The Tiny Journalist, by Naomi Shihab Nye
BOA Editions, 2019, 114 pp.
Reviewed by Susanna Lang
Naomi Shihab Nye’s father and his family were Palestinian refugees from their Jerusalem home, and she has always written about that difficult history and continuing tragedy. She herself lived between Jerusalem and Ramallah as a teenager. Throughout her career, she has also identified closely with children and young adults, writing books intended for them and entering schools as a teaching artist. In Janna Jihad Ayyad, the “tiny journalist” who began her work at the age of seven when two members of her family were killed, Nye finds the clear and uncompromising voice of a child who is witness to violence and grief and who is not afraid to speak up—to name and record what she sees but also to take part in the resistance. This collection inhabits that voice, imagining Janna’s life beyond the Facebook posts and drawing as well on Nye’s own experience and on her father’s stories. As she writes in “Facebook Notes,” “We carry you with us wherever we go,” even to China where some of these poems are set.
“Facebook Notes,” which opens the second of two sections, clarifies what Janna represents to the poet who watches her from afar but feels so close to her. We have all been reading the same stories in the newspapers for so many decades—just this morning, as I write this review, a new ceasefire described as “fragile” has been declared between Israel and Gaza, following an escalation of attacks on both sides. As Nye laments, we have marched, we have written letters to the editor, we have done what little we could, yet nothing has changed. Now this child comes as a “folded document of hope, unfolded flag,/unburdened alphabet, asking why.” Maybe she is the Joan of Arc for this intractable conflict; her youth itself is what allows us to keep hoping.”
At the same time, Nye finds solace in her father’s stories that, like the stories of all displaced people, are filled with the small joys of everyday life in the beloved place that has been lost. In “My Father, on Dialysis,” she brings us inside the book her father wrote during his treatments, remembering his garden of almonds and figs, remembering fresh mint in glasses of hot tea, and “the damp stones of [his] old city.” And not just her father but all “ancient Palestinian men and women/fall asleep with their hands on their hearts and by now/their hearts are shaped just like old Palestine….” They dream of the Palestine that used to be and that they hope will be again, all the towns with their “melodious names” rejoined in a place where they could live once more.
In this moment of our history, many poets feel called to the poetry of witness and resistance. This is not new work for Naomi Shihab Nye , who has always woven those threads into her poetry, but never more consistently than in this collection. It is a brave collection from a pair of brave souls.
Susanna Lang’s third collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems have appeared in such publications as Little Star, Prairie Schooner, december, American Life in Poetry and Verse Daily. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language. She lives and teaches in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.