'Silence Is A Sense' Works To Dispel The Terrible Abstractions Of Syria's Civil War

Mar 13, 2021
Originally published on March 13, 2021 12:16 pm

The narrator of Layla Alammar's new novel Silence is a Sense is a journalist who can't kick the habit. She's escaped the Syrian civil war and now lives in an apartment block in the UK where she looks at neighbors through her window: South Tower A, second floor. She sees the father who always forgets his key card. East Tower, third floor is the guy who barely turns on his lights and melts cheese on toast.

She writes a column for a British magazine under the pseudonym "The Voiceless," that's largely about the community of her neighbors, the lives they've left behind and the memories they can't. "Her struggles to tell a story come from many different sources," Alammar says. "On the one hand, she has been traumatised into muteness by these experiences, both back home in Syria and on her journey to the U.K. And there's this long theory about silence and trauma and silence as a response to trauma. So that is certainly part of it. And on the other hand, she doesn't trust her memories fully, she doesn't trust her mind's ability to make sense of what has happened in order for her to then communicate that story in the way that [her editor] wants it."


Interview Highlights

On the narrator's silence

A large part of the silence is a learned silence. You know, when you come from a place like Syria that lived under a state of emergency for 40 years — so that's two times as long as as the narrator has been alive — and you grow up in this environment where you cannot speak, and there is this oppressive silence that governs the entire country where speaking out quite literally gets you killed, to then expect her to just be able to freely express her opinions, and in a very personal way that [her editor] wants, it's understandable that she would hesitate to do that.

On how stories can be an obstacle to memory

Memory is an active narrative, construction, right? The memories that we call forth to make sense of our lives and make sense of our history, they're not files that live in folders in our brain. You know, like, we created a file in 2010 and it's populated by all of these discrete memories. Put them all together in a sequence, and that's 2010. That's not how it works. Every time you call forth a memory, you are essentially reconstructing that memory based on who you are now in this present moment. So the human mind is geared towards creating stories and creating narratives that make sense, you know, beginning, middle, end. But that's not the essence of memory itself. And memories are messy and they're complicated and in many ways they're unresolvable.

On how horrors don't live in rooms, but in hearts and minds

I think it's it's a particularly poignant thing for her because she carries so much of what happened in her mind. You know, her country and her homeland have been utterly decimated. Her family and friends have been scattered to the winds. She's endured this journey across Europe where, you know, most of the time you don't have a room. You know, you're living in tents. You're you're sleeping by the side of the road. And I think in the Western mind, we have these ideas of haunted houses and evil memories that reside in rooms and, like, leak from the walls and stuff. But for her, that room is her mind. And that's where all of the horrors reside.

On whether it's possible to understand the losses of the Syrian civil war.

To be honest, I don't think so. I think it's going to take decades and decades to even begin to understand the full measure of what happened there. It's just mind-boggling the extent of the utter crumbling of a country — and a country that has such a rich literary tradition, and has such a rich corpus of art and culture, in some ways it's just too huge. You know, you think of six to seven million refugees who have fled the country. You think of another six million who have been displaced within the country. You think of half a million dead. I mean, these these figures are so large the mind can't reconcile them. And so that's what I hope Silence is a Sense does is that it kind of works to dispel these abstractions, and help to ground these large themes into a very personal narrative of a young woman and how she is trying to deal with these traumas.

This story was edited for radio by Peter Breslow and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The narrator of Layla Alammar's new novel is a journalist who can't kick the habit. She's escaped the Syrian civil war and now lives in an apartment block in the U.K., where she looks at neighbors through her window. South Tower A, second floor, she sees the father always forgets his key card. East Tower, third floor is the guy who barely turns on his lights and melts cheese on toast. She writes a column for a British magazine under the pseudonym The Voiceless that's largely about the community of her neighbors, the lives they've left behind and the memories they can't.

"Silence Is A Sense" is the second novel from Layla Alammar, who grew up in Kuwait and has written for many British magazines. She joins us from Lancaster, England. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAYLA ALAMMAR: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Your narrator says she comes from a place where the walls have ears.

ALAMMAR: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: And you spend your life hiding and fabricating.

ALAMMAR: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: But in the West, everybody wants a story.

ALAMMAR: Yeah. And, you know, her struggles to tell a story come from many different sources. You know, on the one hand, she has been traumatized into muteness by these experiences, both back home in Syria and on her journey to the U.K. And, you know, there's this long theory about silence and trauma and silence as a response to trauma. So that is certainly part of it. And on the other hand, she doesn't trust her memories fully. She doesn't trust her mind's ability to make sense of what has happened in order for her to then communicate that story in the way that Josie wants it.

SIMON: Josie is her editor.

ALAMMAR: Josie is her editor at this online magazine. But then, you know, a large part of the silence is a learned silence. You know, when you come from a place like Syria that lived under a state of emergency for 40 years - so that's two times as long as the narrator has been alive - and you grow up in this environment where you cannot speak and there is this oppressive silence that governs the entire country where speaking out quite literally gets you killed, to then expect her to just be able to freely express her opinions in a very personal way that Josie wants - it's understandable that she would hesitate to do that.

SIMON: And I'm struck by at one point when she says stories, in fact, can be an obstacle to memory.

ALAMMAR: Well, you know, memory is an active narrative construction, right? The memories that we call forth to make sense of our lives and make sense of our history, they're not files that live in folders in our brain. You know, like, we created a file in 2010, and it's populated by all of these discrete memories. Put them all together in a sequence, and that's 2010. That's not how it works. Every time you call forth a memory, you are essentially reconstructing that memory based on who you are now in this present moment. So the human mind is geared towards creating stories and creating narratives that make sense - you know, beginning, middle, end. But that's not the essence of memory itself. And memories are messy, and they're complicated. And in many ways, they're unresolvable.

SIMON: A line that I can't get out of my mind in particular is when your narrator tells us - speaking about what many of the people in her housing block and others have lived through, she says rooms do not hold on to the horrors that were lived in them. We carry these things in the rooms and boxes of our hearts and minds.

ALAMMAR: Yeah. And I think it's a particularly poignant thing for her because she carries so much of what happened in her mind. You know, her country in her homeland have been utterly decimated. Her family and friends have been scattered to the winds. She's endured this journey across Europe, where, you know, most of the time, you don't have a room. You know, you're living in tents. You're sleeping by the side of the road. And I think in the Western mind, we have these ideas of haunted houses and evil memories that reside in rooms and, like, leak from the walls and stuff. But for her, that room is her mind. And that's where all of the horrors reside.

SIMON: You know, it is irresistible to note, of course, we interview you on the 10th anniversary of the Syrian civil war. Can we begin to understand the loss?

ALAMMAR: To be honest, I don't think so. I think it's going to take decades and decades to even begin to understand the full measure of what's happened there. It's just mind-boggling the extent of the utter crumbling of a country and a country that has such a rich literary tradition and has such a rich corpus of art and culture. In some ways, it's just too huge. You know, you think of 6 to 7 million refugees who have fled the country. You think of another 6 million who have been displaced within the country. You think of half a million dead. I mean, these figures are so large, the mind can't reconcile them. And so that's what I hope "Silence Is A Sense" does, is that it kind of works to dispel these abstractions and help to ground these large themes into a very personal narrative of a young woman and how she is trying to deal with these traumas.

ALAMMAR: Layla Alammar's novel, "Silence Is A Sense." Thank you so very much for being with us.

ALAMMAR: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOMENTS' "CRASHING WAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.