Finding a Home in Language

Naomi Shihab Nye is no stranger to the dichotomy of oscillating from one place to another while still creating a space for herself wherever she lands. Born to a Palestinian refugee father and American mother, she spent much of her life in transit between Ferguson, Missouri, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. While Texas lays claim to her heart and soul as “home” in the sense of geographical location, Nye can carve a safe place for her soul wherever she lands—including, but not limited, to the use of language.

People find a home in language whether they have conscious awareness of it or not. Southerners find it laced the slow drawls of “y’alls,” “folks,” and “ain’ts” hooked into spoken sentences. Nye finds it in the home languages of her father and the easy pull of a Texan accent. She finds it in the places she visits and the people who inhabit. Then, she translates her experiences into poetry that transports her readers to defining encounters where others define “home” for themselves—or discover they must continue searching.

Nye finds paths toward her own sense of home within animals she encounters both through wilderness and agriculture. In the beloved Southern writing tradition of finding life advice from the wiles of nature, the poems “Bees Were Better” and “300 Goats” demonstrate the primitive ease through which millenia of evolution have taught all creatures how to find their space. “Bees Were Better” explores the making and breaking of human spaces as Nye observes couples breaking up on a college campus—sometimes souring the energy in a certain spot forever. Nye finds respite by studying bees:

“I studied bees, who were able

to convey messages through dancing

and could find their ways

home to their hives

even if someone put up a blockade of sheets

and boards and wire.”

Nye then describes writing a paper on “their brilliance and superiority.” The bees possess a complexity that humans still have yet to decode. Yet, the simplicity of their task—to get back to their space—makes them instinctive and driven. They find their home through a language of buzzing and dancing. A similar epiphany comes with “300 Goats” when Nye asks a friend if she is concerned with their safety during the winter.

“She shrugs, “Not really,

they know what to do. They’re goats.”

Though the poem offers no further insight, the reader understands that survival is engrained the animals’ own selves. They’re goats.

Just as nature has ingrained the ability to find or create home within any given animal, it has done so for humans as well. As mentioned before, one way folks find a sense of home is within language. And another is through spirituality and religious practices. While Nye’s family wasn’t particularly religious, she has a passion for studying the other’s practices. “Different Ways to Pray” explores how a person’s conversation with their respective Almighty differ depending on the place and lifestyle.

“There was the method of kneeling,

a fine method, if you lived in a country

where stones were smooth.”

Nye goes on to describe shepherds who, though poor and finding pain in their existence, also found happiness during an evening meal after crying out to the heavens. She introduces the readers to older generations who pray to Allah for the discouraged and sometimes indifferent younger ones. Then, there is

“the old man Fowzi,

for example, Fowzi the fool,

who beat everyone at dominoes,

insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,

and was famous for his laugh.”

Though Fowzi doesn’t participate in the same rituals as the other groups, he does exemplify how one individual can create a space for himself.

Nye’s poetic reflections on spaces and how folks create them bring with them a question: When one can find home within one’s self and the cultural mosaics through which one finds comfort, why are so many people intent on not sharing physical space? Many Southerners, either through deeply rooted prejudices or insecurity of losing what they are used to, covet the physical land they walk on and decimate the spaces both physical and metaphorical that others outside of the cultural norm find peace. We fear the mosques that are few and far between, but relish the myriad of Christian churches that dot both cityscape and countryside. Our hairs raise at the sound of a foreign language, but we are soothed by our own soft drawls.

We create lists of what it means to be Southern, often dancing around how many of our ancestors arrived here in the first place—through pilgrimage of some sort hundreds of years ago. Our lists include points like a person must be “naturalized,” speak English, and be God-fearing, but only the idea of God that we are used to. Nye calls us to reflect on the humanity both in creating our own spaces while coexisting peacefully with others. We will allow our livestock to gather for warmth on a cold winter morning, but our hearts thump with anger when Muslims collect on a holy day to worship. We appreciate the birds speaking languages we don’t understand in the spring, but anger ignites when two folks speak a language other than English. Nye humanizes the allowance of spaces outside of our own, while encouraging us to progress outside of our comfort zones. Her poetry shows us that where we can learn and observe, our fears and prejudices can dissolve.

What home do you find in your language? Tell us in the comments.

Image Credit: Chehalis Hegner/Steve Barclay Agency
(Click here to request Naomi Shihab Nye’s availibility)

Help us disrupt the Southern literary landscape.