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Everywhere Impulse, Devotion, Everywhere

A Conversation With Naomi Shihab Nye

Interview by Meg Kavanagh

Naomi Shihab Nye, is the internationally acclaimed author and editor of over 20 volumes of of poetry and fiction, including the award-winning young adult novel Habibi. Her most recent book of poetry for young adults, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her newly released picture book for young people, Baby Radar, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, reveals an original, stream-of-consciousness view of a bustling, urban street -- from a stroller. Ms. Nye's distinctions and awards include The Jane Addams Book Award, the International Reading Association’s Notable Book for a Global Society, four Pushcart Prizes, a Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, and a Guggenheim fellowship. Ms. Nye's Palestinian heritage, international teaching and living, and multicultural experiences as a child, adolescent, and adult have informed much of her work. She has led workshops as a poet in the schools for three decades. Naomi Shihab Nye resides in San Antonio, Texas with her husband and son. This interview was conducted in fall, 2003, prior to Ms. Nye delivering the 2003 Charlotte Zolotow Lecture.

MK: After reading Salting the Ocean , it is evident that the poems in the world are really integral threads found in people of all ages – all threads with wonderful variations! Thinking about that made me wonder: What delighted you, as a seven-year-old poet in St. Louis? What were you seeing, then, and saying?

NSN: What a lovely question, Meg. Thank you. I was quite delighted both by the lives of animals – we had cats and later rabbits – and the possibilities of human speech at the age of 7. I loved learning words, feeling them inside my own mouth, recognizing tasty ones in print. I was transfixed by the act of seeing the world we were in, by petite discoveries – the slimness of twilight, for example, yet its ability to color everything that had preceded it in a softer hue. Or learning the best ways to pick cherries from our laden trees, how to pit them carefully with my mother, exactly how many little buckets it took to make a pie, or the swirling bats which circled the fields at sundown, and the murmurs of the creek in the woods behind our house after a big rain, the trickles and streams where only recently there had been dry gullies. I adored details and remember playing with quite miniature toys. I loved the wind in my face as I rode my bicycle through the neighborhood around our house in St. Louis.

MK: What remains?

NSN: None of this has ever left me: now that I think of it, I still enjoy many of the same activities. The joy in seeing and saying remains.

MK: How do you translate personal experiences like these, or universal experiences, into a poem? What things, people, and ideas are in your mind, today? What’s growing in your garden?

NSN: Mint. Oregano. Cherry tomatoes. Little palms and banana palms. Roses. The yellow-belled esperanza flower from Mexico. Lantana and plumeria. Great words! The act of writing itself often leads us into thinking in a larger, more universal way, after focusing on or breathing with, beginning with, something grounded and close. A poem "blurs" into that larger space of being on its own, if it is lucky. There is often a little "click" or "shiver" in a poet’s mind, I think, when an experience or a perception begins opening up into something larger – one can feel this DURING the act of writing, sometimes, or sometimes just as thoughts and images are gathering in the mind. Sometimes there is an impulse of something large first but we have no idea what it is until we begin writing through the scene itself, the details at hand.

MK: I read in an interview that you not only read your son, Madison Cloudfeather, to sleep, but also read him awake. What a great idea!

NSN: Well, he was a very early reader and quite in love with books as a little boy, and we miss seeing that passion in him – perhaps he will return to it; we hope so. High school is quite a bulk of assigned reading these days! Enormous. He no longer begs me to take him to the library so he can check out 50 books, but considering the weight of his backpack for school, I can’t blame him.

MK: What poems and stories have resonated with Madison Cloudfeather over your life together?

NSN: I find Japanese and Chinese poems, William Stafford poems, poems by Mary Oliver and Jane Kenyon and Jane Hirshfield and W.S. Merwin and Theodore Roethke and Frank O’Hara and Robert Bly and Rumi and Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda and so many others (these are just some frequent favorites) very delicious as a wake-up call. It is precious for ME having poetry be the first thing that rolls off my tongue toward our son every day too. I usually read 3 or 4 poems, slowly, resonantly, beside his bed. I remember one of my dear friends telling me that on the night her son told her he was too big for bedtime reading she went to her own bed and cried and cried. Well, in our house I just transferred the shared reading time to the morning! A sleeping teen isn’t very resistant.

MK: As a Palestinian American, a resident of St. Louis, Jerusalem, San Antonio, and hundreds of places—as a traveling poet—how do you envision the further development of cross-cultural understanding through poetry and other genres?

NSN: I just see it continuing to open up and a larger and larger desperate necessity for it. With so many negative impulses active in the world at the moment, and so much hideous bad behavior among adults, I feel the need for connection with young minds and hearts, country-to-country, growing more crucial by the second. Teachers and librarians may be the saviors of humankind yet, doing their daily labor in quiet and difficult places.

MK: Yes, we need books and stories for all places! There are familiar themes running through your work. I’m thinking specifically of your books Habibi and Sitti’s Secrets. Your crucial stories work to resolve huge misrepresentations and stereotypes of Arabs and Arab Americans. As our children witness ugliness – negative images ("terrorist" is an example), you infuse the dialogue(s) with appealing characters, a variety of experiences and feelings, and a universal undertone that young readers can comprehend. These are all accomplishments of tall order. Can you remember when you first began?

NSN: I was in college when I really began thinking of the relatives I knew as fascinating "characters" also. It was a revelation to me, after years of writing already, to think that the people I knew best were also beacons of culture and personal ethnic history and that one could somehow "explore humanity" by writing and thinking about one’s own people. I remember being so excited that I stood up from the work table in my university library where I was working on a giant research paper, maybe about the Beat Generation (I was in love with Jack Kerouac) and walking around the place grinning like a fool.

MK: That sounds like true epiphany – to make you physically stand up! What were your original goals? In witnessing the reception of your work, do you feel your contributions surpassed your original desires?

NSN: It is impossible to consider one’s own "contributions," really, and I have never been very "goal oriented" so this is a hard question. I have been very grateful for the warm response of readers in many countries. That I can say. If they feel I am expressing something that seems authentic to them too, I am happy.

MK: Your books are beautifully illustrated. The magical surprises in Nancy Carpenter’s fantastic illustrations for Sitti’s Secrets are mesmerizing. Was this a collaboration?

NSN: Thanks for your compliments. I have very strong feelings about the artwork in my books and so far have always been thrilled by it. Nancy Carpenter and I worked on both books you mention through our terrific editor Virginia Duncan, now editor-in-chief at Greenwillow. For Sitti's Secrets, I did send some actual photographs of my grandmother and her village life to Nancy, through Virginia. Nancy is an extremely versatile and talented illustrator, and I loved what she did with painting on maps in Sitti's Secrets.

MK: Was the process for Baby Radar a different kind?

NSN: For Baby Radar she had her own toddler to observe!

MK: You’ve given literary space for Palestinian American experiences, and my hope is for more Arab American perspectives in books for children, young adults, and adults. Any recommendations for readers?

NSN: Thank you. That’s my hope too. There are many terrific Arab American writers at work on books for all ages – some of the names I urge people to look for are Ibtisam Barakat, Suheir Hammad, Nathalie Handal, Hayan Charara, Khaled Mattawa, Anton Shammas, Sharif Elmusa, Lisa Suheir Majaj, Gregory Orfalea, Gary Paul Nabhan – and there are many, many more.

MK: A question suggests itself to me after reading the anthology you edited, What Have You Lost? Your life is rich with experience, intelligence, warmth and investment and participation in humanity. What have you lost? What have you gained?

NSN: I lose what we all lose, recurrently –- at the moment, some faith in the wisdom of politics. The headlines sometimes make me lose faith, for a minute, anyway, in the human imagination to see beyond cycles of violence to a better day.

MK: And the lessons?

NSN: I find a lot of other people who know more than I know, who are devoted to the possibilities of dialogue, and find my own faith in humanity again. But these are trying times, to be sure. We should all be serving young people, no matter what we do, creating a world in which young people may be nourished, fortified, inspired. Too many adults seem to be serving themselves these days, for whatever nasty reasons – letting the lives of kids be swept along in sorrow and danger. We should all be serving the environment – it is such a precarious moment where the natural world is concerned. This impulse and devotion should be everywhere.

About Naomi Shihab Nye:

Feldman, Ruth Tenzer. "Naomi Shihab Nye and the Power of Stories." Cobblestone. May 2002, Vol. 23 Issue 5, pp.26-29.

Johnston, T. "Wandering Poet: Arab American Writer Naomi Shihab Nye Sows the Seeds of Peace." Teacher Magazine. Vol. 14, part 6 (2003). pp. 20-23.

Lesesne, Teri. "Honoring the Mystery of Experience." Teacher Librarian. November/December 1998, Vol. 26, Issue 2. pp. 59-62.

Schliesman, Megan. "Naomi Shiyhab Nye: People! people! my heart cried out." Book Links. July 1998, Vol. 7, Issue 6, pp. 40-44.

Selected Works by Naomi Shihab Nye:

Baby Radar. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2003.

Benito's Dream Bottle. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1995.

The Flag of Childhood: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East. New York: Aladdin, 2002. (Editor)

Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1997.

I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You: A Book of Her Poems & His Poems Collected in Pairs. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1996. (Editor)

Lullaby Raft. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1996.

Salting the Ocean: 100 Poems by Young Poets. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2000. (Editor)

Sitti's Secrets. New York: Four Winds Press; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994.

This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World. New York: Four Winds Press, 1992. (Editor)

The Tree Is Older Than You Are: Poems & Stories from Mexico. New York: Four Winds Press, 1995. (Editor)

What Have You Lost? New York: Greenwillow Books, 1999. (Editor)

Reprinted from the Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2003, Number 3 with permission of Meg Kavanagh and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2003 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.


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