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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.


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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