Author Spotlight: Naomi Shihab Nye

April is Arab American Heritage month but it is also National Poetry Month and Naomi Shihab Nye has long been a powerful voice in the world of poetry while giving voice to the Palestinian-American experience in her work and broader life. There can be no greater introduction to Naomi Shihab Nye than the words of her own poetry, so I’d like to present to you one of her best-loved poems: “Kindness.”


Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.


Born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri to a Palestinian refugee father and German mother of Swiss heritage, Naomi Shihab Nye has spent her life experiencing and examining the duality of American and Palestinian culture. She refers to herself as a “wandering poet,” having grown up going between Jerusalem and Texas and spending her life in frequent travel around the US and often returning to the Middle East. Naomi Shihab Nye has a rare gift to reach the hearts and minds of readers of all ages, publishing poetry for adults but also writing multiple books of poems intended for children as well as several novels for children. For this she was awarded the position of Young People’s Poet Laureate in 2019 and has received many awards and nominations throughout her career.

Nye is often praised for her sensitivity and cultural awareness, particularly in her children’s literature. “My poems and stories often begin with the voices of our neighbors,” Nye has said on why her stories and poems often feature a wonderful mixture of cultures. This comes from the idea that “I always saw myself as an observer,” she explained in an interview with Poetry Northwest. “I always felt like my job is to be a witness. I’m not a full Arab, I’m not a full American. I always felt like I was a little bit on the sidelines, but I was in a spot where I had a good view. I could see what others did, I could watch, and I could absorb and put pieces together that made sense to me. That’s who I am. I knew it.” In this way her works often reflect a broad look at the experience of being human across the whole spectrum of emotions.

Amongst her more recent works is the collection Voices in the Air, which focuses on the people who stay with us in our hearts and minds and touches upon how love and memory are two major themes for Nye. People come and go from our lives, from death, from moving away, from being separated due to wars–such as her father becoming a refugee due to the Nakba in 1948 or Nye herself having to flee the West Bank at the outbreak of the Six Days War 1967, leaving behind a grandmother she would never see again–but many stay with us no matter where we go. 

Her most recent collection, The Tiny Journalist, shows how she finds memory to be a crucial part of bearing witness to culture and giving voice to identity. The collection is written about Janna Jihad Ayyad who was dubbed the “Worlds Youngest Journalist” when, at the age of 7, she began capturing videos of the everyday horrors of violence and displacement against Palestinians in the West Bank and posting them online. Through the collection, Nye gives voice to her people in a time of crisis and reminds us that poetry is another form of keeping memory, too.

Though there is also plenty of local interest to be found in Nye’s works. Her latest novel for children, The Turtle of Michigan, is set here in our beautiful state. Nye frequently visits Dearborn, MI which makes its way into many of her poems and stories as well and readers can very frequently find the works of local poet and former Hope College professor Jack Ridl in the pages on her many anthologies.

An incredible poet and voice for Arab American people in the realm of literature, be sure to read the works of Naomi Shihab Nye this April.