Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye is an award-winning poet and author. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she draws frequently upon her Palestinian-American heritage as well as her travels around the country and the world for inspiration in her writing, which celebrates the details of daily life while exploring broader humanitarian themes.
In this interview, Nye describes her bicultural childhood in Ferguson, MO and discusses The Turtle of Oman, her novel about a young boy preparing to emigrate to America. She talks about the themes of the story that have resonated with students and teachers across the country, including fear of change and preparing to welcome new immigrants.
I. Meet Naomi
Growing up biculturally in Ferguson, MO
I feel very lucky to have grown up in a bicultural family because there was always a sense of multiple ways to do things, see things, styles of meals. There were always variant opinions. I lived in Ferguson, Missouri as a child. M
y father was the only Arab in Ferguson in those days. That was interesting in itself. There were many different kinds of people in Ferguson, different backgrounds, but he was the only Arab.
And that created kind of an interesting curiosity other people had about him, he had about the neighborhood. I think as a writer, I have always felt curious about other people's lives. I want to know what you know, what you think about, what your gravities are when I meet someone from a very different background. I feel full respect for variety as well. There's no delusion that one background is more worthy than another or more precious to the human community.
So as a writer, that fed me, always being full of questions, always looking at the interweave of lives. It seemed rather preposterous to me even as a child that my two parents had found one another, had met since they grew up in such completely different worlds and probably had never met anyone like the other in their whole lives before they got together, so this was always intriguing to me and as a child reader, I wanted to read about as many different lives as I could even from past times, you know, reading about Emily Dickinson, feeling that I could imagine her life, her solitary window, her world, was very important to me.
Characters are infused with qualities writers have seen
I guess most writers would say their characters are infused by qualities they have witnessed in family or in friends and certainly in my book The Turtle of Oman, the character of Sidi, the grandfather, was strongly infused with the spirit my father had, very loving, very encouraging, always trying to be positive, always, you know, kind of pushing things, moving things forward, let's not get stuck in this sadness here, let's move forward, so I tried to write a love story for people like that.
Writing: A portable art
For me, the writing process is something related to like exercising your body, taking a walk, stretching. It's better if you do it on a regular basis. You won't be as stiff, so all my life I've tried to write every day. It doesn't have to be great. Doesn't have to be even good. Just keep that pen rolling. Write down – you know, whether you're writing a journal of what's been happening during the day or signs you saw that day or conversations you overhead.
It really doesn't matter what you're writing every day whether you're working on a project at every given moment or not, but keep the pencil, the pen moving and the more you write, the more you feel writing as a process, as a world that can be shaped and reshaped and re-envisioned. I really love the word "revise," like a new vision, revision or something and of course when you're young you don't realize that that's the most fun part of writing, going back to something and, you know, throwing parts out, adding parts in, giving another scene, sharpening a conversation.
But the more you write, the more you treasure that part of it. So I still stick to my primitive travel with a pencil sharpener at all times, my primitive tactics and when I was a kid I felt happy to participate in the cheapest art as I saw it. You know, it seemed like kids who wanted to be ballerinas, for example, you know, that cost their parents a lot of money, a lot of tutus, a lot of lessons, a lot of shoes and to be a writer was like a dollar, $1 for a notebook, a pencil, a pencil sharpener.
So I always carry my tools with me and it's very portable art, so I believe in writing every day and revising frequently and there's nothing scary or negative about revision. It's a very positive building, making part of the process.
Poetry is a magic carpet
Obviously poetry is the most tiny, compact genre of language and I think as a child falling in love with listening to poetry even before I could read it for myself, I felt that transporting magic of an image or a phrase or a lyric or just language that sounded carefully chosen, luscious, precise. I loved the feeling with a poem early on and still do that you could read a few lines and be carried away, be carried away from your current situation, your own preoccupations.
Really poetry was the magic carpet for me and I love stories and novels and essays and journalism, good journalism and everything as well, but usually it's a little longer and there's a little more flab in it, I guess, or excess. It's not as refined and carefully selected as a poem. So I love that miniaturist but huge quality of a poem and the way a poem trusts us as readers, as interpreters to feel it, go with it, understand it, hold it without a lot of didactic explanation.
I have very little tolerance for the sort of piece of writing that keeps pounding us over the head with its message or telling us, "Do you get me, do you understand, did you pick up what I meant?" and that style of writing, that kind of didactic explanatory writing is very popular in the world, very common, exists in all fields. I mean someone recently gave me a cookbook and I gave it away because it was so didactic.
I mean it acted like it had to tell you what "stir" meant. Maybe it was written for children or something but it had a tone and I thought, "I don't want to eat that food. It's too bossy." I like to play around with my recipes. I don't want a cookbook hanging over me, and poetry is the most respectful genre, I think, for the reader in terms of, you know, go where you will.
Maybe you won't go exactly where I was when I wrote this poem but it may be somewhere interesting and I love that sense of possibility as a reader, as a listener. And so writing poems, finding connections between images, layers of metaphor, being willing to hint, as the poet William Stafford used to say. He loved poetry because there was a hinting, suggestive quality about it and then a lot of trust.
You know, you'll be able to take this somewhere that matters for you. Walt Whitman saying, "To have a great poem, you have to have a great audience." So that mutual interaction. I try to write scenes even in prose books which feel or sound poetic. I'm not sure I always succeed but certainly when I'm rereading the text to myself I hope for that. I try to hear the language, feel the richness of a phrase. You're still weaving a tapestry even if it's a prose book.
A poet of details
I'm so happy when anyone mentions the details of the book having interested them or felt comfortable to them. Like kids generally operate in a realm of details. I'm quite old now and I still do. I love the details of every day and people have described me as a poet of mundane details and I sometimes want to say, well, number one, I don't know if I believe in the word mundane because I think everything is very precious, a pencil, an apple. This is not mundane. This is a tool. This is something – this is, you know, something important.
And I also want to say, "Where do you spend your life, like in the stratosphere of big thinking?" Well, I know some people do, but I still live in the stratosphere of, you know, small movements and modest activities.
Naomi's 106-year-old grandmother
When my dear father Aziz Shihab died eight years ago now, I remember thinking that, you know, I would miss him so much. I didn't know how I could survive but I also remember thinking that I was going to miss the relationship he had with our son which was such a pleasure to observe.
So I do think that relationship, that observation of, you know, grandson, grandfather fed into the Aref/Sidi relationship in this book but being able to observe it and remembering my own relationship with my father's mother, Sitti Khadra who lived to be 106 years old in Palestine and who was an amazing individual. And, you know, she was a very wise person, able to go to the root of empathy or lack of empathy very quickly.
And so I think her spirit has always been in my poems. I didn't know her until I was 14 but I went back to see her many times until she died. I guess I was in my 40s when she died. She infused me with a belief that no matter what the world tells us, you can hope for a better story.
II. The Turtle of Oman
Writing The Turtle of Oman
Writing in different genres and for different ages is a mysterious endeavor and because I've been writing all my life since I was six years old and learned how to write, I feel the organic nature of it, the intuitive nature, that you can't really plan it out in advance and say, "I'm positive this is going to be a short story or this is going to be an essay." Sometimes it takes a while for a piece of writing to shape itself or speak back to you and let you know as a writer what it would be most comfortable as.
The Turtle of Oman started as a picture book and it was about 19 pages long. I sent it to my editor Virginia Duncan and she said, "No, this needs to be longer and I don't really like having a pillow as the main character." And so then I wrote it longer. It became about 50 pages and the two main characters were the two houses, Aref's house and Sidi's house and the two houses were sort of communicating, conversing and Virginia probably liked that even less.
She said, "This makes no sense at all to me. How can two houses converse when they're on two different streets? What is wrong with you? Where are your people? You like people. Why are there no people in this book? Why are they just making oblique references to the people who live in them? Work on this further. What is wrong with you?" I think I was still in this state of grief after my father's death when I started this book and I had to sort of come at it from weird angles.
So it took me some years. I did 13 drafts of The Turtle of Oman. It turned into a 299 page novel for kids. Once Sidi and Aref started taking shape, however, as characters, I couldn't imagine how I had ever dreamed of this book without them. I mean they were the characters who were in me who were trying to come through, but I needed a little time, a little stretching to find them.
So it evolved. But how we know from the beginning whether something is a poem, a story, an essay, it takes practice, it takes flexibility and certainly a willingness in the writer to X out early drafts and say it's not going to be this. It's got to be something else and keep trying.
A surprise invitation
The book was always a love story. It started as a love story for stories themselves and a love story for a place which human beings feel at home in, in this case the country of Oman, which by the way I had never been to when I wrote the first draft of the book, but then I got invited there, one of those great surprises of life and worked for two weeks in a beautiful school there and had a chance to ask a lot of questions, meet a lot of kids and adults and discover that many Omani people do travel to other countries to get graduate degrees and then they come home because they love their lives there.
So this was not just a farfetched notion I made up. It turned out to be – that was based on facts and interviews I had with various people. So it evolved.
Writing about Oman and its treasures
I'm so happy when someone tells me they feel the country of Oman or imagine the colors or smell the smells when they read the book. I've actually had two friends go to Oman to visit on the basis of this book and that made me very happy and of course I did a lot of research beyond my own travel there and I kept writing back and forth to many people I had met there and asking more questions.
Shortly after my book, The Turtle of Oman, came out, the Omani travel bureau adopted a new slogan which was, "Beauty has an address: Oman." And I thought, "Wow, that is so fantastic. That's like a little poem," and I certainly would have used it in the book had that been selected before I finished the book, but I kept thinking about scenes, what scenes I had stood in, felt held in while I was in Oman.
And, you know, taking a lot of deep breaths by the sea, walking by the sea, I did go to the desert myself while I was there and stay at the Camp of a Thousand Stars. Some kind teachers drove me there. Amazing, amazing place. I did not go out on a boat but I saw many people out on boats and imagined their trips and eavesdropped on them when they came back and I felt this is a wondrous world this country of Oman that very few people I know or knew at the time had ever been there and it was a place I'd been curious about since childhood when I first read about it in, I think, National Geographic.
There was an article about Oman when it was still a closed country when they had no paved roads which is unbelievable. I mean that's within my lifetime. And they just did not have a tourist exchange at all. I was interested in that. You know, "Why is this country so secretive, Dad?" And he would say things like well, "I don't know. I'm curious about it too." I remember meeting – he had met people when he was a child who had been there for various reasons and loved it and thought it was one of the most beautiful undersung places in the Middle East.
And, you know, I guess with all of the sorrow and the negativity which people have been reading about relating to the Middle East in recent decades, I really wanted to write a love story to a place which has remained calm, neutral, which has a reputation for being tolerant and caring about the environment and all kinds of good things, caring about education and I felt to write a love song to such a place, a love story was very important to my own psyche as an Arab-American writer to somehow counterbalance all this overwhelming negativity which is often the only thing that American kids see about the Middle East.
If they've never been there, that's the only thing they're going to know unless they have Arab-American friends who take them home and feed them wonderful meals and share their lives with them. So it was important to me to create an evocative, appealing place and Oman is that. I sing its praises everywhere I go.
Learning immigrants' stories
It does intrigue me whenever I meet an immigrant to know about their lives before they came to wherever they are because you know they had a life with very, very rich and real details in it, just as rich and real as their new details are.
And I feel a lot of pain for immigrants these days when they're insulted in the news, you know, whatever their backgrounds are. I feel these days it's sort of popular or fashionable to suggest that immigrants are somehow lesser people and that they all want to be like us and all want to come to the United States. Well they don't. A lot of them come, again, because they don't have free agency, liike a child can't choose.
But many times immigrants are in desperate conditions where they're really pushed to find a better life for their family and they would have preferred to stay wherever they started out, just as Aref would in the book.
Naomi's favorite scene in the book
My favorite scene in The Turtle of Oman is when Sidi and Aref are sleeping on the roof and Aref is thinking and he says that he knows that Sidi still has a part of him that's like a little boy and that he also feels he has a part of him that is older than Sidi.
And I've thought about that all my life how we belong to time, to bigger time no matter what age we are. When I was a little child I felt very, very close to the oldest people in my neighborhood. You know, I really thought about them, I went over to their houses and visited them, probably I bugged them, I asked them lots of questions, I ate pie with them and I wanted Aref to have that kind of relationship with Sidi that really has no age attached.
You know, here we are loving our lives no matter what point we're at in them and what does that say about courage and strength.
Metaphor can save you when you're sad
I think both Aref and Sidi through the power of metaphor, you know, turtles going away and coming back, butterflies migrating, you know, Sidi really loves the natural world.
And he can use the things around them as vehicles and vessels for the metaphor or what will happen to Aref. And, you know, I think that's something I really learned in high school, that metaphor could save us when we were sad. Well okay, you're feeling sad but keep your eyes open, look around the world, things are going to change, that tree is going to blossom, the puddle is going to evaporate and tomorrow things will be different.
So this sadness you feel doesn't have to be the full reality and to discover the healing power of metaphor is quite profound for young people and I think once they discover it, it gives them something to go on and to return to again and again. So in this book I tried to allow, you know, some of the images to do that.
Turning lists into art
In the book The Turtle of Oman, Aref is a list maker and this is a habit that he has picked up from his father, also a professor, and they have a family tradition where every day they write down things they learn. They just put little lists in their notebooks. And it could be about anything, apples, oranges, fish, airplanes and this is something I've tried to do all my life, make lists of sort of what I saw during that day.
Out of a full day of observation, what are five things you might remember? And it's also a simple practice of writing that I've always encouraged with kids. I've worked with kids in schools for many years now, encouraging their writing and most kids feel comfortable with the concept of what a list is even if they don't think they can write a poem or write a story.
Well, a list is like a grocery list or it's like instructions, so if you say we're going to go on a walk now around the schoolyard and when we come back everybody's going to write down five particular details that you noticed and we can't talk, silent walk, but we're just going to write. One wondrous thing that happens is of course they always write down different things, so then they start thinking, "Wow, there was a lot out there on our little walk around the schoolyard."
And I think that keeping lists in a notebook makes us all no matter what age we are that are observers. So through the book The Turtle of Oman I have Aref, you know, writing down lists of things that Sidi promised to do with him that they haven't done yet or names of butterflies or just all kinds of different lists keep popping up in the book. And I was very happy that Betsy Peterschmidt who did the wonderful cover of the book, she was an intern at Harper Collins when the book was being produced.
She also handwrote the lists and made the small decorative drawings which accompany each chapter and Betsy is a wonderful artist and I was very excited. This was the first book her art has ever appeared in. I think she did a great job.
The beauty of keeping lists
Some kids have said they want to start keeping lists after they read the book. Those kids in Michigan said we're making lists now of all the ways we can be friendlier to one another during a day even our old friends much less our, you know, new classmates. So that made me happy. I thought, "Good, I hope those lists are contagious," because it's such an easy way to establish a practice of writing.
It can be a one word list, a phrase, a sentence. You could do it in the morning and in the evening. I once heard a writer Elizabeth Woody in Oregon say that if every one of us wrote down at the end of every day just three lines of what we had experienced or thought about that day that was meaningful to us, just think, at the end of every month we'd have like 90 lines.
That's a lot of lines that we could return to or develop or, you know, connect, follow up on and she was encouraging people who were non—writers or not frequent writers to just feel more comfortable doing it because just about anyone can write three lines even if they're very simple.
Helping kids feel comfortable with change
I like to think of literature as being this woven texture of self-expression, how we perceive things, but also observation and, you know, that's a vast slate of every single day given to us.
So much passes through us. So much we pass through and just to find the places where those things connect, you know, your own perception on any given day, what it is able to notice or respond to and thinking about in some cases the randomness of it, you know, what we see, what we do, what we say but in other cases how you develop a fabric, you know, that feels like your life and I think reading and writing can really help us do that.
So in the case of The Turtle of Oman, hopefully the lists are helping build a sense of courage in the main character. He's not going to forget everything. He's not going to lose it. His previous life is not going to be erased. It's all part of him and he will come back a richer person and there's a place in the book where Sidi says something like, "When you come back, you'll be changed" and he says, "I don't want to be changed.
I want to be this person."
And Sidi says, "Well but you'll be a bigger person. You'll have more elements." I like the part in the book where there's something about yogurt and isn't it true in the United States they have like 30 or 50 kinds of yogurt and over here we have like basically one. I think now grocery stores over there have many kinds too, but like the old-fashioned kind of simple, not sweet yogurt so popular in the Middle East.
But that sense that you'll know more flavors when you get back, but you'll still like the first once you knew. So I am very grateful for any readership this book has and we're all travelers, you know, even if we stay in the same town forever. We're still traveling from year to year so I hope it might help some kids feel comfortable with their own changes.
Excerpt 1: Turtles are miracles
There's a scene in The Turtle of Oman where Sidi and Aref are driving home from a camping trip in the desert and they're passing by a protected beach and they're looking down on the beach where the turtles come to lay their eggs. "Suddenly Sidi turned right off the road onto a flat spot of land and stopped the Jeep. He clicked off the engine. There, spread wide before their eyes a vast, white beach, a few giant turtles sunning in the sand. Their backs were as big as small tables.
Sidi hadn't forgotten. ‘Ras al Hadd,' Aref whispered, the nesting grounds. Although he hadn't mentioned the turtles even once today, Sidi had taken a special detour to check on them. A turtle was crawling out of the water just then. ‘Is that a loggerhead, a green, a hawksbill?' Aref knew their names but couldn't always tell them apart. ‘I don't think it's an olive ridley. It's too big,' said Sidi.
‘If it were midnight during nesting season, there might be hundreds out there. If the babies were hatching, there would be countless tiny turtles scrambling around covered with sand.' Aref knew that the green turtle would return to the exact same beach for egg laying for decades. Turtles had invisible maps inside their shells. ‘I think there's a better viewing spot up that little hilltop,' Sidi said. ‘Come on.'
Aref kept staring at the sleeping turtles on the beach as they climbed. Turtles weren't just cold-blooded reptiles. They were miracles."
We have a turtle who lives with us in San Antonio, Texas and they really are miracles. This turtle has been amazing us for 15 years now and we had always called the turtle He until this past summer when He laid six eggs and we were stunned but he hibernates, disappears in the winter even though we have a mild winter.
Quite astonishing how particular turtles are in their habits, their routines, their tastes. I do know this firsthand. It isn't a sea turtle, but it's an amazing turtle.
Excerpt 2: A trip on the sea
So at another point in The Turtle of Oman, Sidi and Aref go out on a boat. Sidi gets a little seasick. He has to take a Tums and Aref is worried about him. They are discussing Sinbad the Sailor and the stories of Sinbad who according to many tales originated in Oman. And Sidi is only doing this for Aref and he knows it.
"The sea wind blew a little harder. They were standing close together on the sand. Aref dug the toe of his shoe in. Moussa (ph.)" (that's the guy with the boat) "pointed at his boat tied to the dock, red with a sunburst of yellow painted at the stern. A single word was written in Arabic. ‘Mabsoot.' Happy.
They were going out on the happy boat. Aref felt his hair flap up on his head like a wing. Moussa (ph.) walked over to the dock and out to the boat with them following. You could look down into the water here at the shallow edge and see some darting minnows or anchovies, sardines playing around together. Moussa (ph.) loaded his equipment into the boat, adjusted some faded pillows on the cross bar seats. ‘We're all set,' he said. ‘Hop in.'
Sidi couldn't hop but Aref hopped then offered his hand to Sidi. Moussa (ph.) helped Sidi too. The boat felt a little tippy until they all got balanced. Sidi and Aref were sitting side by side, Moussa (ph.) across from them. Moussa (ph.) pulled an orange life preserver from a box under the seat and handed it to Aref. It smelled musty and fishy. ‘Sorry, this stinks. Do I really have to wear it?'
Aref's eyes asked the question of Sidi who answered out loud, ‘Yes.' The jacket was a little big but Aref pulled the straps tighter and snapped it on. ‘Thank you for coming along, my uncle,' said Moussa (ph.) to Sidi. ‘It is my pleasure to host you both.'
‘And it is our pleasure to come,' said Sidi." Though in the scene that follows, we find out it's also a little hard for him.
Hospitality: The True Spirit of the Middle East
You know, I wanted there to be a feeling throughout The Turtle of Oman of general hospitality. You know, you can call to a fisherman on the beach and say, ‘Can we go out in your boat?' and he might take you. Or you can stop and talk to a woman selling melons by the road and she'll tell you silly stories and jokes. That is the true spirit of the Middle East and everyone who has ever spent any time there will affirm that that is the true spirit of the Middle East and how tragic it is that all these upheavals and sorrows of recent years have eclipsed that for the world's knowing.
III: Readers React to The Turtle of Oman
Why kids relate to The Turtle of Oman
Kids who've read The Turtle of Oman in the United States have told me they're really relating to it on the basis – this intrigued me because it's not something I thought about – of when they have to leave second grade and go to third grade, for example. "I don't want to leave my second grade teacher. I love her. I wanted to stay in that class for forever." I can relate to that. I felt the same when I was in second grade.
And so the idea of writing an immigration story where it's only the week before the boy leaves appealed to me because it's about anticipation and anxiety and concern, all the mixed messages that a young boy is supposed to accommodate. And he really doesn't have a lot of choice in this matter. His parents are moving and he has to go with them and I think that happens to lots of kids.
Even if we stay in the same community all our lives, every one of us will be faced with change and the difficulty of change has always interested me. I mean sometimes we yearn for change, we can't wait for something else to happen, but at the same time there's often an anxiety.
You know, I think Aref will survive well. I think he'll flourish but I didn't want to take him to his new school. I just wanted to keep him inside the week of anticipation and anxiety and I did.
How students would welcome Aref
I was very touched to receive a packet of letters from kids at Martin Luther King Elementary in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the school he's getting ready to go to which is a real school where I've worked twice also and those beautiful kids there read the book and wrote me letters about all the ways they planned to welcome their new friend, Aref.
This was so exquisite and they were such little things like, "When I see Aref enter the cafeteria, I will walk to his side and sit down with him. I will tell him which foods are best." You know, kids have an instinct for those daily details that they feel comfortable with, so yes, the boy loves his life and his things and the idea when you pack you can only take a few things is painful to him.
He can't take his cat. He can't take his friends. He can't take his soccer team and that hurts. So how will he survive it?
A teacher in Nebraska
A teacher wrote to me from Nebraska, one of the first readers of the book and she said, "Thank you for penetrating so many stereotypes. For one thing, you've given us a mother who is a professor who also happens to be an Arab. How often do we get to see her in the news? I know she's there. You have given us a family with a sense of deep love and affection and care for one another, for their cousins, for their community just like American families in Nebraska or Texas or anywhere else. Thank you for underscoring that reality. People don't come out of vacuums. We're all connected."
And when I finished reading her letter I felt like crying and saying well, "If this is my only reader for the book I have made an important connection" because I did want to respect this family and so many families.