The narrator of Layla Alammar’s new novel Silence is a Sense is a journalist who cannot give up the habit. She escaped the Syrian civil war and now lives in a block of flats in the UK, looking 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” which is mostly about the community of their neighbors, the life they have left behind and the memories they cannot. “Your efforts to tell a story come from many different sources,” says Alammar. “On the one hand, she was traumatized in silence by these experiences both at home in Syria and on her trip to the UK. And there is this long theory about silence and trauma and silence in response to trauma. So that’s certainly part of it. On the other hand, she trusts does not fully trust her memories, does not trust the ability of her mind to make sense of what has happened so that she can then communicate that story [her editor] want it. “
Highlights of the interview
About the narrator’s silence
Much of the silence is a learned silence. You know, if you come from a place like Syria that lived in a state of emergency for 40 years – so that’s twice as long as the narrator lived – and grew up in an environment where you can’t speak, and there is that oppressive silence that rules the whole country, where you are literally being killed only to be expected only to be able to speak out freely, and in a very personal way [her editor] wants, it is understandable that she would hesitate to do that.
How stories can be a barrier to memory
Memory is active narration, construction, right? The memories we evoke to understand our life and history are not files that live in folders in our brain. You know, we created a file in 2010 that is filled with all of these discreet memories. Put them all together in a sequence and that’s 2010. That’s not how it works. Every time you evoke 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 narratives that make sense, beginning, middle, end. But that is not the essence of memory. And memories are messy and complicated and unsolvable in many ways.
How horrors do not live in rooms, but in hearts and minds
I think it’s a particularly poignant thing for her because she carries so much of what happened in her head. They know their country and their homeland have been completely decimated. Your family and friends have been scattered to the wind. She survived this trip through Europe, where most of the time you have no room. You know you live in tents. You sleep on the side of the road. And I think in the western mind we have these notions of haunted houses and bad memories that live in rooms and like to leak out of walls and other things. But for them this room is their mind. And here are all the horrors.
Whether it is possible to understand the losses of the Syrian civil war.
I don’t think so, to be honest. I think it will take decades and decades to even understand what happened there. It is mind-boggling to confuse the extent of a country’s total collapse – and a country with such a rich literary tradition and corpus of art and culture is just too big in some ways. 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 numbers are so big that the mind cannot reconcile them. I hope that Silence is a Sense works in such a way that it dissipates these abstractions and helps anchor these big issues in a very personal narrative of a young woman and how she tries to deal with these trauma.
This story was edited for radio by Peter Breslow and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.