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The Discovery of the Self Naomi Nye’s Works Essays

The Discovery of the Self Naomi Nye’s Works The purpose of this paper is to analyze the self and identity in the works of Naomi Nye, and to examine the popular culture representations of Arabs as terrorist. After the September 11, 2001 attack, more and more disappointment, frustration and curiosity towards Islam and Muslims have aroused amongst Americans. Part of Naomi Nye’s political statement lies in her attempts to change the American mainstream perception of Arabs by providing readers with images of Arabs whom she knows and loves, for love lies at the core of her works.
She addresses the issue of Arab identity in America and the concomitant connection with terrorism; her works are her representation of the identity crisis of Arab-Americans as an ethnic minority uniting two allegedly hegemonic cultures, Eastern and Western. Nye gives voice to her experience as an Arab-American through poems about heritage and peace that overflow with a humanitarian spirit. Her experience of both cultural difference and different cultures has influenced much of her work.
This paper explores the connection between Naomi Nye’s life as a writer who lives in the relative safety of the American Southwest and her emotional and familial connection to Palestine, a land torn by war. Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet, songwriter, and novelist. She was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. During her high school years, she lived in Ramallah in Palestine, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she later received her B. A. in English and world religions from Trinity University.
Nye is the author of numerous books of poems, including You and Yours, which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, as well as 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, a collection of new and selected poems about the Middle East, Fuel, Red Suitcase, and Hugging the Jukebox . Naomi Nye has received awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Carity Randall Prize, the International Poetry Forum, as well as four Pushcart Prizes. She has been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Witter Bynner Fellow. In 1988 she received The Academy of American Poets’ Lavan Award, selected by W.
S. Merwin. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas. She was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2010. Nye is also considered one of the leading female poets of the American Southwest. A contributor to Contemporary Poets wrote that she “brings attention to the female as a humorous, wry creature with brisk, hard intelligence and a sense of personal freedom unheard of” in the history of pioneer women. In her works, she explores the theme of similarities and differences between cultures, which would become one of her lifelong areas of focus.
For example, in her work” You and Yours,” she continues to explore the Middle East and the possibilities of poetic response. Divided into two sections, the first deals with Nye’s personal experiences as a mother and traveler. The second part examines the Middle East with “indignity and compassion”. Another example of her works, “Blood. ” She considers the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She describes a cafe in” combat-weary” Beirut, bemoans “a world where no one saves anyone,” and observes “The Gardener” for whom “everything she planted gave up under the ground”.
Georgia Review contributor Philip Booth declares that Nye brings “home to readers both how variously and how similarly all people live”. In another work for her, Red Suitcase, Nye continues to explore the effect of on-going violence on everyday life in the Middle East. About her work in general, the poet William Stafford has said, “Her poems combine 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” (38).
A contributor to Contemporary Southern Writers wrote that Nye’s poetry “is playfully and imaginatively instructive, borrows from Eastern and Middle Eastern and Native American religions, and resembles the meditative poetry of William Stafford, Wallace Stevens, and Gary Snyder” (par. 1 of 1). Violence takes the lives of innocent people, a fact that Nye not only finds hard to accept but even harder to witness. Becoming a witness and, thereby, writing poetry as an act of resistance leads Nye to name names. All that she wants is for Arabs not to remain or stay in their silence.
She wants them to speak up and resist the negative stereotypes in any way they can. Especially for whom life suddenly becomes more difficult as people identify them with their angry countrymen and make them the subject of scorn and mistrust in America. In one of her works “Red Suitcase”, Nye says that the other side of the Arab story must speak of the loss suffered by people who were unceremoniously expelled from their homeland when the Jewish State was created, people exiled from everything that gave them comfort (91) .
Edward Said describes exile as “the unhealable rift forced between a human and a native place, between the self and its true home,” and he concludes that “its essential sadness can never be surmounted” (173). In this way, her poems examine contemporary American culture and values, and this examination makes her work political. When shaping verse, poet Naomi Shihab Nye reflects on her Palestinian heritage, family, and the power of humanity. Nye discusses her most recent compilation of work, Transfer, and what inspires her to continue crafting thoughtful and expressive poems
Part of Shihab Nye’s political statement lies in her attempts to change the American mainstream perception of Arabs by providing readers with images of Arabs whom she knows and loves, for love lies at the core of Shihab Nye’s poetry. In spite of evidence to the contrary, Shihab Nye believes that words can transform people. As a poet, she would rather see people solve their problems with words, not weapons, but the use of words to solve Middle Eastern problems has not proven effective.
In spite of evidence to the contrary, Nye believes that words can transform people. For her being civilized requires that people use words, not guns, to solve their differences, but in the real world angry men use guns, not words. Poetry provides people with the tools to recreate experience. It does not change the experience, but it makes empathy possible. It allows people to understand their feelings and those of others, which is why, in her poetry, Nye continues to write about the Arabs she knows and loves, not the ones who blow up buildings.
In “This Is Not Who We Are” It takes us inside situations, helps us imagine life from more than one perspective, honors imagery and metaphor–those great tools of thought-and deepens out confidence in a meaningful world (86). Expecting the spread of Islam in the United States to make the “Would-be Terrorist” glad seems as naive as expecting angry men to solve their problems with words. Nye believes in “Would-Be Terrorist” that he should care about poetry and its ability of words to change people lives, because she knows that words have a lasting impact on people.
In her work “Never in a Hurry,” she understands that “the news couldn’t see into this room of glowing coals or the ones drinking tea and fluffing pillows who are invisible” (253), so her essays and poems put a human face on an ancient tragedy that has only recently become the subject of dally news reports in the Western world. In the same letter, she writes about her “Palestinian cousins in Texas who have beautiful brown little boys,” but those boys now “have this heavy word to carry in their backpacks along with the weight of their papers and books” (363).
The word that they carry is “terrorist” because they are brown and Palestinian in America. Even though they are children in a country far removed from the chaos of their ancestral land, they now surfer from the stigma of being guilty by virtue of their cultural connection to an ancient hatred regardless of how old they are or what they believe. Nye’s little cousins carry the burden of negativity and distrust created by the word “terrorist” because negative words appear to have more power than comforting, loving words, those she uses to write her poems.
Gregory Orfalea claims that “poetry for Nye is powerful, but quiet supplication” because “Nye is not very good with evil; few poets are. The times she faces it, it is with questions, as if warding it off by verbal wolfsbane” (60). For Naomi Nye, the war in the Middle East is personal; the people affected are her immediate family, so her work creates a space for the forgotten, the real people who dally surfer the not-so-little indignities of attempting to live life in a world at war.
That this war involves the United States and its people makes it more difficult for the Arab-American poet who is suddenly tom between two opposing sides. For Shihab Nye, Adrienne Rich’s claim in an article in “North American Time” that “Poetry never stood a chance/of standing outside history” (33) is an ever-present reality. Her poetry reflects the realities of her war-torn ancestral. Many of her poems deal with events that most Americans only see on the television news, but the Arab-American poet also writes about a world far removed from the war in Palestine.
These poems offer evidence of life in a safer environment, but an environment where the poet nevertheless feels the stigma of being an Arab in America at a time when every Arab is suspect, including a poet. Through her poetry and essays, Naomi Shihab Nye navigates the two very extreme realities of her life. For example, she writes in “Jerusalem, Red Suitcase:” I’m not interested in Who suffered the most. I’m interested in People getting over it. Prejudice and discrimination against Arab-American is often rooted in negative stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims.
Individual Arab Americans are associated with or blamed for the act of small groups of extremist who share their ethnicity or religion. Being treated as a criminal at the airport is only one example of the many indignities suffered by people whose only crime is sharing a cultural history with ‘terrorists. ‘ For Shihab Nye, writing about being an Arab in America serves the dual purpose of disassociating herself from the men who commit acts of violence and of explaining to other Americans, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, that blaming all Arabs for the behavior of the few is unfair.
Through news reporting about hijackings, violence and terrorism over the last three decades, Arab countries have come to represent terror in the American imagination, and the image of Arab men has shifted to that of a terrorist. Arabs in popular culture are those of Arabs and Muslims as terrorist. Lebanese-American analyst Jack Shaheen has documented over 900 Hollywood films portraying Arabs in negative and offensive manners. It is no surprise that children exposed to negative portrayals of Arabs in the popular culture react to incidents of real violence by blaming the innocent and venting their feelings on their classmates.
Even seemingly innocuous films are sometimes problematic. When American children hear the word “Arab”, the first thing that comes to their mind is the imagery of Disney’s Arabian Nights fantasy film “Aladdin”. Ethnic stereotypes are especially harmful in the absence of positive ethnic images. Shaheen observes that Arabs are “hardly ever seen as ordinary people, practicing law, driving taxis, singing lullabies or healing the sick” (10). Popular films and television imprint young children with numerous negative images of Arabs, and American educators do not do enough to correct this bias. Many do not even perceive anti-Arab racism as a problem.
Educators who have not yet been alerted to this issue and are unaware of the potential harm being done are themselves part of the problem. Arab- American young people consciously reclaim their ethnic identity. Lisa Suhair Majaj, a Palestinian observed, “Once I claimed a past, spoke my history, told my name, the walls of incomprehension and hostility rose, brick by brick: un-funny ethnic jokes; jibes about terrorists and Kalashnikovs, and about veiled women and camels; or worse, the awkward silences, the hasty shifts to other subjects. Searching for images of my Arab self in American culture I found only unrecognizable stereotypes.
In the face of such incomprehension I could say nothing” (90). Naomi Nye indirectly addresses the pain suffered by Arabs in “Arabic,” where the poet reports that “the man with laughing eyes stopped smiling/to say, Until you speak Arabic/you will not understand pain. ” (19) The displaced Arabs who long for home are an integral part of the Arab story, the Arab-American story. Like the poet’s father, they carry home in their hearts; they do not forget. They consider themselves lucky when they encounter others who, like themselves, carry home on their backs.
They are the “homeless fig” (Words 121) whom the poet loves, the people for whom she writes the other side of the Arab story. Despite thinking “pain had no tongue,” the poet feels bad that she “lives on the brink of Arabic, tugging/its rich threads without understanding/how to weave the rug…. I have no gift /The sound, but not the sense/ Still: I touched his arm, held it hard, which sometimes you don’t do in the Middle East, and said; I’ll work on it, feeling sad /for his good strict heart, but later in the slick street/ hailed a taxi by shouting Pain!
And it stopped/ in every language and opened its doors” (19-20). Abdel-Karim Aisawi explains in A Postcolonial Reading of Naomi Shihab Nye’s Young-Adult Literature article that Central to a postcolonial reading o Nye’s works is her representation of the identity crisis of Arab-Americans as an ethnic minority uniting two allegedly hegemonic cultures, Eastern and Western. Related binaries such as “self” and “other” alongside her revisionary versions of history reveal to what extent her works are representative of the theory.
Furthermore, Nye’s treatment of both cultural identity formation and hybridity as experienced by second generation Arab-Americans living both in the USA and the Middle East, adds fresh perspective to this focal postcolonial issue. Naomi Nye succeeds in advocating her message of building a sense of enlarged humanity through crossing racial, political, ideological and psychological boundaries among the young generation in order to achieve global peace (83).
After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Nye became an active voice for Arab-Americans, speaking out against both terrorism and prejudice. The lack of understanding between Americans and Arabs led her to collect poems she had written which dealt with the Middle East and her experiences as an Arab-American into one volume. In an open letter “To Any Would-Be Terrorist,” written shortly after the September 11, 2001 attack, Nye addresses the issue of Arab identity in America and the concomitant connection with terrorism.
The letter “To Any Would-Be Terrorist” speaks of her father, who “became a refugee in 1948” but “is still homesick” (362) for Palestine, and her mother who “has spent 50 years trying to convince her fellow teachers and choir mates not to believe the stereotypes about the Middle East” (363). It also speaks of “the Palestinian grocer in my Mexican-American neighborhood who paints pictures of the Palestinian flag on his empty cartons. He paints trees and rivers. He gives his paintings away.
He says, ‘Don’t insult me’ when I try to pay him for a lemonade” (363), evidence of a generosity that Shihab Nye recognizes as intrinsically Arab, for “Arabs have always been famous for their generosity” (363). However Generosity and grace are hardly the words people think of when the latest news of car bombs exploding in Jerusalem invades their homes. They think instead of the evil that men do, and the evil men in that case almost always turn out to be Arabs, which explains why Shihab Nye feels compelled to write the other side of the Arab story.
She tells the “Would-Be Terrorist” that she is “sorry” to call him a terrorist because “I hate that word,” but then she asks: “Do you know how hard some of us have worked to get rid of that word, to deny its instant connection to the Middle East? ” (362) Nye also attempts to reach the terrorist with words by telling him that “Our hearts are broken, as yours may also feel broken in some ways we can’t understand, unless you tell us in words. Killing people won’t tell us. We can’t read that message” (366). Another example, in her work” You and Yours, she continues to explore the Middle East and the possibilities of poetic response.
Divided into two sections, the first deals with Nye’s personal experiences as a mother and traveler. The second part examines the Middle East with “indignity and compassion,” according to Publisher’s Weekly Donna Seaman . Seaman wrote that the book is “tender yet forceful, funny and commonsensical, reflective and empathic,” adding, “Nye writes radiant poems of nature and piercing poems of war, always touching base with homey details and radiant portraits of family and neighbors. Nye’s clarion condemnation of prejudice and injustice reminds readers that most Americans have ties to other lands and that all concerns truly are universal. (49) Writing for Booklist, Pat Monaghan explains that “some of her most powerful poems deal with her native land’s continuing search for peace and the echoes of that search that resound in an individual life. Nye is a fluid poet, and her poems are also full of the urgency of spoken language. Her direct, unadorned vocabulary serves her. (22) In “For the 500th Dead Palestinian, Ibtisam Bozieh, Red Suitcase” Nye no longer lacks the words to say exactly what she thinks about the death of a child who was in the wrong place at the wrong time in history.
She writes: “ Little sister Ibtisam, our sleep flounders, our sleep tugs the cord of your name. Dead at 13, for staring through the window into a gun barrel which did not know you wanted to be a doctor. ” (97) But she cannot bring the child back from the dead. In fact, the poet acknowledges that she could have become a victim too if she had not lived elsewhere, in the relative safety provided by America: “ Had I stayed in your land, I might have been dead too, for something simple like staring or shouting what was true and getting kicked out of school”. (97)
In “Blood”, an angry Palestinian drove the truck that killed American soldiers, but Arab Americans are both Arabs and Americans. They surfer a double pain. Shihab Nye’s poem addresses the complicated geography of what it means to be both a Palestinian and an American who must deal with the actions of angry men–but “the headlines clot in her blood” (121). The best that she can offer is a humane vision of her gentle Arab father who can barely speak about the event. Lisa Suhair Majaj argues in “Arab American Literature and the Politics of Memory” that “Blood” “offers a nuanced meditation on the notion of cultural ‘blood inheritance'” (282).
Majaj focuses on what she calls the “lightly humorous consideration of the possibilities of being a ‘true Arab’ offered by [the poet’s] father’s folk tales to a deeply troubled questioning of the implications and responsibilities of this identity” (282-83). She finds humor in the father’s explanation that “A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands” or the poet’s statement that “True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways,/I changed these to fit the occasion” (Words 121).
However, she does not stop to examine the ways in which these humorous statements humanize the Arab father who uses folk tales to explain his heritage to his American-born daughter. Majaj’s statement about Shihab Nye leads immediately into the argument that “Blood” “deconstructs the naturalization of an Arab cultural ‘essence,’ while simultaneously foregrounding the politicized over determination of Palestinian identity” (282-83), her main concern. “Blood” was published in 1986 in Yellow Glove, Shihab Nye’s third collection of poetry.
Like Orfalea, Majaj claims that the poem was written after what she calls the “Israeli and Lebanese Phalangist massacres of Palestinians during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon” (283), but she may be missing the “American” side of the poem. In conclusion, the purpose of this paper is to analyze the self and identity in the works of Naomi Nye, and to examine the popular culture representations of Arabs as terrorist. Naomi Shihab Nye addresses the issue of Arab identity in America and the concomitant connection with terrorism throughout her works.
Nye attempts to change the American mainstream perception of Arabs by providing readers with images of Arabs whom she knows and loves, for love lies at the core of her works. She also asks and tells the Arabs to break their silence, raise their voice and speak up in any possible way. A contemporary example given for negative stereotypes about Arabs is Russell Peters. A stand-up comedian who shows us the bad effect of the media in representing Arabs. Work cited: Aisawi S. Abdel-Karim. ” Crossing Boundaries: A Postcolonial Reading of Naomi Shihab Nye’s Young-Adult Literature. ” Dirasat: Human and Social Sciences  37 (2010)
Said, Edward. Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002 Orfalea, Gregory. “Doomed by Our Blood to Care: The Poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye. ” Paintbrush 18. 35 (Spring 1991): 56-66 Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs. Interlink Group, 2001 Majaj, Lisa Suhair. “Arab American Literature and the Politics of Memory. ” Memory and Cultural Politics. Eds. Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr. , and Robert E. Hogan. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1996. 266-90 Mercer, Lorraine and Linda Strom. “Counter Narratives: Cooking Up Stories of Love and Loss in Naomi Shihab Nye’s Poetry and Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent. MELUS 32. 4 (Winter 2007): 33-46 Wingfield, Marvin. and Karaman, Bushra. “Social studies and the young learner article. ” Arab Stereotype and American Educators. 5 May 2012 <http://www. adc. org/arab_stereo. pdf >. Nye, Naomi Shihab. Red Suitcase. NY: BOA Editions, 1994 Nye, Naomi Shihab. “To Any Would-Be Terrorist. ” 75 Readings: An Anthology. Eds. Santi V. Buscemi and Charlotte Smith. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004. 362-66. Nye, Naomi Shihab. Fuel. NY: BOA Editions, 1998 Nye, Naomi Shihab. Words under the Words. Portland, Oregon: A Far Comer Book, 1995

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