Reading & Literacy

Wandering Poet

By Theresa Johnston — March 01, 2003 10 min read
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Arab American writer Naomi Shihab Nye sows the seeds of peace.

For Arab American writer Naomi Shihab Nye, it was yet another reminder of how much has changed since September 11, 2001. There she was on a January afternoon at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, patiently waiting for a flight to California, when suddenly word came that everybody had to get out onto the sidewalks. Someone with a suspicious bag had just slipped through security, forcing the evacuation of three terminals and the delay of at least 100 flights.

Speaking in Monterey, California, the next day, the critically acclaimed poet, essayist, and children’s writer reflects on the bizarre scene and on the endless cycle of violence behind it. “I was proud of how nicely everybody acted at the airport,” she tells the 12th graders gathered at her destination, the music rehearsal hall at Santa Catalina, a serene all-girls high school. Still, there was something disturbing about the term “evacuation,” Nye says— something so “weird and shadowy” that she felt compelled to pull out her notebook and write about it as soon as she got on the plane.

A self-described “wandering poet,” Nye has been traveling across the country and abroad for the past 30 years, conducting writing workshops and inspiring students of all ages with her relaxed, sweetly humorous readings. Her chief mission is “to endear poetry to children so they’ll want to read more and be encouraged to write.” These days, though, the 50-year-old feels an added sense of responsibility. As a highly respected American children’s writer—and the eloquent daughter of a Palestinian refugee—Nye has decided it’s her duty to help American youngsters see the good side of the Middle East and to help kids in other lands see the good side of America. Since 9/11, more schools and libraries have been contacting Nye’s California booking agency, asking if the writer can visit.

As Nye explains in her introduction to 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, a finalist for a 2002 National Book Award, “Arab Americans must say, twice as clearly as anyone else, that we deplore the unbelievable, senseless sorrow caused by people from the Middle East.” At the same time, “we must remind others never to forget the innocent citizens of the Middle East who haven’t committed any crime, the people who are living solid, considerate lives, often in difficult conditions—especially the children, who struggle to maintain their beautiful hope.”

For her one-day visit to Santa Catalina, the petite, dark-haired writer has picked out a soft olive-green suit and a purple scarf to drape around her neck. The lush, 36-acre, Spanish-style campus, tucked into the hills near Monterey Bay, is far removed from the desert-dry images that Nye evokes in her poetry, and it’s likely the plaid-skirted seniors in her audience are fretting more about their college applications than troubles half a world away. Still, Nye seems genuinely touched as they respectfully file into the rehearsal hall clutching their assigned copies of Gazelle. “It’s such an honor to see my books in so many friendly hands,” she tells them, smiling. “I never get over that feeling of gratitude.”

In addition to speaking with students, Nye is scheduled to dine with faculty and offer an evening poetry reading. Despite her packed itinerary, the writer seems unruffled. For more than an hour, she cheerfully answers questions about her spare free-verse style, her writing process, and her familial sources of inspiration. The poet’s works are full of references to her teenage son, her Palestinian grandmother, and her gregarious journalist father, who came to America as a college student. (He met Nye’s American mother, a painter and Montessori teacher, while both were volunteering at a hospital in Topeka, Kansas.)

Eventually, the talk turns to politics. Nye mentions her school visits and other efforts to promote international understanding through organizations such as Seeds of Peace, which brings together teenagers from war-torn countries for summer camp in Maine. Then she fishes a crimson-covered volume from her bag and closes with a reading from a pre-9/11 poem called “Jerusalem": “I’m not interested in/ who suffered the most/ I’m interested in/ people getting over it,” she recites in a clear, gentle voice. “A child’s poem says/ ‘I don’t like wars,/ they end up with monuments.’”

For Coral Taylor, a tall Santa Catalina student with wavy dark hair, Nye’s open embrace of her heritage makes a lasting impression. “You can really see how proud she is,” the senior says outside the hall. Coral’s mustached teacher, Donald Hackling, also seems pleased. As chair of the school’s English department, he was drawn to Nye primarily for her skill as a poet. At the same time, he was looking for a way to help pupils at the Catholic school better understand the complexities of the Middle East. Since reading Nye’s works, he notes, “many students have been commenting on how much more insight they have.”

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Nye credits her early love of poetry to a veteran 2nd grade teacher named Harriett B. Lane who had her pupils reciting lines from William Blake and Langston Hughes almost as soon as they could read. “I always remember feeling charged up going into that classroom,” Nye says during a phone interview from her home in downtown San Antonio. “If we came in with a new poem, she would sit there and listen with her hands folded. Nothing was above our heads, in her view. She felt that poems could be the basis for the study of vocabulary, syntax, and public speaking....It was as if poetry was the best thing she had found to serve 2nd graders.”

Before long, the doe-eyed young writer was filling her own notebooks with simple observations of her home and multicultural neighborhood, composing poems and sending them to children’s magazines. As she was finishing up her bachelor’s degree in 1974 at San Antonio’s Trinity University, a professor suggested she apply for a job as a traveling poet with the Writers in the Schools program, sponsored by the Texas Commission on the Arts. Other writing-related fellowships followed, and Nye has been trekking to schools and colleges ever since. “The comments from students are smarter than anything you’ll see on CNN,” she says.

Throughout her writing career, Nye has been an early morning scribe, rising at 4 or 5 o’clock each day to compose her thoughts in the predawn stillness of the 100- year-old house she shares with her photographer husband and teenage son. Many of her award-winning pieces draw on the cultural diversity of her home in Texas; others are inspired by her travels in Asia and the Middle East. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, though, that an editor suggested she might have a knack for children’s literature. Sitti’s Secrets, a picture book about an American child who misses her Palestinian grandmother, won a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awardin 1995.

Nye is probably best known among middle school teachers and students for her 1997 novel, Habibi. The book, which also won the Addams award, was inspired by a year the author spent living with her parents and younger brother in the divided city of Jerusalem, then part of Jordan, in 1966 and ‘67. Now a fixture on many school reading lists, the book tells the story of Liyana Abboud, a 14-year-old Arab American girl still reeling from her first kiss, who suddenly finds herself without friends in a strange country, trying to make sense of the enmity between her Arab and Israeli neighbors.

Critics have lauded Nye for her ability to find grandeur in the mundane—a café waiter “stacking plates on the curl of his arm,” or “the clear-belled voices of 1st graders"—and she urges aspiring young writers to do the same. “Start with the little, tiny, forgotten kinds of things that might be unnoticed by anyone but you—the line of conversation that made you laugh, or the little moment that glistens out of a whole day when you’re going to bed,” she tells them.

A year and a half ago, however, the writer found herself having to pay more attention to the big picture. On September 11, 2001, Nye was stranded after teaching in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and wound up catching a Greyhound bus home. Shortly afterward, she wrote and e- mailed an essay to a few friends, urging “any would-be terrorists” in their midst to think about the damage they are doing.

“Millions of people in the United States are very aware of the long unfairness of our country’s policies regarding Israel and Palestine....Many of the people killed in the World Trade Center probably believed in a free Palestine,” the letter said. “But this tragedy could never help the Palestinians.... And it will be peace, not violence, that fixes things.”

The intimate letter took on an Internet-driven life of its own. Newspapers from Texas to Canada to Beirut reprinted it on their editorial pages, and teachers at schools across the country wrote to ask whether they could distribute the letter to their classes. (Of course, Nye said.) The piece is slated to appear in at least two upcoming volumes, including a textbook. “Someone even told me they saw it posted on the wall of a Buddhist temple in Japan,” Nye marvels.

Educators familiar with Nye’s writing are not at all surprised that her work strikes such a chord. Dottie Price, a 3rd grade teacher at River Oaks Elementary School in Houston, says her culturally diverse school draws heavily on Nye’s picture books, poetry, essays, novels, and anthologies throughout the grade levels. “A global perspective is important to us,” she explains. “As a poet and human being, Naomi offers that. We share her writing with our students because it is down-to-earth, beautiful, and often addresses the issue of the ‘other’ in our society.”

Gary Anderson, chairman of the English department at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois, asked Nye to speak last year as part of the school’s annual Writers Week. The invitation, he says, was “not specifically because of her heritage—although that is certainly a welcome part of her package—but because of the way students and teachers respond to her writing. Students turn off pretty quickly when they’re bombarded with obscure mythological or literary allusions orarchaic vocabulary in poems. In Naomi’s work, students understand all the words while at the same time being led to see things, people, and situations in new ways.” Fremd student Michael VanAcker agrees. “The component of Nye’s work that struck me the most was her quiet, honest energy and strength,” the high school junior notes. “Her work always has a significant core without unnecessary ‘fluff’ to doll up her language.”

Nye’s school visits aren’t always comfortable. Recently, while at a Jewish school in the Bronx, the school’s head told her to be prepared: Some parents had expressed reservations about having a Palestinian American writer visit, and the students’ questions might be hostile. As usual, Nye was upfront with the students. Yes, she told them, she’s an Arab American writer. But, Nye added, she was not at all nervous about being there—Jews and Arabs are cultural cousins, after all. “Don’t be shy to ask questions about Arab stuff or anything; go right ahead,"she said.

“I could see their bodies relax when I said that,” the buoyant writer recalls; before long, the questions were flying. One boy raised his hand and asked Nye how she felt about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. “He seemed to think that anyone who was an Arab American would feel like they had to defend the guy,” Nye says. “But I said, of course not.”

Even if the United States goes to war with Iraq, Nye is confident she’ll have a warm welcome in U.S. classrooms. “I feel like everybody I have met since September 11 is more committed to understanding and learning about the region, and that’s very touching,” she says. “Seriously, I have not met one teacher who I feel has not done his or her job.”

Nye is about to publish Baby Radar, a picture book offering a toddler’s perspective of the world, and she’s working on a second children’s novel called Florrie Will Do It, about an American teen who works to save mom-and-pop enterprises. She’s also thinking about writing a small book of poetry, “just the right size for 12-year-old girls to carry around in their pockets.” As for the school visits, she’ll keep doing what she can for peace, one airplane flight at a time. Habibi, she notes happily, has just been published in Hebrew.


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