Illuminating Texts:
Naomi Shihab Nye and her Palestinian-Influenced Writings

John David Brantley

John David Brantley is Professor Emeritus at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where he still lives with his childhood sweetheart (now his wife), Jaynet. He has two sons, one granddaughter, five asonishing sisters, and a passel of extremely interesting and intelligent nieces and nephews. In the course of his teachings and learnings at Trinity he met, mentored, and became friends with Naomi Shihab Nye.

Naomi Shihab Nye's credits make a satisfying list, but those with interest in the world of Arabic literature and especially in Palestine, are "The Spoken Page" (The International Poetry Forum, 1989), This Same Sky (Four Winds Press, Macmillan, 1992), Habibi (Simon &Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1997), Sitti's Secrets (Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon &Schuster, 1997), 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, 2002), a finalist for the National Book Award that year, and "Palestine Is a Country: Divine Intervention Comes to Texas", a film review published in Speakeasy , September/October, 2003.

19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East is a gathering of poems written over a period of some twenty years. Nye was born in the United States, the daughter of an American mother and a Palestinian father. Haunted by her family's history, she says, "All my life I thought about the Middle East, wrote about it, wondered about it, lived in it, visited it, worried about it, loved it. We are blessed and doomed at the same time." In the essay "'Divine Intervention' Comes to Texas" Nye's response to that powerful movie provides glimpses of her family's griefs, frustrations, anger that go to the very pit of the problem that is life in Palestine. It is the sad tale of the removal from their homes and lands of a proud people, of ruthlessly imposed controls, and the failure of the conquerors to understand or even attempt to understand the culture of the conquered. In the review in question she tells of her father mourning the loss of his parents and all his brothers saying, ". . . they are all dead, and they never saw anything get better." One uncle died at an Israeli checkpoint after a heart attack because he lacked the proper papers to get through to a hospital "Next time I'll make better plans," he mumbled before dying.

To such indignities, such grief, Nye says, "I feel desperate for the conflict to be resolved. It is way past time for human beings, animals, plants, trees, to get on with their lives. I have yearned for the situation to be placed in the hands of women, schoolteachers, nurses, and librarians." This is typical Nye response and language. The situation may seem intractable in its political context, but she cuts through the abstractions of politics to the realities of individual lives and to those whom she knows have most interest in the preservation of life. She is like her grandmother "who enacted no violence in her 106 years, and said before dying, 'I never lost my peace inside.'"

In her Introduction to 19 Varieties of Gazelle Nye explains why poetry is so important to her. "Poetry," she says, "slows us down, cherishes small details. A large disaster erases those details. We need poetry for nourishment and for noticing, for the way language and imagery reach comfortably into experience, holding and connecting it more successfully than any news channel we could name." In "Olive Jar" from that collection, she responds to an Israeli Crossing Guard's questions about her intentions in visiting her relatives on the West Bank:

We will eat cabbage rolls, rice with sugar and milk, crisply sizzled eggplant. When the olives come sailing past at dinner in their little white boat, we will line them on our plates like punctuation. What do governments have to do with such pleasure? Question mark.

Whether it be something deeply personal or something removed that fascinates her, Nye's writing is most often concerned with individuals, the many ways people find to live on the lands they call home. In Habibi Nye explores all that Habibi sees and experiences of a different land and life. The same is true in Sitti's Secrets where there is as much interest in the life of Sitti as in the connection of the child with her grandmother. It is perhaps Nye's experience of getting to know and to understand the lives of her own relatives in Palestine that makes her sensitive to the common thread that runs through the fabric of the many different cultures in the world and which is so clearly seen in This Same Sky , a collection of poems by poets of more than sixty countries.

Nye bypasses abstractions in her own poetry and in those she selected for This Same Sky . It is always the lived event, the experience that is seen, heard, touched that attracts her. It is Sitti patting the bread dough between her hands and pressing it out "to bake on a flat black rock in the center of the oven," or as in the poem "Blood" from 19 Varieties of Gazelle when Nye considers the terrible news reports from Palestine, she says

What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed.
table mat stitched in blue.

In her poetry and in her stories Nye uses our senses to take us to people and experiences that we would otherwise never know: the strange becomes familiar, the stranger becomes a friend. She shows us that beyond all the distinctions we make between ourselves and "the others" there is always the tree that needs climbing, the stone to throw, the bread to bake.


John David Brantley

Volume 8, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, September/October 2004

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"Naomi Shihab Nye and her Palestinian-Influenced Writings"
© John David Brantley, 2004
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