Hannah Lillith Assadi: A Lyricist at Heart | Debut Spotlight

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Hannah Lillith Assadi’s first novel, Sonora (LJ 4/15/17), is a lyrical coming-of-age story about best friends Ahlam and Laura, who attempt to escape to New York City only to find that their troubled pasts have caught up to them there. Below, Assadi discusses poetry, the divide between life and art, and biblical influences.

In your novel, you use an epigraph from the Bible’s Book of Jonah. Why did this particular story speak to you?
One of the central questions of the novel is whether the sequence of deaths is following Laura and Ahlam like a curse or whether their self-destructive behavior leads them to tragedy. I’ve always loved the Jonah story, but what I remembered from childhood was only about him living inside the belly of the whale. There is this whole other part that I found so beautiful in rereading it that’s applicable to Sonora. Jonah knows that no matter how far he runs from his God, the seas won’t calm until the crew throws him overboard. He repents and then is reborn anew. I plotted Ahlam to follow this trajectory, albeit in very different terms.

How much of the book is based on your experience? Was it therapeutic to write?
Ahlam and I are alike in many ways: we share a cultural background, we both experienced a fair amount of exposure to death growing up in Arizona, and we both love to dance. Outside of these broad strokes though, our shared experience ends. I never knew a person like Laura, though she is a conglomerate of friends, romances, and even of the darkest parts of my own personality. My father doesn’t chase aliens; I went to college and graduate school, and I never did quite as many drugs.

Since I was young, there has been a lot of pressure on me to write into my background (being half Jewish/half Palestinian), as if I might have a solution to the conflict between the two groups by virtue [of my heritage]. In this book, I wanted to heighten the weight of those facts on Ahlam. Ahlam has semi-prophetic visions, which, in the end, do nothing to save her or her friends. It’s as if she has this magic power that is simultaneously impotent.

Your story includes myths and rituals from many cultures. Were any of these culled from your own life?
I read things ranging from local Arizona legends and mythology, such as the La Llorona skin-walkers in Navajo culture, to accounts of the Phoenix Lights [supposed UFO sighting]. I read about the coyote and its symbolic role in local tribal lore, Apache stories about the Superstition Mountains, and the odd disappearances that have plagued that range. Some were things I heard about growing up, but much of it I discovered as I went along.

Your prose is very poetic. Do you write poetry, or are there poets who have influenced you?
I have written poetry, and it is probably instinctually what I am most inclined to write. That said, I have tremendous respect and need for narrative, so trying to find a balance between a good story and poetic prose has always been my aim. There have been so many influences, but to name a few: Mark Strand, Yehuda Amichai, Mahmoud Darwish, Federico García Lorca, and Ted Hughes.

Ahlam’s father teaches her to disguise her name and homeland when asked about her background. Did you encounter prejudice growing up?
As a child, I definitely didn’t advertise that my father was a Palestinian and Muslim. Owing to the color of my skin, it was easier to hide this. I remember after 9/11, people who looked more “Arabic” than me (i.e., browner) were harassed. For the most part, aside from the occasional racist comment, I grew up more or less unscathed.

Why did you choose to construct the narrative in chapters based on months?
I wanted the chapters to be imbued with a sense of recurring seasons. In Arizona, August is afflicted with monsoons; I’ve always felt February to be the coldest month; and April is the cruelest, full of rain. These three months repeat themselves in the story. I wanted the structure to reflect the girls’ flight to NYC that never quite resolves in true liberation from their past—April returns and is even crueler, as it were.

You describe New York City and its inhabitants so articulately. As Laura says, it’s “home.” Did you feel this way when you arrived in the city?
I moved here to attend Columbia University, but it wasn’t until after I left college that I got to know [the city]—and perhaps only then did I really feel it deeply as my home. Every day, I consider leaving and living elsewhere, and maybe one day, I will, but this place has a way of always tugging me back into its clutches.—Kate Gray, Boston P.L., MA


This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. Katie D says:

    I remember the Jonah story from my childhood as well. This sounds like a very deep book. Really looking forward to checking it out. I also think the chapters based on months is an interesting way to do it. Looking forward to this book.

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