An Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye


Here at the Poetry Center, the 2018-2019 school year has been full of the words of Naomi Shihab Nye: a quote from the writer graces our Brave Books' bookmarks, her titles for children and young adults--including Sitti's Secrets, The Turtle of Oman, Habibi, and 19 Varieties of Gazelle--are in our featured book display, and Nye's poems "Arabic Coffee" and "Sometimes I Pretend" are read and responded to during field trips. On April 18, Nye will visit the Poetry Center and--in addition to offering a public reading--will present to two-hundred middle and high school students. This visit comes shortly after the release of her most recent book of poems, The Tiny Journalist, a collection centered around a young West Bank reporter and the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people. I spoke to Nye about the book, how it connects to her YA and picture books, and what we can learn about our conflict transformation and peacebuilding when we listen to children. 

The Tiny Journalist is about thirteen-year-old Palestinian media activist Janna Jihad Ayyad, and is dedicated to her and her cousin Ahed Tamimi. What drew you to Ayyad’s story and why did you decide to write about her? 

I try to keep in touch with what is going on in the region, as much as one can bear to do so. The arrest of Janna's cousin Ahed certainly received a lot of attention but I had already been familiar somehow with Janna's advocacy and was deeply moved by the presence of a young girl in the region who was devoted to sharing the ongoing true nightmare tales of oppression with a wider viewing public. I have witnessed these myself since the 1960's and it is no revelation to me personally, but here was a child risking safety, putting herself out there, with bravery and real-time documentation. I am moved by her as I have always been moved by the struggle of Palestinian people to maintain any kind of regular normal life under extremely harsh circumstances.

While The Tiny Journalist isn’t explicitly for children or young adults, it features a young person prominently and echoes some of your earlier work for K-12 readers, including Habibi, your semi-autobiographical YA novel about being a teenager in Palestine in the 1970s.  Do you see The Tiny Journalist as connected to your writing for children and young adults? If so, how?

Everything is connected.  If advocacy for justice, for knowing more about one another, for mutual respect, is one's theme - the topics and stories keep unfolding before us, without clear resolution at the moment - or ever?

More generally, what inspired you to start writing poetry and prose for children and young adults? How has your approach to this work changed over the years?

I think I like children and young people more than adults. Just kidding. I feel very close to that part of each of us which remains young, idealistic, and curious.

Some of my favorite moments in The Tiny Journalist are when you mention how wise and powerful children are. In “Morning Song,” you write about Ayyad, “From her vantage point everything // is huge—but don’t look down on her. / She’s bigger than you are.” In “Stay Afloat” you write, “Find a child to be your leader now. / Follow him through rooms, notice / his delicate moves, delight in syllables, repeat. / Announcing the swish of every passing bus. / Bow down to his love. / Babies say, Mine, mine, but babies are kind.” What do you think we can learn from children about conflict transformation and peace building?

They tend not to complicate or intellectualize things as much as adults do. They are flexible and willing. They cry, then they move on to the next joy.

Which poem or poems in The Tiny Journalist would you most like to see taught in K-12 classrooms? Why?  

I don't usually think in such terms - it would depend on what poem the educator likes most, so it might be shared with enthusiasm - but The Moon Over Gaza, or the very first poem in the book, might be my choices at the moment. When people tilt their heads just slightly to imagine another person's experience, the space inside the mind grows. I hope these poems invite a reader to tilt the head ever so slightly.

Wren Awry is a K-12 Education Coordinator at the UA Poetry Center.