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Arab-American poet learns to speak out (Audio)

By BY CAROLINA ASTRAIN - CASTRAIN@VICAD.COM
Jan. 27, 2013 at 10:01 p.m.
Updated Jan. 27, 2013 at 7:28 p.m.


IF YOU GO

• WHAT: Naomi Shihab Nye

• WHEN: Noon Thursday

• WHERE: Alcorn Auditorium, University West, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

• COST: Free, open to the public

An abridged excerpt from 'There Is No Long Distance Now'

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Turned out he had once lived in the same Texas coastal town where Callie lived now.

She said, "That's crazy! So, do you get back down to Texas?"

"I do" - he paused - "but the whole coast is ruined."

They were stopped at a light. Callie thought he might be referring to smokestacks spewing residue, stretching suburbs, the shrinking shrimp population ...

He said, "They've built three mosques."

"What?"

"And they work in all the gas stations and quick shops, too."

"You mean, Arabs? Muslims?" she could see his pale eyes in the rearview mirror staring at her.

He nodded.

She gulped and paused. "Well, my dad is an Arab ... from a Muslim family ... and he's adorable. Not very religious in any way but super sweet. You might like him."

"I'm so sorry! Please forgive me. Are you mad at me?"

It was strange. A man passed on the sidewalk with a poodle in a pink sweater on a leash. Callie said, "I'm not mad ... I guess I'm just sad, though."

He said, "You are really mad, aren't you? I'm sorry. I talk too much."

Callie said, "Haven't you?" She was thinking about prejudice, how it might begin so simply - they come from elsewhere, they don't look the way I do. Why did people want to match?

And here they were in the great multicultural city of the first African-American but also half-white U.S. president in history.

Callie slumped in the seat.

"Are we friends now?" the driver asked. He was driving better.

"We were never not friends," Callie said. "I'm just keeping my fingers crossed you meet some really great Arabs soon."

He said, "See you're still mad."

He took the money. Stood there awkwardly, as if he wanted to say something else. Which he did. "My wife ... is from Mexico."

A mumbler, she is not.

Growing up in a household where creative expression was encouraged, award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye didn't need long to realize she wanted to be writer.

Early in her education, Nye learned the value of her own voice through her second-grade teacher who did not allow mumbling in her class. The St. Louis native said her artistic upbringing coupled with the profound lesson she learned in the classroom brought her to where she is now.

At the University of Houston-Victoria's Alcorn Auditorium, Nye will read from her collection of poetry and short stories at noon Thursday.

The longtime San Antonio resident said she frequently visited Victoria schools as an artist between 1975 and 1978.

"I would come down to Victoria High School and read to students," the author said. "I hope to see some of those students I used to teach at the reading."

The Arab-American author will open the spring season of the university's American Book Review's reading series of 2013.

In her collection of short stories titled "There Is No Long Distance Now," elements of religion and race arise in Nye's writing.

During an awkward exchange between a white cab driver, Nye's Arab-American character in "Are We Friends?" is confronted with the reality of racism while en route to a writing conference in Chicago.

The white cab driver, who is also from a Texas town, clumsily says he would never return because of the growing Muslim population along the coast.

Once Callie, Nye's character in the story, reveals her Palestinian father's Muslim roots, the cab driver immediately starts to backtrack and apologize for his rudeness.

After the driver and Callie stumble between small talk and apologizes, the story ends with a jarring confession from the cabbie: "He took the money. Stood there awkwardly, as if he wanted to say something else. Which he did. 'My wife ... is from Mexico.'"

The cross-cultural encounter was one of the three stories in the collection that Nye experienced firsthand.

"I wrote it all down while sitting in the back seat," Nye said. "I wish I had his address so I could send the story to him."

The writing professor at Trinity University and advocate for widespread enhanced literacy said she hopes to complete a children's book she's titled "Happy House" about the last sultans of Oman.

"Children should never be afraid of sharing their voices with others," Nye said. "In some way, writing is about exercising your soul."

As the daughter of a white mother and Palestinian father living in San Antonio, Nye said she enjoys living in a community proud of its native Latin roots.

"I couldn't imagine living any place else," Nye said. "I'm really happy here."

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