Monday, March 17, 2008

the POWER of the written word

What is the point of writing in the midst of conflict? Why do I, who care about peace, bother with a degree in writing and literature? It's a question that rages with validity, and will take a lifetime to answer.
Naomi Shihab Nye, in an interview conducted by Robert Hirschfield ("Naomi Shihab Nye: Portrait of a Palestinian American Poet" for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2006), said this about the importance of what she, and other writers, do:

[Nye] writes about the Southwest, a lost parrot, an old love, Mother Teresa and other subjects, as well as about Palestine and the Palestinians. She sees her words as her contribution to Palestinian resistance.
“Many people would say that words do nothing, she noted. “Others, like myself, believe that language, whether it be poetry, like [Mahmoud] Darwish’s poetry, or song, can fortify and rejuvenate the spirit.
What poetry can do, Nye believes, is to transport people “across the gap,” beyond tribal borders. Israeli poets Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch are long-time residents in her pantheon of poets who matter. “Presence and truth” were the checkpoints they had to pass through to get there.
The article continues:
In her open letter “To Any Would-Be Terrorists,” written after 9/11, Nye begins by saying how very much she hates using the word “terrorists.”
“Do you know how hard some of us have worked to get rid of that word, to deny its instant connection to the Middle East?” she writes. “And now look. Look what extra work we have. Not only did your colleagues kill thousands of innocent, international people in those buildings and scar their families forever, they wounded a huge community of people in the Middle East, in the United States and all over the world. If that’s what they wanted to do, please know their mission was a terrible success, and you can stop now.”
A scolding mother, she mentions her own American mother, who has worked so hard in her life to undo people’s poisonous stereotypes about Arabs.
In tones of an exhausted friend, Nye ends her letter by saying, “We will all die soon enough. Why not take the short time we have on this delicate planet and figure out some really interesting things we might do together? I promise you, God would be happier.”
She suggests they read Rumi, even American poetry, and quotes the Arab-American writer Dr. Salma Jayyusi: “If we read one another, we won’t kill one another.”
Nye detects an edge of rage in some of her own post-9/11 poetry. It doesn’t please her. She likens poetry to a lever that keeps trying to flip up a lid so one may discover what lies beneath it. Rage, she knows, kills wonder.
Rage kills wonder. May we, who aspire to art, always remember that.

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