Naomi Shihab Nye

Posted by on June 26, 2014 in Blog

Poet, songwriter, and novelist Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1952. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother was an American of German and Swiss descent. Well known for her fresh perspective on events, people, and objects, Nye’s work reflects her Arab American heritage and each creation overflows with her passion for art and culture.

Naomi began to write poetry as soon as she learned how to write. At 14-years-old, Naomi’s writing style and focus changed after visiting her Palestinian grandmother and living in Ramallah and the Old City of Jerusalem. This experience proved to be life-changing, inspiring Naomi to dedicate a book to her grandmother, Sitti’s Secrets. The children’s book follows the tales of an Arab American girl who visits her grandmother in a Palestinian village and learns that despite the differences between her life and her grandmother's, they share a bound by love and family. Her experiences in two separate worlds are central parts of many poetry collections she would go on to write.

Naomi received a B.A. in English and World Religions from Trinity University in San Antonio. Fresh out of college, Nye published her first collection of poems, Different Ways to Pray, in which she explored similarities and differences between cultures—a topic that would become one of her lifelong areas of focus. Her other books include poetry collections A Maze Me, Red Suitcase, Field Trip and Fuel, a young-adult novel called Habibi (the semi-autobiographical story of an Arab American teenager who moves to Jerusalem in the 1990s) and picture book Lullaby Raft.

Nye has stated that, for her, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, [and] our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.” In fact, Nye’s poems about heritage and peace give voice to some of her most treasured cultural inheritances. Reflecting on her work, famed poet William Stafford has said, “Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.” Bill Moyer, American journalist and public commentator, finds deep comfort in Nye’s poetry expressing that “her poems speak of ordinary things—things we take for granted until it’s almost too late.” To this day, he walks around with his favorite poem by Nye in his back pocket.

Nye’s poems and short stories have appeared in various periodicals and journals throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle East. She has traveled all over the world for the United States Information Agency, promoting international goodwill through the arts.

Nye has won many awards and fellowships, among them four Pushcart Prizes, the Jane Addams Children’s Book award, the Guggenheim Fellowship, many notable book and best book citations from the American Library Association, and a 2000 Witter Bynner Fellowship. In June 2009, Nye was named as one of PeaceByPeace.com’s first peace heroes.

Following the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Nye became an active voice for Arab Americans. Motivated by the lack of understanding between Americans and Arabs, Nye collected her poems that dealt with the Middle East and her experiences as an Arab American and formed them into one volume, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. Highly praised for its timely message, Publisher’s Weekly declared that it was “an excellent way to invite exploration and discussion of events far away and their impact here at home,” and literary critic Donna Seaman remarked that “Nye’s clarion condemnation of prejudice and injustice reminds readers that most Americans have ties to other lands and that all concerns truly are universal.”

A strong advocate for mutual understanding and respect between Americans and Arabs, Naomi Shihab Nye has created a cultural space in America for people to come together to celebrate their commonalities alongside their differences. Her artistic spirit has inspired millions, perfectly demonstrating how art can be used to promote acceptance and love throughout the world and for generations to come.

 

Steps

By Naomi Shihab Nye

Excerpted from “19 Varieties of Gazelle

 

A man letters the sign for his grocery
in Arabic and English. 
Paint dries more quickly in English. 
The thick swoops and curls of Arabic letters
stay moist and glistening
till tomorrow when the children 
show up jingling their dimes.

They have learned the currency of the New World, 
carrying wishes for gum and candies 
shaped like fish. 
They float through the streets, 
diving deep to the bottom, 
nosing rich layers of crusted shell.

One of these children will tell a story 
that keeps her people alive.
We don't know yet which one she is. 
Girl in the red sweater dangling a book bag, 
sister with eyes pinned to the barrel 
of pumpkin seeds. 
They are lettering the sidewalk with their steps.

They are separate and together and a little bit late. 
Carrying a creased note, "Don't forget." 
Who wrote it? They've already forgotten. 
A purple fish sticks to the back of the throat. 
Their long laughs are boats they will ride and ride, 
making the shadows that cross each other's smiles.

 

Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.