Naomi Shihab Nye, a four-time Pushcart Prize winner, is perhaps better known to readers as a poet than a novelist. Her collection 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East was a finalist in 2002 for the National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category, and her collection Honeybee was awarded the Arab-American Book Award. She has edited several honored poetry anthologies, and is currently serving on the Board of Chancellors for the Academy of American Poets. She, however, recently published a children’s novel, The Turtle of Oman, which, like her poetry, possesses a seamless quality that makes it light-hearted and fun to read.
Nye often writes about people like herself, with a heart that beats using two different ventricles: one of an American, and the other of a Palestinian. The Turtle of Oman tells the story of young Aref Al-Amri, who, before leaving Oman for Michigan, must say goodbye to everything and everyone he has known and loved, including his grandfather, Sidi, his cat, Mish-Mish and his rock collections. The novel explores the unique and wonderful relationship between a child and his granddad.
Part of the book’s charm comes from personal, poetic glimpses of the author’s life. Nye based the two main characters, Sidi and Aref, on her father and son. Her father’s death seven years ago brought to the surface many cherished memories. Some of the details found their way, at least in spirit, into The Turtle of Oman. “Having observed my dad’s relationship with our son was a very wonderful thing,” says Nye. “They had with each other some kind of intangible bond...I wanted to honor that kind of bond somehow, so I think in the very beginning I wanted to write about a relationship that was so close and touching to observe, like my father and my son’s together.”
That reminiscence, however, is only the blueprint of this novel. Every day, Nye sits at the table with a notebook, little scraps of paper, pencils and a pencil sharpener. She writes in longhand and revises endlessly before typing it all up. “In those 13 drafts, the characters definitely stopped being my father and son,” says Nye. “It was as if they really took on a life as characters for me, beyond people that they just remind me of.”
Born to a Palestinian father and American mother, Nye loves playing with the two halves of her bloodline. When she goes back to the Middle East every year, she watches as her paternal culture infiltrates that of her maternal. When I asked why she has chosen Oman—the tiny country of three million, geographically tucked among its more well-known brothers and sisters, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen—she couldn’t fixate on any particular reason. “It was one of those countries that stay in your mind that you’re fascinated with and you’re not sure why,” the author confesses. “I could juggle the letters of my first name and it would be ‘Omani’ and so that intrigued me. It felt like I had a bond with this country for some reason.”
Letters aren’t the only things that connect Nye to Oman. The author was eventually invited to speak at the International School of Muscat, where she shared with students her uncommon fascination for a country that up to that point she hadn’t even visited. By that time, she was already on the third draft of the novel.
The Palestinian-American writer feels that literature’s power is to allow us to develop empathy toward one another. The author talks about one of her acclaimed anthologies, This Same Sky, which is still in print after 21 years of publication: “There are 129 different voices, representing 69 different countries....The same sky is what we share—the sense of togetherness.”
If The Turtle of Oman is a commemoration of her father, Nye is diving even deeper into memory in her next project, to the “tabooed secret stuff” that is her mother’s perpetual depression. “[My mother] has no idea that I’m working on this project,” the author confesses, “and I don’t know when I’m going to tell her, or if I’m ever going to tell her.” A respectful daughter, Nye has been keeping her silence, even on the pages, about her mother’s affliction, as she requested. However, now that her mother has grown out of her own sadness, Nye is no longer afraid to talk about this major part of her youth, knowing that children dealing with mentally depressed parents will connect with it, too. “I think it was something that contributed a lot in my own life to being a writer,” says the author. “Art helped save me as a child, and writing helped save me as a child.”
Nye made her literary debut at the young age of 6, and has remained childlike into her 60s. Even after decades of writing, she still takes pleasure in organizing her pens and pencils and markers. “I like those physical tactile little swishy, whispery sounds that a pencil makes....Of all different kinds. Some are heavier, skinnier, and thicker and stuff. I just like them all being together. It was exciting just laying them out because I remember thinking, ‘God, this is exactly like something I would have done when I was 10. I haven’t changed at all.’”
Mai Tran is a junior at Bennington College studying literature and social sciences. She is currently interning at Kirkus Reviews, Random House and PEN American Center.