Academic journal article MELUS

Nomad, Switchboard, Poet: Naomi Shihab Nye's Multicultural Literature for Young Readers: An Interview

Academic journal article MELUS

Nomad, Switchboard, Poet: Naomi Shihab Nye's Multicultural Literature for Young Readers: An Interview

Article excerpt

Naomi Shihab Nye is best known for her six volumes of what William Stafford has called "a poetry of encouragement and heart." These, together with her widely anthologized short stories and luminous nonfiction, have earned her four Pushcart Prizes, the I.B. Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, two Voertman Awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress.

For the past decade, she has also been winning recognition for a sizable oeuvre of multicultural literature for young readers, all of which is infused with a direct, determined commitment to peace and cross-cultural understanding. As a Palestinian American who spent part of her childhood in Jerusalem and as a long-time resident of San Antonio, Nye focuses on both Arab American and Latino issues in her books for young readers. Her edited collections, which emphasize visual as well as literary art, include This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World (1992), which the American Library Association named a Notable Book, The Tree Is Older Than You Are: A Bilingual Gathering of Poems & Stories from Mexico with Paintings by Mexican Artists (1995), and The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East (1998). Her original works for children include two picture books for young readers: Sitti's Secrets (1994), which won the Jane Addams Children's Book Award from the Women International League for Peace and Freedom, and the lyrical Benito's Dream Bottle (1995). Her 1997 novel for young adults, Habibi, was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, an ALA Notable Book, a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, and a Texas Institute of Letters Best Book for Young Readers. Called by one critic "the work of a poet, not a polemicist," it received both the Judy Lopez Memorial Award for Children's Literature and the Jane Addams Book Award.

Joy Castro: The direct, courageous expression of simple truths about family, friendship, and compassion seems to work well for your characters. In Habibi, for example, Liyana yells down the Israeli guards in order to visit her imprisoned father, a Palestinian American doctor: "Her throat felt shaky. But she didn't turn.... "Of course it's possible!" she said loudly. "He is my father! I need to see him! NOW! PLEASE! It's necessary! I must go in this minute!" (228). Liyana succeeds; the guards let her in. In your bio note at the end of the paperback edition of Sitti's Secrets, which is about young Mona's visit to her Sitti, her grandmother, in a Palestinian village, you write, "If grandmas ran the world, I don't think we'd have any wars." Can you talk further about your vision of the way in which personal connections function in the struggle for political peace?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Well, most of us aren't politicians, so personal connections are all we have. I guess I've always wished that people could speak up with their honest, true, insightful feelings and needs when they have them--but of course, it's not always so easy in real life: inhibitions confound us, expectations hinder us. We have all lost many opportunities to speak out about crucial issues we believe in. I have probably been guiltier than most since I have so many generous occasions on which I am invited to express my opinions. This is a luxury writers can never take for granted.

In books, I hope that my characters are brave and strong. I want them to use their voices. I want young people to be reminded, always, that voices are the best tools we have. In whatever seemingly personal venues we may find ourselves, voices matter. A voice may stir up little waves that reverberate out and out much farther than we could ever imagine. I hope this is true. It has seemed to be so in my experience.

Castro: I remember during your reading here at Wabash last fall, you described your "Nye dinner," in which you invited all the Nyes in the San Antonio phonebook, sight unseen, to your house for a meal. …

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