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One of San Antonio's best known writers, Naomi Shihab Nye's first collection of poems, Different Ways to Pray, explored the theme of similarities and differences between cultures, which would become one of her lifelong areas of focus. Her other books include poetry collections 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, A Maze Me, Red Suitcase, Field Trip and Fuel; a collection of essays entitled Never in a Hurry; a young-adult novel called Habibi (the semi-autobiographical story of an Arab-American teenager who moves to Jerusalem in the 1990s) and picture book Lullaby Raft, which is also the title of one of her two albums of music. (The other is called Rutabaga-Roo; both were limited-edition.)

Nye has edited many anthologies of poems, for audiences both young and old. One of the best-known is This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from around the World, which contains translated work by 129 poets from 68 different countries. Her most recent anthology is called Is This Forever, Or What?: Poems & Paintings from Texas.

She has won many awards and fellowships, among them four Pushcart Prizes, the Jane Addams Children's Book award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, and many notable book and best book citations from the American Library Association.



2015 PROFILE IN THE SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS: "Poet's travels — from Mideast to China — stir her writings

May 21, 2015

By Steve Bennett, Book Editor/Staff Writer

Naomi Shihab Nye published her first poem, about her cat named Cricket, in the second grade. She has stayed on that course — well, the poetry has grown more sophisticated — ever since.

"I learned about stamped, self-addressed envelopes from my school librarian," she recalled during an interview at her South Main home. "I think I got published on about the eighth try."

Shihab Nye has since published some 30 books — without a literary agent, she points out — including poetry collections, short stories, novels, children's and young-adult literature, and essays.

Milestones in her catalog include the 1982 collection Hugging the Jukebox, in which she wrote "We move forward, / confident we were born into a large family, / our brothers cover the earth"; 1998's Fuel, which one critic said manifests Shihab Nye's "belief in the value of the overlooked, the half-forgotten"; her autobiographical, 1997 young adult novel Habibi, about an Arab-American teen who moves to Jerusalem; and 2002's 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, which is a signpost along the road to political justice and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Shihab Nye's work, in the words of one of her mentors, poet William Stafford, combines "transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life."

Adds Sheila Black, director of the San Antonio literary organization Gemini Ink: "I can think of few poets who are more successful at making poetry that is truly global in reach, yet at the same time always feels intimately grounded in personal, actual experience."

Born in 1952, Shihab Nye grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, the daughter of a Palestinian father — Aziz Shihab, a reporter and editor for the Express-News and the Dallas Morning News  and an American mother — Miriam Naomi Shihab, a Montessori School teacher.

"I took strings of both of their lives into my own professional life," Shihab Nye said.

She recalls Ferguson — so much in the news of late because of the Michael Brown killing — as an older community that compared to King William.

"It was multicultural, but the black residents lived behind this invisible line," she recalled.

When she was 12, she got a job picking berries on a farm that also employed African-American kids.

"I wanted to meet them," she said.

She was 14 when the Shihab family, which included her brother Adlai ("as in Stevenson"), moved to Jerusalem to be near her father's family.

The 1967 Six-Day War, which would have a profound effect on Shihab Nye, forced the family home via England and New York on the Queen Mary. One day on board, the ship's daily newspaper ran a two-page spread on San Antonio, featuring the upcoming HemisFair '68.

Without any Texas roots or ties, the Shihabs decided to settle here. "They bought the first house we saw," Shihab Nye recalled. "I said, 'Don't you want to look at some others?'"

She graduated from Robert E. Lee High School, where she was editor of the literary magazine, and from Trinity University in 1974 and has lived in San Antonio ever since.

"This city is very benevolent to the arts, and to poetry and literature in particular," Shihab Nye said.

If there are words that Shihab Nye lives by, they are these: "No one should complain. They should participate more."

No one can accuse Shihab Nye of not participating.

After graduating from Trinity, she took a job as a writer-in-schools with the Texas Commission on the Arts. For more than 40 years, she has traveled all over the state, the country and the globe teaching writing workshops, mostly to kids. She just returned from Belfast, is heading to California next. Her passport is the size of a thick wallet, covered with stamps from the countries she has visited.

"I've had to have pages added to it twice over the last 10 years; people at some borders give it a long look," she said. "The ability to travel and teach is one of the luckiest and most unbelievable things in my life. I love everywhere I go, whether it's Fargo, North Dakota, or rural China or Qatar. But if I had to pick from my one million jobs, I would say that those early days teaching in the SAISD in the '70s were some of the sweetest."

Shihab Nye is married to artist Michael Nye, who gave up his career as an attorney to take on photography full time. In his work, Nye tackles subjects such as hunger, teenage pregnancy and mental illness. His exhibitions, such as "About Hunger & Resilience," which debuted at the Witte Museum in 2010, have toured the country.

"I value what Michael does because it is a kind of deep listening, which is akin to what poetry does," Shihab Nye said. "I respect so much the path he has taken. We share that deep listening commitment to other people. What's bonded us is being curious about other people's lives."

Shihab Nye, says San Antonio poet and editor Jim LaVilla-Havelin, is "always looking."

"In her poem, 'Please Describe How You Became a Writer,'" said LaVilla-Havelin, "she notes the 'insult' of her first-grade text book: 'Come Jane come / Look, Dick, look.' She asks, 'Were there ever duller people in the world? / You had to tell them to look at things? / Why weren't they looking to begin with?' [That's] Naomi, always looking.

"It is her openness to experience — to the world, the present moment, place, the senses — that feeds her poems" LaVilla-Havelin added. "And in her poems all of that — the caring, the openness, her infectious grasp of all there is to take in — joy, injustice, flavor, irony, home, solidarity shines through."

Gemini Ink founder and novelist Nan Cuba praises Shihab Nye's roll-up-her-sleeves work ethic and passion for community.

"Others will speak to Naomi's work, which celebrates dailiness and insists on tolerance and compassion," said Cuba, who is writer-in-residence at Our Lady of the Lake University. "Her references to San Antonio honestly capture our city's essence for the world to see. But most people won't know that she was one of three original board members of Gemini Ink (along with Steven Kellman and David Bowen). Her presence persuaded others to join in support of a struggling, grass-roots nonprofit."

According to Cuba, Shihab Nye brought in writers such as William Merwin and Peter Matthiessen and songwriters Kinky Friedman and Tish Hinojosa in the literary organization's early years.

"Thanks to her recommendations, many more writers followed, coming for little compensation but willing to help because she encouraged them," Cuba said. "She recommended people for staff positions and sent students to take classes. She also taught classes, including one with Marion Winik, who was too nervous to face a packed house by herself. I honestly believe that Gemini Ink's success in great part is due to Naomi's contributions."

In her writing and in her teaching, Shihab Nye seeks to champion diverse voices, original voices that speak to "the sweetness of particularity."

And she is committed to the Palestinians.


Steve Bennett is the book page editor for the San Antonio Express-News

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