Sonora is a whimsical, lyrical and haunting coming of age by Hannah Lillith Assadi. It tells the story of Ahlam, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and his Israeli wife, as she grows up in the arid lands of desert suburbia outside of Phoenix. She battles chronic fever dreams and feelings of isolation in the stark landscape of coyotes and the mystery surrounding colored lights passing through the nighttime sky.
When Ahlam meets the wild and witchy Laura, they soon form an intense friendship of infatuation, curses, and drugs. After a series of mysterious deaths claim their high school classmates, they flee to New York City, in an effort to grow up and outrun their ghosts.
As one of the best books I have read in 2019, so far, I was thrilled to be able to speak with Hannah Lillith Assadi on the phone and pick her brain about this novel and her process, coincidentally on the second year anniversary of Sonora’s publication, March 28th.
Check out our conversation below as we talk female friendships, childhood innocence, growing up with immigrant parents and about her new, forthcoming novel.
KB- Kailey Brennan, interviewer, creator of Write or Die Tribe
KB: A friend of mine owns a bookstore in Rhode Island, Twenty Stories LA, and when she saw me reading your book, Sonora, she said that they featured it as their book club book a few months ago.
HA: That’s really cool. It's such a funny thing, it's actually been two years to the day that the book came out. So it's one of those amazing things that the book still has a life. They live on even though years have passed in my own personal life so its really great.
KB: How long did it take you to write this book?
HA: I started it in late 2012. It started as a short story as the last assignment for my MFA. The class was sort themed around about death. And the assignment was to write a piece that somehow incorporated the dead. I wrote this piece that was about a love affair gone wrong, but it was also about many of the people I had known in Arizona who had died in many strange ways. It was very short, sort of like an elegy to all these people I had known. So the next morning, I had woke up to find out that another peer from the high school I had gone to had died that proceeding night. It was such a strange, eerie feeling. I just felt like, okay, I should maybe look at this more.
So, in early 2013, I spent about 6 months drafting a very different draft than what would become the book. Then, I set it down for some time and I began writing again probably in late spring of 2014 and then it was two more years of writing and revising. So it’s sort of hard for me to say, but let’s say from start to finish it was a four or five year process.
KA: Is this story autobiographical or inspired by some events that happened in your life?
HA: I would say it's more inspired by. I think a lot of people assume given the background of Ahlam, that she's a character based on me the most. But I would I would say I’m more between Lauren and Ahlam if I were to speak explicitly about my own autobiographical events in my life. But yeah, all of the events like the tragic deaths of their high school peers were inspired by real events. All their real life trajectories were fictionalized. You know, I didn’t go to New York to become a dancer (like Ahlam) I went to go to college. But I was thinking about it as sort of like a path I could have taken and I didn’t take it. But if I had, maybe it would have looked like this. Maybe it would have been far darker than the life I have known.
KB: So on the cover of Sonora, writer Catherine Lacey had described your book as “not a tale of innocence lost, but of innocence never had.” Do you agree with this? Do you think this innocence lost is part of the experience of growing up with immigrant parents who came from a very turbulent world before coming America?
HA: That could be related to both of their backgrounds, but I mean it could always be related to their personalities. So in that regard, that word just sort of speaks to certain kids that seem to never quite be able to appreciate their childhood innocence. Certainly that's the case for these two.
And whether it's related to their background...I mean, perhaps. It’s not something I had thought about. Of course, growing up in a household where you're constantly hearing about war or your parents' trauma versus growing up in a household where maybe people are more concerned about their white picket fence, there is going to be some predisposition to the darker side of life. And there is always the sort of persistence of conversation around needing to survive. The topic of sheer survival is going to be strong and more focused because that’s what they’ve been told and also what they've experienced. So yeah, I think so. It's not something I had thought about, but, both these things are not unrelated.
KB: So Ahlam and Lauren have this fascination with the occult and they have this obsession with curses, as well as all the myths and legends they believe in, based on their setting, the Arizona desert, along with connection to the water and the moon...I mean, I’m personally just so interested in astrology and being connected to nature, so I really enjoyed this. But I’m curious, when you were writing, did you specifically seek out to talk about like these connections with nature and these myths or did it kind of develop when you were developing the characters?
HA: By osmosis, from growing up in the Southwest, I heard about various myths and legends like La Llorona and shapeshifters and some of the totem energy of coyotes and other inhabitants of the region. I did do some research on various creation stories of the tribes indigenous to the Sonoran desert as well. But for the most part I wrote these girls to be like girls in rural and suburban landscapes of anywhere and nowhere, USA, looking up at the sky, at their environs, and trying to make their own myths and connections to make sense of a fucked up world.
KB: When I was researching this book, I read somewhere that someone had described this book as superstitious realism.
HA: Oh I like that. I don’t remember seeing it described that way.
KB: Yeah, I liked it too.
So my other question about your two main characters is about female friendships. Friendship and female connection is so important in this story. I was interested in how Ahlam never really has a love interest. It's almost kind of like Laura is just her only interest for a lot of story. I’m curious on your thoughts as to why young girls and women kind of need this connection with one another?
HA: I think one of the things I wanted to emphasize, I guess, about this relationship is that it is a romantic relationship. It's not necessarily a sexual relationship, even though it does go there at times. Female friendships are now being more validated in literature and culture, but one of the things I think have been ignored for so long is these relationships are so complicated and so important for young women. I think there is something extremely romantic about female friendships. It's just not the word that is typically used. I don't know that I have a direct answer to your question about why they're so important. I just know that we gain a lot from them, especially in our younger ages. But even now - I'm in my thirties - I think we define ourselves in relation to our friendships. In those formative years is when it’s even stronger. I mean, who knows the people we would have become without those certain friendships we had at those ages, you know?
In the case of these two girls, it's in those adolescent teenage years, they kind of mold into each other. For Ahlam, it's unclear what Laura would have been so part of the romance is she is watching part of herself, in some ways, tragic ways, deteriorate. But Ahlam kind of comes out the other side. I don’t know if that answers your questions.
KB: No, it does!
HA: It’s just that we can’t really separate ourselves.
KB: Right. I like calling it a romance because, you’re right, it’s not the word we typically use, but I don’t think that word has just a singular meaning. I mean, books on female friendships and coming of age novels are my favorite things to read. These relationships definitely define who you are. I enjoyed reading this connection in your novel because it just felt like they were both kind of lost in their own way and found each other.
HA: Well, I’m happy.
KB: So we already talked about how long it took you to write this novel, but since we are a writing community, I always like to ask some writing questions. What does your process look like? Do you write every day? In the morning? What works best for you?
HA: I think this book was so different, because I was teaching myself how to write at the time and I was working full time, commuting several hours during the day. So I wrote on the subway, at night, after work and on weekends. I would take vacations, weeks off, but instead of going anywhere i would just sort of draft and edit and revise. And now, after Sonora came out, I’ve been fortunate enough to support myself with freelance work and write.
So now I, every morning, maybe six days a week, write until around 11:00 AM. Sometimes, I wake up earlier, or sometimes later. But I don't look at any form of electronic communication until after 11. And I just write. That’s how I wrote my second novel which is forthcoming. But even if I'm not working on anything specifically, I just journal every day. I find that the practice of that, works as I get older as a writer.
KB: The whole idea of not looking at your phone and social media until after 11:00 is great. I need to do that too.
HA: Yeah. I mean if you can. When I was writing Sonora, I was working as an executive assistant for somebody, you know, way more important than me. I needed to look at my phone first thing in the morning. Now my work is slightly more flexible than that - yeah it can ruin my entire kind of trance. If you can do it, I recommended it.
KB: Can you tell us anything about your forthcoming novel?
HA: Yeah, its forthcoming from Riverhead. Hopefully in a about a year. It’s narrated by a much older woman in her seventies who is diagnosed with a sort of dementia type illness. And as she begins to lose her memory, she simultaneous starts to relive her first love and all these strange lights begin the consume the island where she lives. So maybe more of that superstitious realism and more magic.
KB: That's really exciting.
I know it's hard to think of books on the spot, but have there been any favorite novels that kind of helped you when you were writing Sonora or your second book? Any novels that are just your favorite that you always recommend to people?
HA: I always mention this, because the book I wished I had read when writing Sonora, but actually read after, was Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. It’s such a beautiful love story and also an elegy to a love. I wish I had read it before Sonora, but I’m glad to have read it in this light.
KB: I haven’t read anything by him and it’s funny, because his name keeps coming up, so maybe it's a sign.
HA: Yeah, maybe it's time! It's a beautiful book.
KB: Well thank you so much for answering my questions. This is great.
HA: Thank you! Thank you so much for calling. It’s nice to do something like this on this day, on the anniversary. It feels appropriate
Hannah Lillith Assadi received her MFA in fiction from the Columbia University School of the Arts. She also attended Columbia University for her Bachelor's where she received the Philolexian Prize for her poetry and fiction and graduated summa cum laude. She was raised in Arizona and now lives in Brooklyn. Her first novel Sonora (Soho 2017) received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction.
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