Naomi Shihab Nye is no stranger to travel. Raised in St. Louis, Jerusalem and San Antonio by her Palestinian father and American mother, Nye makes regular trips to the Middle East and has crisscrossed the United States visiting the homes of such famous writers as Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poet and novelist, already familiar with the Arab-American community in Dearborn, will return to Michigan next week as a Zell Distinguished Poet in Residence at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Nye’s best-known work, the young adult novel Habibi, relives the semi-autobiographical journey of a teenage girl whose father moves the family from St. Louis to his native Jerusalem. Her most recent book, a collection of “very short stories” entitled There Is No Long Distance Now, traces her own theme of connections that span place. In an interview with Metro Times, Nye discussed writing for young audiences about touchy issues, the rising popularity of her books in Italy, and her distaste for this year’s slate of Republican presidential candidates.
Metro Times: So much of your work is tied to the Arab world, where your father is from. How much interaction do you have with the Middle East right now? Do you go back to Jerusalem often?
Naomi Shihab Nye: I haven’t been back to Jerusalem lately. I would like to go back soon — I have tried to go to the Middle East almost every year in recent years, but I haven’t gone back to where my own family was. But I’m really feeling the desire to go do some work, some volunteering with kids or anything I can do there, very soon again. This past year I went to Saudi Arabia, to Abu Dhabi, the year before that I went to Morocco, the year before that to Oman. So I’m always trying to connect to somewhere in the Middle East as often as possible. This spring I’m not going anywhere and I’m already missing it
but I guess coming to Michigan is the next best thing, right?
MT: Are you planning on visiting Dearborn while you’re here?
Nye: Well, I probably won’t get to on this trip, but I have visited it so many times in the past, and I love the Arab-American museum there, and I love — you know, the community of Arab-Americans in Michigan has just been a great family of writers and readers and friends to have over the years. So many people I’ve met in Michigan originally are lifelong friends now, so I have a feeling of connection to Dearborn. I just finished up eating some baklava that someone sent me from a Dearborn bakery this Christmas. It’s very exciting to be in neighborhoods where you see Arabic and English all mixed, and you just feel very comfortable.
MT: That’s great to hear. You now live in San Antonio, Texas — is there a strong Arab American community there?
Nye: It’s a scattered one. It’s not at all like what you would find in Michigan, where you have whole neighborhoods. But there are — there are a lot of dispersed people everywhere in the world, so there are a lot of Arab-Americans all over Texas.
MT: So you grew up in both the United States and Jerusalem. What sort of literary traditions influenced you — were you into Arabic literature, English-language, or what?
Nye: Well, there was so much less available in translation when I was growing up, and I don’t speak Arabic — I mean, I understand a lot of Arabic but I don’t speak it fluently. I grew up with a real appetite for absorbing and encountering voices that not only represent people I was familiar with, but cultures that I had never spent any time with. So I was always very interested in writing in translation, and, of course, I’ve always loved the larger availability of work from other countries. And when I got older, I was very interested in reading Palestinian writing in translation, Arab writing from all over the Middle East in translation, as well as Israeli writing in translation. You know, I think anyone who has an appetite for reading, it’s just one thing leads to the next, and you’re always aware of how much more there is to discover.
I’m sick and tired of politicians not being better readers, by the way. I’m sure anyone can say that, but you just think, when you hear them give such incredibly stupid and pedestrian answers to questions, you just think, you know, hasn’t this person ever read a book? I mean, doesn’t this person have an imagination? Why are they saying such pitiful things about the big world, or other cultures that they don’t seem to know anything about?
MT: When you talk about politicians, I don’t know if you’re thinking about the Republican debates —
Nye: Yes, I’m definitely thinking about the Republican debates!
MT: Yeah, the fact-checkers just go crazy on those.
Nye: Yeah, they do — it’s amazing! I mean, how many facts they get wrong, how many stupid things they’re willing to say about groups of people they have no — just to hear what people said about Palestinians, or what people said about China and Chinese people, and it’s just so offensive to think, how can these people be living in the world and making these patronizing remarks about one another? And how can this be a person who has somehow been able to raise enough money to get on a stage, where people would actually be clapping for them? So then you start thinking, oh my God, I can do nothing but devote myself to education forever.
MT: Well, that’s not the response everybody has, to work at education. So, do you consider your own writing to be political in nature?
Nye: Well, political in terms of caring about human beings, and being an advocate for justice, yes.
MT: How specific of a message do you want to leave people with?
Nye: I wouldn’t think so much about messages, but I would think more about narratives, stories, a sense of people, a sense of human beings being everywhere — a sense of daily life clamoring underneath every headline.
MT: Speaking of headlines, do you have plans to write anything that discusses the Arab Spring?
Nye: I feel like the Arab Spring has been sneaking into my writing this whole year.
I herald the Arab Spring, inasmuch as it means more freedom for more people. One of my favorite Ann Arbor writers — now an Ann Arbor writer, he was in Texas for years, Khaled Mattawa — is back in Libya this semester, with his family, his beautiful child and wife, and it makes me very happy that he could go home. Growing up with a refugee father, our perpetual family discourse was a longing for home that he couldn’t quite achieve, or get to, or stay in very long, because of constant disruption, but that’s true for so many people.
MT: A lot of your work has been written for the young adult set, including Habibi and Long Distance. But you’re dealing with a lot of complex issues, especially when writing about the Middle East. So how do you make those themes accessible to younger audiences?
Nye: Well, I think younger audiences are very attracted to stories, to narrative, to the kinds of daily-ness that concern them in their own lives. And so if you can talk about things that connect us to those worlds, but with a sense of immediacy or intimacy, then they usually click into it, they’re interested.
MT: You’ve said that you yourself don’t speak Arabic. Has a lot of your work been translated into Arabic?
Nye: Right now some things are being translated into Arabic. More of my work has actually been translated into Hebrew than into Arabic, as far as I know, and my work has been translated into other languages — German, Japanese — I’m happy when it’s translated into anything. Right now I’m having a sudden surge of interest from Italy.
Nye: I don’t know why, all these people are writing me wanting to translate my work into Italian! I’m saying, ‘Feel free, go ahead.’ It’s so strange, because I don’t think anyone ever asked me that, before like two weeks ago, and suddenly I’m receiving this flood of e-mails from people who are in Italy.
MT: So why has there been more interest in translating into Hebrew than Arabic?
Nye: Well, I don’t know — I really couldn’t say! You know, many, many Arabic-speaking people also speak English — when I travel in the Middle East, it’s not a terrible problem, because everybody I meet, including third-graders in Bahrain, or anybody, they all seem to be fluent in English. So maybe that’s part of why there hasn’t been any great desire to translate my work into Arabic, because they’re reading it in English.
MT: They understand it already.
Nye: It’s hard to say. It’s really hard to know what happens to your work when it goes out into the world on its own. I always tell kids that it’s fun to send poems or stories out because then it’s like you’re giving them some independence. You’re letting them go on a journey of their own.
MT: That’s a great image. I’m just imagining a poem, like, sitting on a train.
Nye: Yeah, carrying its small little poem suitcase! And getting off to meet its new poem friends — they’re going to have new surprises, and then we’re going to hear about them, and it’s just incredible. It’s a good reason why we shouldn’t just keep our work in our drawers.
Naomi Shihab Nye will hold a poetry reading at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 23, and a lecture at 5:10 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (525 S. State St., Ann Arbor).