Talking With Poet Naomi Shihab-Nye

Lisa Suhair Majaj
Naomi Shihab-Nye, photographed by Malcolm Greenaway.

Naomi Shihab Nye is a Palestinian-American poet, writer and folksinger. A prizewinning author and a frequently invited speaker, Nye has published a number of poetry collections, including "Different Ways to Pray," "Hugging the Juke Box," "Yellow Glove, "Words Under the Words," a selection of poetry from her first three books, and "Red Suitcase." She also writes children's books, including the well-loved picture book "Sitti's Secrets," and edits books of poetry for younger readers. Her collections include "This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World and The Tree is Older than You Are." Nye is currently a Visiting Professor of Writing at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and in June 1995 was featured on PBS as part of Bill Moyer's poetry series "The Language of Life."

Majaj: I remember that I first encountered your writing in a small booklet called "Wrapping the Grapeleaves, A Sheaf of Contemporary Arab-American Poets." How did this collection come about?

Shihab-Nye: In the early 80s, I was invited to be part of a reading at the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee Conference in Washington, D.C. It was the first time I had ever met other Arab-American writers. There was such a sense of family among us, such a close, immediate sense of community. It was almost as if we had all been writing different sections of the same long poem for years, that we didn't have to spend a long time getting to know one another. We just felt at ease and grateful to be part of a community together and to share our work together. Afterwards, Gregory Orfalea (from Washington D.C.) had the idea of making a sheaf called "Wrapping the Grapeleaves" in which he printed some of our poems. Really, that was the first time that we had appeared in any kind of unified way. I think it gave us all a wonderful sense of belonging. From there, he went on to do a larger anthology with Sherif Elmusa, the book "Grapeleaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry." When that book came out, more people kept appearing in our country who might have been in the book had they surfaced to the editors earlier. So, there was a good sense on the part of the editors to allow the book to grow larger. I think that, in an important way, the book acknowledged the Arab-American community of writers as a viable community. It identified, affirmed and encouraged it.

Majaj: Had you identified strongly as an Arab-American writer before being involved in these collections?

Shihab-Nye: I had, but certainly there is pleasure in not feeling that you're the only one. You'd like to have friends in the world, and whereas I always felt friendly with people of other ethnicities, there was a tremendous pleasure in having a bond with people who had a closer link to my own background.

Majaj: In the preface to your poetry in "Grapeleaves," you talk about the gravities of ancestry, the bonds that connect you to people, and the issue of biculturalism. You describe the process of writing as being a way of building bridges, from the head to the page, from writer to reader, and in the case of bicultural writers, between worlds. And you describe this sense of connection as even closer, almost like a pulse. What did you mean by that?

Shihab-Nye: When you are a bicultural person and I know many of us are in different ways, whether our parents were immigrants or we were immigrants, or our parents came from both sides of the world- there may be a sense of a seam that's always sewn between the cultures or, in other cases, there can be a continuous bridging back and forth depending on how easily the parts go together. Since I was always writing - I was a child writer- I always took writing as being a way of thinking. I was aware very early on that I could look at experience in both a participatory way and a detached way where I could stand back, examine and wonder how things go together and how I fit with them. So, writing helped me see my own life as a child. I also had a sense of my big family out there in the Middle East, who I had never met at that time but who were very crucial to my sense of existence and where I came from. So, I felt that, as a child, I was recording things for them or communicating with them. Of course, I wasn't, since none of them at that time spoke English. I had that feeling that I was bridging something. They were very present in my mind then. Growing up, we start seeing that those parts of our lives are closely intertwined, and we can't really say this part is Arab and this part is American. It is as close as a pulse is. It is the whole thing that keeps us alive. Writing helps us see that and, whoever we are, it helps us identify what makes the whole geography of our lives.

Majaj: I remember a line from one of your poems, in which you talk about being born into a large family and about one's brothers covering the earth. That sense of expansion and connection across continents is present all through your work, as is the importance of family connections, and the connection to your grandmother is especially clear. Could you tell us a bit about her?

Shihab-Nye: My grandmother, who died two years ago at the age of one hundred and six, was a splendid wizard of humanity. People loved her and gravitated toward her. She was very wise, funny, and very verbal. She was a big talker and a great conveyer of tales. My father certainly carried that spirit of hers and I feel that I carried it to the next generation: a feeling of loving to talk and tell, whatever impulse that is, and sometimes it is a dangerous one. My grandmother was willing to accept the risk of talking and telling a lot, and was a delightful character and soul. Many times in my life I felt that I was speaking to her, despite the fact that she didn't speak English and that my Arabic was so pedestrian. Whenever I spoke to her it was an act of great faith on her part that she could ever figure out what I was saying, but she seemed to understand. So, we have these people within our own tribes who become our heroes or heroines, our own icons or places of faith. She represented something crucial and deep to me.

She didn't travel. The only place she ever went was Mecca and she may have crossed to Jordan once or twice. She never rode in an airplane and I think she rode in an elevator once and she didn't like it. On the other hand, she had a huge spirit of travel and abundance and the wide expansiveness that stories give us. She was that way for me, and I met many people later in Jerusalem who said that she was that for them too. It was very special to know that she represented that to a large circle of people. By the time she died, she was the oldest person in her village and she was proud of that. She used to say that she didn't want to die until everyone she didn't like died first, and I think she succeeded.

Majaj: She sounds like a wonderful person. You've written a children's book about her, haven't you?

Shihab-Nye: I did, and I'm happy to say that people have been very welcoming toward this book, "Sitti's Secrets," which was beautifully illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (who lives in New Jersey). It was published by Macmillan in 1994. The book is the story of a little girl who grows up in the United States and then travels to meet her grandmother in Palestine. She feels the deep link between them. They invent their own language together. They share the small details of the grandmother's life. Of course, as happened to me, she is a changed person. She goes home with a new thread connecting her to the Earth. I really like how Nancy Carpenter used the whole imagery of the planet. "My grandmother lives on the other side of the Earth" is the opening line of the book, so she experimented with the use of maps, distance and connective links. In one of the final pictures of the book, the grandmother and the girl appear in the heavens as if they become their own constellation, which I think we do with the people we love and we become everywhere or they're everywhere for us. That's how my grandmother remains for me. I'm very pleased that, not only have I received letters from Arab-American children about this book saying "I know what you're talking about," but I've also received letters from Chinese children in California saying "My grandmother is on the other side of the Earth, so this book is my special book." One teacher was so kind that she took pictures of her students reading the book so I could see their expressions as they read it. One boy was so excited (his grandmother was in Yemen) and was pointing at the page saying "she looks like her." I also heard from children in Texas saying "my grandmother is in New York, so she too is on the other side of the Earth." It's nice that children don't pick up the distinction, though they may say "Well, my grandmother doesn't look like that," but they pick up the sense of bonding that the girl feels.

Majaj: You've done a lot recently for children, and I wonder if you could tell us about your edited book "This Same Sky," a wonderful collection of translated poems from around the world.

Shihab-Nye: Yes. It has become very clear to me over the years that Americans, especially young Americans, need to be encouraged to listen to voices from elsewhere. Some of us grow up with the mistaken idea that ours is the only reading and writing culture, and that we are the only literary people in the world. Of course, the United Stated has one of the shortest literary histories in the world, so we need to be reminding children and students to be alert for voices from elsewhere, voices that have much talent. I started making this book during the terrible time of the Gulf war. The book has a 129 writers from 69 countries, and the poems have all been translated into English. Many Middle Eastern countries are represented, but the book is not comprehensive. I keep being reminded of omissions and I wish I could add 300 pages to it. But again, this is the kind of book that keeps growing in your mind and you wish it were longer. It just came out in paperback and it's been extremely warmly received. It was named a notable book by the American Library Association. I'm glad that students and teachers have taken to it as warmly as they have. It's been used as a text in fifth grades and in university classes, so it has a wide spin of possible readership. We need to be reading each other. I keep thinking if you read the poems of someone somewhere you know a lot more about that country than you know if you just study its crops or weather conditions. I urge teachers to use as many books as they can in translations.

Majaj: I've often thought about how you deal, in your poetry, with difficult political and geographic issues, but also focus on the particular and bring out the human voice in a way that only poetry can do. There is one poem in particular which evokes so much and gestures toward large issues while remaining true to the personal voice. It is "The Man Who Makes Brooms."

Shihab-Nye: I don't understand how people can disconnect politics from daily life, because that's how politics count. We're daily life people and that's where politics become a reality to us. The poem "The Man Who Makes Brooms" was written for a man whom my father remembered from his pre-1948 days in the old city in Jerusalem and took me to see in the 80s.

Majaj: In that poem and in many other of your poems, the importance of story telling and narrative in maintaining memory is very clear. Do you feel that you obtained the appreciation for story from your Arab background?

Shihab-Nye: Absolutely. The Arab culture is full of great story tellers, and it is one of the favorite pastimes of Arab people. I think that there is a deep hunger in the human psyche for story and the nourishment it gives us. People don't live on one level chatter alone, rhetoric or just the conveyance of news. We need the threading and layering of a day that story gives us, and that's very much from the culture. That fact that my brother and I went to sleep every night of our lives as children with our father's folk tales, his Joha stories ringing in our ears, had a deep and abiding effect on me. I saw them as lullabies and, of course, the stories would always change and we would go along with his new additions and omissions.

Majaj: Did the Arabic language influence your writing?

Shihab-Nye: I regret deeply that I didn't learn Arabic as a child. Our father didn't speak much Arabic in the house because our mother didn't speak it. The only times we would hear it is when he spoke with guests or relatives. I was fascinated by it, but it was not taught to me. I think my father regrets it now, too. When I started studying it at age 14 in Jerusalem it was hard because, by that age, your brain has solidified and it's not easy to pick up, especially when you're learning the old fashioned way when they teach you how to write before you could speak anything. I had a very hard time with it. So, as I say in the poem called "Arabic", I have the sound of it but I don't have the sense. Also, there is the additional confusion of having studied Spanish. I live in a Latino neighborhood in San Antonio and I mix it with Arabic. I would strongly suggest that bicultural families such as mine teach their children both languages from the beginning if they can.

Majaj: You've been involved as a second translator with a number of projects from PROTA (Project for Translation from Arabic). What was your experience with that like?

Shihab-Nye: Salma Khadra al-Jayusi has been instrumental in her role as a transmitter of Arabic literature. She has had a large number of people working for her projects and I simply worked as a second editor, who is the dumber one, the one that doesn't know both languages, the modifying editor. I loved the new insight I gained into Arabic poetry from reading it in rough translation. Then, it would go back to Dr. Jayusi and she would compare it to the original. Her projects, the large "Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature" and the "Modern Arabic Poetry" anthology were great. They were labors of love on everybody's part, but we all learned a great deal about the culture.

Majaj: You are a musician, aren't you? How does music come into your writing?

Shihab-Nye: There must be a connection between music and writing but I'm not sure how. Language is its own music. I never felt shy about singing in public, partly because my mother is a singer. Part of the role of the writer is to encourage other people to discover their voices. Working all these years with students of different ages, it's been my role to encourage them to find parts of their own voices, whether it is a singing one or talking one, seeing that they're all connected. I've always thought of song writing and poem writing as cousins.

Majaj: I've always admired how you use your poetry as a vehicle for peace and communication beyond animosities. One such poem is "Shrines," where you invoke commonalties between suffering people. Another is your poem , "For the 500th Dead Palestinian, Ibtisam Bozieh," which I find very powerful. You talk about it in an essay called "Banned Poem," (included in the collection "Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists"). Could you tell us about it?

Shihab-Nye: I wrote that poem in response to a series of newspaper stories that came out in short columns during the Intifada. They reported how many Palestinians had died in the Intifada that day. When they reached a juicy round number of 500, they gave the young girl who was the 500th death, Ibtisam Bozieh, a longer story. In that story they talked about her life and that she wanted to be a doctor and that all she did was look out the window and she got shot by an Israeli soldier. I was absolutely struck by that story and became haunted by thinking about this girl who lived in a village near my grandmother's, and about how innocent she was. I thought about how natural it is to be a curious 13-year old girl looking out the window. She was all of us and this could have happened to any of us. I became obsessed thinking about her. The last lines of the poem are:

Some who never saw it

Will not forget your face.

I felt as if I had been with her after weeks of thinking about her. Later, I read that poem in Jerusalem and a Palestinian journalist wanted to print it in an Arabic newspaper. They were not allowed to print it by the Israeli censors. The poem became an issue after that. At a meeting of Arab journalists, they presented me with a framed copy of the censored poem that was all slashed through by censors and it was stamped all over "unacceptable, cannot be published" in Arabic, English and Hebrew. They had it framed in barbed wire and gave it to me. It was a haunting experience for me because suddenly I realized, with even more immediacy, what their lives had been like. The inability to even cry out in the event of someone's death is something that Americans have never understood all these years how Arabs there were denied their voices and their basic human right to say things. So, in a way, the journalists seemed pleased that this had happened to me because it was as if suddenly I could understand a little better what they had been going through. I think I did, and I wrote this essay, which then everybody wanted to publish everywhere, about the poem being banned. It is an irony: they won't let something get printed, then it gets printed more. But I was also haunted by the fact that none of my talk did any good for Ibtisam Bozieh, other than to wish for her to be back on Earth and to wish for something different for all the people who died in ways that seem needless.

I think people who work on translation projects think that they're somehow peace negotiators because the belief is that we'll never stop killing one another until we understand and see one another as human beings. I think that's true. That's why it is very important to me to receive responses to poems like that from Israeli or Jewish poets; they're even more important than responses from Arab poets. When I get responses from an Israeli Jewish poet saying "I'm listening, I'm sorry, I don't like this either," that matters to me a lot.

This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 13 (November/December 1996).

Copyright (c) 1996, 2019 by Al Jadid

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