Author Interview: Naomi Shihab Nye on Poetry and Young Adult Writing
Just reading these opening lines to Naomi Shihab Nye's poem "Kindness," readers can begin to feel the wisdom behind Nye's words. Her rich Palestinian-American heritage and travels across the world inspire Nye to write about our shared humanities. " The author of the poetry collection 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, Nye's talents also extend beyond the realm of verse writing. Nye is also the author of picture books and young adult novels, including There is No Long Distance Now." Nye tells Teen Voices about her latest projects and discusses her passion for engaging young readers.
Teen Voices (TV): When did you start writing?
Naomi Shihab Nye (NN): I started writing when I was very small, age six, having already been transported and comforted by listening to poems and stories read by adults.
TV: What experiences inspired you to become a writer?
NN: To be able to shape a little language into a line or a stanza seemed like a precious, simple power to me. Our daily lives felt full of rich material in all directions, each day packed with information and possibility, characters, conflicts, beautiful details. Writing was a place to put a little bit of it.
TV: What are the biggest challenges you've faced as a writer? How do you deal with those challenges?
NN: I don't really think about challenges much. I try to be flexible, to write regularly, to be willing to share work in many ways - maybe the challenges diffuse if we don't focus on them too much. People have been very nice to me as a writer. I'll never live up to that.
TV: You recently published a poem in a collection written to benefit refugees from Darfur, What You Wish For. How did you get involved in this project? What has this project meant to you?
NN: My father was a Palestinian refugee so the reality of lives and dreams that swerve, that become much more complicated and wistful than one might have hoped for in the beginning, has always felt very close by. We have NO IDEA how hard life is for millions of people in this world, every single day—anything we can all do to stand up for them should be done. And it's still so little.
TV: Much of your writing, including your new book of short stories, There is No Long Distance Now, address issues of cultural difference and overcoming barriers between people. Why is this an important theme for younger readers to explore?
NN: It's the world we're living in. We encounter one another everywhere it's impossible to live in a box with people who match us exactly. And who would want to? Swirling differences, savory contrasts—
how do we feel comfortable and related to everyone in some way or another? I'm interested in clicks and sparks and stories full of them.
TV: What books or characters did you love or identify with as a teen?
NN: I read fairly constantly and loved so many books of poems written by so many people; e.e. cummings and William Stafford were two favorites of mine during high school years. Stafford would remain so all my life. I loved "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, many eccentric New Englanders, I guess! Jack Kerouac too. Denise Levertov. Lucille Clifton. Margaret Atwood.
TV: What advice would you give teen girls who aspire to be writers?
NN: Read all the time. Find a notebook you like, a pen or pencil you like, and visit with it regularly. Try all kinds of things—feel the length and width of your own material extending. Don't be shy to write things you never finish, or experiment with unusual styles that appeal to you. Let yourself be messy and neat, both. Go back and circle things you really like later, perhaps with a highlighter or different color.
Pick out the pieces you wish to work on and copy those onto other paper, or into a computer, to begin editing. Find a way to share your work. Send it out into the world by whatever means you may so it might have a life of its own.
Stay tuned to read a Teen Voices review of Naomi Shihab Nye's There is No Long Distance Now.
Naomi Shihab Nye photo by Chehalis Hegner.
Tagged as: 19 Varieties of Gazelle, Author interviews, Naomi Shihab Nye, Poetry, poets, There is No Long Distance Now