Up, down, in, and out … Babel’s Naomi Shihab Nye

Language has ‘the power to carry us away’. This is what Naomi Shihab Nye said when asked why she was drawn to literature. The daughter of a displaced Palestinian journalist—a theme thus far for the 2011/12 season of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel—she has been enamored by language since a very early age living all over the country from St. Louis to Brockport to Texas.

A very appreciative woman, she gave thanks and love to Buffalo, her Rochester publishers BOA Editions, Inc., and the Western New Yorkers who bought a ticket to come listen to her speak in the ‘most beautiful hall’ she’s ever read inside. The crush on our city and everyone in it held a certain charm that risked giving way to obnoxiousness if not for her genuine authenticity. An artist who travels the world visiting classrooms and students to use her influence as an artist by inspiring youth, she never wavered from admitting her idols and heroes as poets she read at seven years old and the librarians who assisted in finding them.

With brilliant exuberance and theatricality, Shihab Nye read from her latest collection of poems, Transfer—an elegy to her recently deceased father—as well as older work such as the WNY-centric “Niagara” and a poignantly funny excerpt from Honeybee about a mistaken detour en route to an art museum. Highly animated and fast-talking, she transitioned through readings without pause and interjected anecdotes where appropriate. A huge proponent for education, there was a palpable joy when speaking of her students. Whether a young girl she met at Buffalo Seminary or the maximum-security prisoners she once visited who all say things would have been different if they just took education more seriously, she willingly seeks out ways to help.

Candid about her writing process—she’ll work on three to four poems at a time—and her influences—William Stafford being the poet she holds most dear—Naomi is genuinely one of us. Admitting to always having thought she was rich after first setting foot in a library, there is an air about her that welcomes a friendly conversation and would never leave a stray hello or thank you hanging without response. She spoke of her father donning Muslim robes to mess with the missionaries knocking on their door to speak about Jesus and her son’s early handle on language to protest an inability to eat Frosted Mini-Wheats fifteen minutes before dinner with a sign directed at his preoccupied mother reading ‘Love has failed’. Everything is worth remembering; each moment cherished and shared with her readers as though speaking with them on a porch in the sun.

Beginning with a poem by Ruth Stone, quoting filmmaker Richard Linklater towards the end, and always happy to share her own words with those listening, Naomi Shihab Nye proved herself to be an artist worth loving. Forever with her notebook providing a salvational tool to cope with life’s struggles and joys, to her we are all brothers and sisters in culture, friends, and food. World peace isn’t a dream; it’s an inevitability her words will convert you into seeing. Persuasive in unwavering optimism, her light-hearted levity mixes with emotional authenticity to tell stories from the heart we can all relate with and therefore strive to also achieve her sunny disposition despite the struggle.

Babel 2011/2012 Season:
Zadie Smith (England) – March 21, 2012
Alexander McCall Smith (Scotland) – April 12, 2012
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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