Nye, Naomi Shihab. 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. Greenwillow Books. 2002. ISBN 0060097663
19 Varieties of Gazelle, as the title implies, is a collection of poems about the Middle East. They carry repeating symbols and motifs of that region, crescent moons, figs, and olives to name a few, but more importantly they carry the people of that region.
Especially in a post 9/11 world, it is easy for teens, and adults, to picture the Middle East as a turbulent place of deserts and blood. For some, this may be intentional, but for many it is likely fear and the news talking. Nye speaks as an American with ties to that region. She repeatedly points out that she went to school in an air-conditioned classroom, she doesn’t know how to carry the water jug on her head, she doesn’t understand why a fig tree is so important to her father, all things that point to her American upbringing. However, she reminds the reader that she has family there. She speaks of weddings and almond sellers.
Many of the poems have images that someone who knew nothing of the Middle East would find strange. The concept of the olive plate, the Via Dolorosa, even the repeated crescent moon are likely not images that a native American immediately brings to mind when they think of the current Middle East.
This collection of poems is not gender specific, and would work well if paired with a world history or world geography class. That being said, I would not recommend it for elementary aged children. Not because it deals with death or war, young children should know about those too, but because they are poems for a mature reader. The reader should not have to struggle with the English words while trying to understand a different culture.
A man letters the sign for his grocery
in Arabic and English.
Paint dries more quickly in English
The thick swoops and curls of Arabic letters
stay moist and glistening
till tomorrow when the children
show up jingling their dimes.
They have learned the currency of the New World,
carrying wishes for gum and candies
shaped like fish.
They float through the streets,
diving deep to the bottom,
nosing rich layers of crusted shell.
One of these children will tell a story
that keeps her people alive.
We don’t know yet which one she is.
Girl in the red sweater dangling a book bag,
sister with eyes pinned to the barrel
of pumpkin seeds.
They are lettering the sidewalk with their steps.
They are separate and together and a little bit late.
Carrying a creased note, “Don’t forget.”
Who wrote it? They’ve already forgotten.
A purple fish sticks to the back of the throat.
Their long laughs are boats they will ride and ride,
making the shadows that cross each other’s smiles.
I think this poem speaks of the poet, the girl who tells a story to keep her people alive. However, the words also bring Scheherazade to mind, or they could simply be talking about the kind of girl who asks for stories from the members of the community who immigrated in the first place. There is no wrong answer.
It would be interesting to encourage students to ask their families, or look up online, where their families are from, or where the original founders of the town traced their heritage. Was the town founded by those who considered themselves American, or Texan, or perhaps Hispanic or Irish? These kinds of questions could actually get the whole community involved.
National Book Award Finalist
ALA Best Book for Young Adults
Kirkus Starred Review—“ Poem after poem will elicit a gasp of surprise, a nod of the head, a pause to reflect. There are no false steps here—only a feeling of sensory overload and a need to take a deep breath and reread or to find someone to share the intensely felt emotion that springs from the lines.”
Kirkus Reviews. April 15, 2002. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/naomi-shihab-nye/19-varieties-of-gazelle/.