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Naomi Shihab Nye is known for award-winning poetry that lends a fresh perspective to ordinary events, people, and objects. A great deal of her work is written for children. In Contemporary Women Poets, critic Paul Christensen has stated that Nye ”is building a reputation . . . as the voice of childhood in America, the voice of the girl at the age of daring exploration.” Nye’s poetry is informed by her Palestinian-American background, yet her dedication to a multicultural viewpoint does not negate a sense of common humanity in her work. As critic Jane Tanner has declared, Nye ”is international in scope and internal in focus.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An International Childhood
Nye was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Aziz Shihab, was Palestinian, and her mother, Miriam Naomi Allwardt Shihab, was an American of German and Swiss descent. As a young girl, Nye read voraciously and listened to her father’s stories about his homeland and family. She began writing poems at age six and had them published in a children’s magazine at age seven.
After spending much of her childhood in St. Louis, Nye moved with her family to Jerusalem, which was then part of Jordan. Nye attended a year of high school in Ramallah, Jordan before her family moved back to the United States, this time to San Antonio, Texas. The period in which Nye lived in Jordan was plagued with violence between Jewish and Arab citizens in the area, who disagreed over religious matters as well as the boundaries and territories established by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Nye’s experience of this violent conflict would later be featured prominently in her poems and stories, most of which are dedicated to improving relations between members of differing religious and ethnic groups.
After returning to the United States, Nye began to write about the conflict in the Middle East while studying English and world religions at Trinity University in San Antonio. She graduated from the university in 1974 and married photographer and lawyer Michael Nye on September 2, 1978. She published Different Ways to Pray in 1980 and Hugging the Jukebox in 1982, both to great success.
An Award-Winning Global Activist
In addition to her three major collections and four chapbooks, Nye has published short stories, essays, and more than one hundred individual poems in journals and anthologies. She has also recorded two albums of original songs, Ruta-baga-Roo (1979) and Lullaby Raft (1981), and a reading of her poetry, The Spoken Page (1988). Nye has worked as writer-in-residence in Texas, Wyoming, Maine, California, Hawaii and Oregon; as a teacher at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Our Lady of the Lake in San Antonio; and as poetry therapist at Horizon House in San Antonio.
Nye has also traveled to the Middle East and Asia for the United States Information Agency to promote international goodwill through the arts. Throughout her works, Nye addresses issues of mixed heritage and cross-cultural understanding. As Nye herself wrote in a press release for Four Winds Press, ”My poems and stories often begin with the voices of our neighbors, mostly Mexican American, always inventive and surprising. . . . 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 work was selected for the Pushcart Prize in 1982 and 1984. In 1988 she was chosen by poet W. S. Merwin to receive the Academy of American Poets’ Lavan Award. In the same year she was also a cowinner, with Galway Kinnell, of the Charity Randall Citation for Spoken Poetry from the International Poetry Forum. Nye and her husband currently live in San Antonio with their son, Madison Cloud feather, born in 1986.
Works in Literary Context
Throughout her career, Nye has promoted, both in her writing and political activism, cross-cultural understanding. In her first full-length collection, Different Ways to Pray, Nye explores the differences between, and shared experiences of, cultures from California to Texas, and from South America to Mexico. As critic Jane 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.” In more recent works, such as Habibi, Nye addresses religious and ethnic conflict by depicting its effects on the lives of children and adolescents.
The Arab-American Experience
While cultural diversity is a focal point of her work, Nye also draws heavily from her Palestinian background and a childhood partially spent in Jordan. As a result, she addresses the Arab-American experience in nearly all of her primary works. Often, Nye will weave descriptions of Palestinian traditions, stories, and daily life with portrayals of the modern conflict and cultural challenges faced by Palestinians in both America and in the Middle East. In Hugging the Jukebox, for example, Nye depicts the experience of living in an urban setting affected by indiscriminate violence, racial hatred, and poverty. More recently, in Habibi, Nye offers an extended meditation on war and its effects and calls for peace and cultural understanding.
Though critics usually focus on the Arab-American themes in Nye’s works, Nye is considered one of the leading figures in the poetry of the American Southwest, especially poetry expressing a woman’s point of view. 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.” Indeed, Nye’s depictions of women cross cultures, generations, and historical periods. She has written both of modern Arab women and of the pioneer women that helped settle the American West.
Works in Critical Context
Hugging the Jukebox
Nye’s poetry collection Hugging the Jukebox appeared in 1982, winning much acclaim and the Voertman Poetry Prize. Reviewers 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. In critic Paul Christensen s view, Nye ”does not avoid the horrors of urban life, but she patches together the vision of simple nature struggling up through the cracks of the city.
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. 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. Appraising Habibi in Horn Book, Jennifer M. Brabander agreed, saying, ”The leisurely progression of the narrative matches the slow and stately pace of daily life” in Jerusalem ”and the text’s poetic turns of phrase accurately reflect Liyana’s passion for words and language.” 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.
Nineteen Varieties of Gazelle
In her 2002 collection of poetry, Nineteen Varieties of Gazelle, Nye explores the Middle East through her Palestinian-American poet’s eye, recording the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and people she encounters. She particularly focuses on her experiences in Jerusalem as the city is besieged by terror and struggle. Nye offers readers a view into the lives of the many innocent people who live in the Middle East in a post-September 11 world. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews said that reading the poems will ”elicit a gasp of surprise, a nod of the head, a pause to reflect. Reviewer Hazel Rochman agrees, as evidenced by her report in Booklist, that claimed Nineteen Variations of Gazelle ”will spark discussion and bring readers up close to what war and vengeance really mean. Nina Lindsay, writing in School Library Journal, observed that Nye’s book is ”a celebration of her heritage, and a call for peace.
- Christenson, Paul. Contemporary Women Poets. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997.
- Brabander, Jennifer M. Review of Habibi. Horn Book November-December, 1997, pp. 683-684.
- Kirby, David. Review of Hugging the Jukebox. Library Journal, August 1982.
- Leggett, Karen. Review of Habibi. New York Times Book Review, November 16, 1997, p. 50.
- Lindsay, Nina. Review of Nineteen Varieties of Gazelle, School Library Journal, May 2002, p. 175.
- Logue, Mary. Review of Hugging the Jukebox. Village Voice, January 18, 1983, p. 37.
- McKee, Louis. ”Ranting and Raving about Naomi Shihab Nye,” Swamp Root Spring 1989: 83-93.
- Rochman, Hazel. Review of Nineteen Varieties of Gazelle. Booklist, April 1, 2002, p. 1315.
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