confirmed something she’s perhaps always known, or possessed, however deliciously elusive that possession might be to the reader. Where does Ahlam go next?
Assadi: Ahlam’s journey ends with Sonora. That’s the sadness of every book’s end. But if I could imagine an epilogue for her, she’d be reunited, in love, and living with the mysterious man who speaks to her on the train platform before she leaves New York for good. And they’d live a long life together until they were old. Happily ever after.
Rail: As for the rest of us: is it possible to escape our curses and should we be trying to?
Assadi: Do I believe we escape our past? Yes and no. Depends on the day.
Rail: Finally, it’s a small detail, but one that struck me. You signed off after the novel’s last sentence: Hannah Lillith Assadi, Paris 2016. For me, the gesture recalled writers of yore, like Henry Miller, for whom the place in which they composed their material was somehow essential to the content. Was it important that you finished the book in Paris? Did it inform the work in any obvious way?
Assadi: This was the way I signed off on the galley (it was removed from the final printing) because for every single version of this book I made a note of where I was and the date, until the last final version where I felt it was important to remove any mark of myself and where I’d been on that final page. But as a biographical note, Paris is the place where I wrote my first novel by hand many years ago. That novel will never be published, I’m sure of that. Or at least I hope it won’t! But it’s an important city to me for that reason. I walked it for a few months, visited every cemetery, and rested with a little red wine and my large leather-bound black journal and wrote that awful, sentimental first novel. But what wasn’t awful was getting to know Paris, which as many have said before me, is so very beautiful.