Naomi Shihab Nye // The Cagibi Express Interview

Naomi Shihab Nye’s latest full-length poetry collection for adults, The Tiny Journalist, is inspired by the story of Janna Jihad Ayyad, the “Youngest Journalist in Palestine,” who at age 7 began capturing videos of anti-occupation protests using her mother’s smartphone.

Nye is the author and/or editor of over 30 volumes, including many books of poetry for adults and children. She is the acclaimed author of Habibi: A Novel and Sitti’s Secrets, a picture book, which was based on her own experiences visiting her beloved Sitti in Palestine. Nye was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother and grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio. Her book 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East was a finalist for the National Book Award. A professor of creative writing at Texas State University, she has taught writing and worked in schools all over the world, including in Muscat, Oman. In May, she was named Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation.

More about her latest book, The Tiny Journalist, follows the interview.

: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Each day is replete with distraction AND fulfillment, whether on the road or at home. Perhaps the greatest moments are when we found ourselves distracted by something—then were fulfilled, or uplifted, or ignited, by a surprise from that unexpected direction. I think it’s all mixed together.

: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Nye: Always carry a book, a notebook, a pencil, a tiny pencil sharpener—easier to feel invisible when you have those tools at hand. I am happily distracted by signs, other people’s unique garments and ways of putting things together, familial interactions, the stories we make up instantly for people we do not know, usually WRONG, the baggages people haul around. I do not like listening to music or podcasts when traveling. I want my ears wide open.

Always carry a book, a notebook, a pencil, a tiny pencil sharpener—easier to feel invisible when you have those tools at hand.Naomi Shihab Nye

: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.

Nye: Cagibi... how did I live so long without knowing this spectacular word? Cubbyholes have always intrigued me. I would lie awake at night as a child picturing miniature hallways and rooms and closets in a hospital, say, or a school, or a hotel, picturing the linens stacked, the glasses in the cabinets… Little boxes, lockers, shelves piled with necessaries in a hotel room—rearranging a small space, very satisfying. I’m afraid I would select your super messy tool shed (you should see my little crammed writing studio) as there would be surprises in there and I could tidy it. And when I found things that were buried I could start over with surprise. It happens every day. A space as vast as the universe would utterly confound me but I do like to walk outside for the sunrise and sunset. One of the many things I hate about war is how it erases people’s beloved details in a flash. In The Tiny Journalist, I am continually inserting simple daily activities like cooking, slicing a cucumber, going to school, since Palestinian people, and so many other people in terribly difficult situations, have to do this DESPITE all the craziness of oppression going on around them. How hard is that? Most of us have no idea.

Writing is a mysterious process of arranging words, letting story and image rise to surface, find linkages we had not dreamed of, moving things around on the table.

: With The Tiny Journalist, would you speak to the associations within your own personal history: your beginnings in poetry at a very early age, your Palestinian descent, and your father who was a journalist. Would it be accurate to say that these elements of your personal history are woven together for you in this book? Is this approach typical of your work? Also, is this the most personal of your books?

Transfer cover by Naomi Shihab Nye.jpgNye: All my books are personal, even the ones in which I do not appear as a character (ex. The Turtle of Oman). Probably my book Transfer (BOA, 2011) was my most personal, as it was the elegy for my father, my deeply beloved, most-missed person.

: Often the narrator of the poems in The Tiny Journalist is offering a stance that resembles that of an anthropologist in the field: that is, one located within the world that is being observed and shared, but also slightly apart from it. So much of the power of Janna Jihad Ayyad emerged from this simple act of recording; yet, she is of course not just a witness but an activist fully committed to changing the world she is depicting. Along these lines of thinking about the recorder-witness as activist, how do you see your own role as a poet?

Nye: Poets often dream about, or focus on, our gifts and responsibilities of observation, and the necessities of describing what we perceive in a way that might awaken the imaginations or considerations of others—as Janna identified as a “journalist” so early on in her life, due to what was unfolding all around her, similarly I recall thinking much simpler thoughts at the ages of 6 and 7, when Janna also began—if I don’t write about this squirrel that has been killed in the street in front of my eyes, no one might remember it. If I don’t describe what is so precious about my friend who is moving away, other people might forget her. I also might forget her. My early concerns were much lighter than Janna’s, but I also had my father’s endless sadness about his homeland to contemplate—so as I grew, it all mixed together. Our family’s own sojourn living north of Jerusalem, my own seeing with my own eyes what went on between Israelis and Palestinians, the immense tragedy of oppression and disconnection, first took shape when I was a teenager but would continue till now. I continue to see my role as a duty to “talk about it.” And I want to talk about it. I hope Janna does not feel disgusted that an older Arab-American has invoked her own spirit within the book. I have written her and she has responded without acrimony, so hopefully we work in community. Any proceeds from this text go to her. One hundred percent.

Our family’s own sojourn living north of Jerusalem, my own seeing with my own eyes what went on between Israelis and Palestinians, the immense tragedy of oppression and disconnection, first took shape when I was a teenager but would continue till now. I continue to see my role as a duty to “talk about it.”Naomi Shihab Nye

: When you write from a child’s point of view, what does it allow you to do, and what does it offer as a perspective?

Nye: Writing as a child is profoundly refreshing. Since we all carry our child-selves within us (hopefully) for all our days, it feels like a cool draught of water, to dip into that spring. I am rather sick of being an adult and much prefer the company of children. They are cleaner, clearer, less distracted, less weighed down.

: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?

Nye: My next book after The Tiny Journalist is about picking up trash (Cast Away, forthcoming from Greenwillow Books, winter 2020). I had so much fun writing it. I will pick up trash anywhere including in an airport or a city where I don’t live.

: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?

Nye: Traveling is a way of expanding our essential sense of humanity. We have to keep finding our bearings, continually, in new places—where is the light switch in here? How do I speak to these people?—and staying steady. It awakens all our impulses, we are children again, amazed every hour. Oh, there it is! Look at that—what is that? How did I never know about that before?

: In your poems, often the speaker uses questions to make important points. It reminds us of the way children ask questions, not necessarily like Why is the sky blue?—but more to the quick, like, as we read in the poem, “How Long?”: What makes this seem right to you? Would you speak to the choice in moments like these to form a question rather than a statement?

Nye: You are such great readers! and I love the way you phrased this. Yes, I prefer questions to statements at crucial hinge moments—what the hell is going on here? I ask it every day in this nation. How have we gotten into this mess? Why aren’t we better to one another? How did a lying thug become president? How did Iraqis really feel when Americans so brazenly invaded their country? You could just go on and on. Questions serve our capacities for possible mental expansion and I feel generally flabbergasted and confounded most of the time, so yes—I hope questions make the poems more spacious rather than closing them down into full, accepting arrival at some given point of conclusion. My father used to say that people can reject our positions about things, but they can’t tell us our stories never happened. Similarly, they can’t say we don’t have a question when we have a million.

: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?

Nye: I love to work while traveling and I have traveled so much for my work as a visiting writer everywhere for so many years—it’s all mixed together for me. I try not to make excuses, just do the thing, whatever it is.

: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.

Nye: Susanna Moore’s My Old Sweetheart made me want to go to Hawai’i long before I ever did. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond gave me the illusion that I was living in a small hut on the side of a shining body of water the entire second half of high school. It saved me.

Naomi Shihab Nye with Kaimana
At a workshop for kids at “da Shop” bookstore last summer in Honolulu, with then 4-year-old poet Kaimana

: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?

Nye: I have written in many uncomfortable airplane seats. I would not exactly call it hiding. Often I sat there for 14-15 hours. By the time I got off the plane, the seat felt like my home. One thing I always loved about writing since childhood—it is surely the cheapest, most portable art.

More About The Tiny Journalist

Naomi Shihab Nye’s latest collection of poems, The Tiny Journalist, was published in April, 2019, by BOA Editions, and is available now for either purchase or order wherever books are sold. From the publisher:

TheTinyJournalist cover 250w.jpgInternationally beloved poet Naomi Shihab Nye places her Palestinian American identity center stage in her latest full-length poetry collection for adults. The collection is inspired by the story of Janna Jihad Ayyad, the “Youngest Journalist in Palestine,” who at age 7 began capturing videos of anti-occupation protests using her mother’s smartphone. Nye draws upon her own family’s roots in a West Bank village near Janna’s hometown to offer empathy and insight to the young girl’s reporting. Long an advocate for peaceful communication across all boundaries, Nye’s poems in The Tiny Journalist put a human face on war and the violence that divides us from each other.

Top author photo by Chehalis Hegner.

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Issue 7

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