Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1952. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American of German and Swiss descent, and Nye spent her adolescence in both Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas. Her experience of both cultural difference and different cultures has influenced much of her work. Known for poetry that lends a fresh perspective to ordinary events, people, and objects, Nye has said that, for her, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.” Characterizing Nye’s “prolific canon” in Contemporary Women Poets, Paul Christensen noted that Nye “is building a reputation…as the voice of childhood in America, the voice of the girl at the age of daring exploration.” In her work, according to Jane Tanner in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Nye observes the business of living and the continuity among all the world’s inhabitants…She is international in scope and internal in focus.” Nye is also considered one of the leading female poets of the American Southwest. A contributor to Contemporary Poets wrote that she “brings attention to the female as a humorous, wry creature with brisk, hard intelligence and a sense of personal freedom unheard of” in the history of pioneer women.
Nye received her BA from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and continues to live and work in the city. “My poems and stories often begin with the voices of our neighbors, mostly Mexican American, always inventive and surprising,” Nye wrote for Four Winds Press. “I never get tired of mixtures.” A contributor to Contemporary Southern Writers wrote that Nye’s poetry “is playfully and imaginatively instructive, borrows from Eastern and Middle Eastern and Native American religions, and resembles the meditative poetry of William Stafford, Wallace Stevens, and Gary Snyder.” Nye’s first two chapbooks were published in the 1970s. Both Tattooed Feet (1977)and Eye-to-Eye (1978) are written in free verse and structured around the theme of a journey or quest. They announced Nye as a “wandering poet”, interested in travel, place, and cultural exchange. In her first full-length collection, Different Ways to Pray (1980), Nye explores the differences between, and shared experiences of, cultures from California to Texas, from South America to Mexico. In “Grandfather’s Heaven,” a child declares: “Grandma liked me even though my daddy was a Moslem.” As Tanner observed, “with her acceptance of different ‘ways to pray’ is also Nye’s growing awareness that living in the world can sometimes be difficult.”
Nye’s next books include On the Edge of the Sky (1981), a slim volume printed on handmade paper, and Hugging the Jukebox (1982), a full-length collection that also won the Voertman Poetry Prize. In Hugging the Jukebox, Nye continues to focus on the ordinary, on connections between diverse peoples, and on the perspectives of those in other lands. She writes: “We move forward, / confident we were born into a large family, / our brothers cover the earth.” Nye creates poetry from everyday scenes throughout Hugging the Jukebox in poems like “The Trashpickers of San Antonio” and the title poem, where a boy is enthusiastic about the jukebox he adopts and sings its songs in a way that “strings a hundred passionate sentences in a single line.” Reviewers generally praised Hugging the Jukebox, noting Nye’s warmth and celebratory tone. Writing in the Village Voice, Mary Logue commented that in Nye’s poems about daily life, “sometimes the fabric is thin and the mundaneness of the action shows through. But, in an alchemical process of purification, Nye often pulls gold from the ordinary.” According to Library Journal contributor David Kirby, the poet “seems to be in good, easy relation with the earth and its peoples.”
The poems in Yellow Glove (1986) present a more mature perspective tempered by tragedy and sorrow. In “Blood” Nye considers the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She describes a café in combat-weary Beirut, bemoans “a world where no one saves anyone,” and observes “The Gardener” for whom “everything she planted gave up under the ground.” Georgia Review contributor Philip Booth declared that Nye brings “home to readers both how variously and how similarly all people live.” In Red Suitcase (1994), Nye continues to explore the effect of on-going violence on everyday life in the Middle East. Writing for Booklist, Pat Monaghan explained that “some of her most powerful poems deal with her native land’s continuing search for peace and the echoes of that search that resound in an individual life. Nye is a fluid poet, and her poems are also full of the urgency of spoken language. Her direct, unadorned vocabulary serves her well: ‘A boy filled a bottle with water. / He let it sit. / Three days later it held the power / of three days.’ Such directness has its own mystery, its own depth and power, which Nye exploits to great effect.”
Fuel (1998) is perhaps Nye’s most acclaimed volume. The poems range over a variety of subjects, settings and scenes. Reviewing the book for Ploughshares, Victoria Clausi regarded it as, above all, an attempt at connection: “Nye’s best poems often act as conduits between opposing or distant forces. Yet these are not didactic poems that lead to forced epiphanic moments. Rather, the carefully crafted connections offer bridges on which readers might find their own stable footing, enabling them to peek over the railings at the lush scenery.” Like her mentor, William Stafford, Nye again and again manifests her “belief in the value of the overlooked, the half-forgotten,” wrote Clausi, as well as investigating more “worldly concerns” like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though Clausi believed that Nye’s “poetics require a calmer language,” a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly found that “Nye’s witnessings of everday life and strife never quite acquire collective force, yet they convey a delicate sense of moral concern and a necessary sense of urgency.”
After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Nye became an active voice for Arab-Americans, speaking out against both terrorism and prejudice. The lack of understanding between Americans and Arabs led her to collect poems she had written which dealt with the Middle East and her experiences as an Arab-American into one volume. 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002) received praise for the timeliness of its 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.” Nye’s next book, You and Yours (2005), continues to explore the Middle East and the possibilities of poetic response. Divided into two sections, the first deals with Nye’s personal experiences as a mother and traveler and intersperses Nye’s typical free-verse with prose poems. Part two examines the Middle East with “indignity and compassion,” according to Publisher’s Weekly. Donna Seaman wrote that the book is “tender yet forceful, funny and commonsensical, reflective and empathic,” adding, “Nye writes radiant poems of nature and piercing poems of war, always touching base with homey details and radiant portraits of family and neighbors. 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.”
In addition to her poetry collections, Nye has produced fiction for children, poetry and song recordings, and poetry translations. She has also produced a book of essays, Never in a Hurry (1996), and edited several anthologies, including the award-winning This Same Sky (1992), which represents 129 poets from sixty-eight countries. In her introduction to the anthology Nye writes, “Whenever someone suggests ‘how much is lost in translation!’ I want to say, ‘Perhaps—but how much is gained!’“ Booklist critic Hazel Rochman called it “an extraordinary anthology, not only in its global range…but also in the quality of the selections and the immediacy of their appeal.” Nye also compiled and edited a bilingual anthology of Mexican poetry, The Tree Is Older Than You Are (1995). Nye edited the collection I Feel a Little Jumpy around You (1996), which combines 194 “his and her” poems, pairing a poem written by a man with one written by a woman. And Nye’s anthology The Space between Our Footsteps (1998) is a collection of the work of 127 contemporary Middle-Eastern poets and artists representing nineteen countries.
As a children’s writer, Nye is acclaimed for her sensitivity and cultural awareness. Her book Sitti’s Secrets (1994) concerns an Arab-American child’s relationship with her sitti—Arabic for grandmother—who lives in a Palestinian village. Hazel Rochman, in Booklist, praised Nye for capturing the emotions of the “child who longs for a distant grandparent” as well as for writing a narrative that deals personally with Arabs and Arab Americans. In 1997 Nye published Habibi, her first young-adult novel. Readers meet Liyana Abboud, an Arab-American teen who moves with her family to her Palestinian father’s native country during the 1970s, only to discover that the violence in Jerusalem has not yet abated. As Liyana notes, “in Jerusalem, so much old anger floated around…[that] the air felt stacked with weeping and raging and praying to God by all the different names.” Autobiographical in its focus, Habibi was praised by Karen Leggett, who noted in the New York Times Book Review that the novel magnifies through the lens of adolescence “the joys and anxieties of growing up” and that Nye is “meticulously sensitive to this rainbow of emotion.” Nye sees her writing for children as part of her larger goals as a writer. As Nye explained to a Children’s Literature Review contributor, “to counteract negative images conveyed by blazing headlines, writers must steadily transmit simple stories closer to heart and more common to everyday life. Then we will be doing our job.”
Nye told Contemporary Authors: “I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things. I love staring, pondering, mulling, puttering. I love the times when someone or something is late—there’s that rich possibility of noticing more, in the meantime…Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own.”