Saturday, July 18, 2009

Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye

Melissa Tuckey | September 16, 2008

Naomi Shihab Nye was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. During her high school years, she lived in Ramallah in Jordan, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. She is the author and/or editor of more than 20 volumes.

Her father, Aziz Shihab, passed away this year. His memoir Does the Land Remember Me? was published by Syracuse University Press in 2006. It traces his longing for home and his attachment to the place of his birth, through the family's forced removal from their Jerusalem home in 1948, to his immigration to the United States, and many returns home to Palestine.

At the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, DC in 2008, Naomi received a standing ovation for her poem "Wandering around an Albuquerque Terminal," a poem about a chance meeting in an airport that begins with airport security and ends with a picnic and the declaration that "not everything is lost." Among other things, her poems are resilient and full of hope.

Melissa Tuckey: Your father, like many Palestinians, was haunted by the loss of his family home in Jerusalem, which was taken by force during the Nakba of 1948. He explores this loss in his memoir Does the Land Remember Me? How did it affect you, growing up, fully American and with family in Palestine and aware of their struggles and their loss? How did this kind of "double consciousness" shape you as a person and as a writer?

Naomi Shihab Nye: One's mind was always "reaching out" to another place – with concern – and trying to figure out why the spin on that place, in the United States, didn't fit the true story. Always trying to put pieces together, figure things out. Wondering. A great thing about being the child of an immigrant is: one grows up with a very potent sense of the wider world. My father taught us to ask questions about the news. "Well, maybe," he'd often say, in response to a news story, "I'll bet there's another side to that story." Because of course, the story he was living did not fit the spin.

Melissa Tuckey: You've mentioned that writing for both you and your father was how you kept your worlds alive. Can you explain that further – both personally and politically? How does/has writing served you in this way?"

Naomi Shihab Nye: Writing requires paying attention, tipping the head for various perspectives, asking oneself continual questions about what one remembers or cares about – this is a rich and lively life of mindfulness – filtering through the muchness and finding some significant images or threads to hang on to. I honestly wonder, sometimes, how people live without this. I guess people do it in all sorts of different ways. My father often sat down to write when he was feeling frustrated by the unfair spin of news – always treating Palestinians as aggressors, the "bad guys" – he would heal himself by focusing on something precious he remembered, or something eccentric – particular stories and scenes. I've been reading Raja Shehadeh's amazing book Palestinian Walks recently and know how deeply these essays, about being out on the beloved land, would have meant to my dad. Everyone should read this book.

Melissa Tuckey: How important is poetry to Palestinian culture and more recently to Palestinian resistance, and in creating a new state?

Naomi Shihab Nye: With the shocking death of our beloved poet Mahmoud Darwish this past weekend (weirdly in my own current state of Texas), I think the answer is clear – a voice may also be a country of a kind. And the words of Darwish gave thousands, millions of people gravity and comfort and hope. I hope people read his poems together even twice as much as usual and find more ways life on the ground could live up to hopes in the poems. I think poetry is huge for all culture, even though sometimes it feels discreet, subtle, somewhat underground. Where are we without our voices?

Melissa Tuckey: I love this quote from you that "Darwish is the essential breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging." What happens to that breath now? Do you have a favorite line or stanza of his poetry or quote to share?

Naomi Shihab Nye: I hope the breath keeps billowing, like wind. I hope more people breathe it and speak it – the exchange we make with the atmosphere, as poets, as citizens concerned about the twists and turns of justice and injustice. My favorite Darwish quotes are, of course, many, but here's one from "State of Siege":

You there, by the threshold of our door
Come in and sip with us our Arabic coffee
(you may even feel that you are human, just as we are!)
you there, by the threshold of our door
take your rockets away from our mornings
we may then feel secure
(and almost human)

I loved his frequent attempts to "balance" in poetry, to call attention to what remains out-of-balance in our world...

Melissa Tuckey: Can you say something more about how it is that poetry gives balance to what's out of balance in the world?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Poetry reminds us what our hopes were, what our visions held, before clutter and complication and too much chatter distracted us. Poetry reconnects the broken pieces. Poetry refreshes the eye. And spirit.

Melissa Tuckey: Politically conscious poetry, poetry that fully engages human experience in the real world where we live, is full of challenges. What are the challenges you've faced in your own politically engaged poems?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Just to keep writing them. Never to feel they're "enough" but only the best little bit that I, as a writer, can do. How to keep listening, reading, absorbing, all the muchness there is to think about, and continue to find little handles to hold on to – images to contemplate – a way to enter the fray and think about it.

Melissa Tuckey: You wrote in an email that Barack Obama needs to evolve in his positions on Israel/Palestine. What course of action would you recommend for the future president (be he Obama or McCain)?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Balance. Respect for all human beings. All stories. All pain. Recognition of what the Palestinian people have been through in the last 60-plus years. Honest recognition that the violence has hardly been a one-way street.

Melissa Tuckey: Do you believe peace is possible? What are your hopes for Israel and for Palestine? Do you support one state in Israel/ Palestine or two?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Yes, I believe peace is possible. As my father kept saying toward the end of his life, people will have to become exhausted enough with fighting to embrace peace. From what I hear, many, on both "sides" have been exhausted enough to try something better for quite a long time. My hopes are for a one-state cooperative solution (because the territory is simply so small) in which Palestinian and Israeli citizens may share their strengths and resources in mutual respect. I don't see, at this point, how a two-state solution could work as well. The wall must go down. Don't bring it to Texas, either, we have enough problems with our own stupid wall!

Melissa Tuckey is a poet and activist involved in DC Poets Against the War. More of Melissa Tuckey poems can be found at Beltway Poetry Quarterly Wartime edition at

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