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Sentence Dissection: ‘This Is Not Who We Are’ by Naomi Shihab Nye

Updated: Jan 2

*This post is dedicated to Lynna Williams, who introduced me to this essay during my time at Emory University. Her teachings carry on.

The following is the opening sentence of Naomi Shihab Nye’s essay about Arab-American identity post-9/11, This Is Not Who We Are, as it appears in the 2007 Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone:

‘I’m idling in the drive-through line at a fast-food franchise in Texas, the kind of place I usually avoid, because my hungry teenager needs a hamburger, when a curling strand of delicate violin rises from National Public Radio.’

While a common character in our lives, most of us don’t jump at the chance to read about boredom. We want to read about explosive action, steamy romance, and mind-blowing mystery, ideally all rolled into one book set in a world focused on either wizards or vampires. That is, unless you’re racist against vampires.

Even if you prefer books founded in realism, most of us read as a means to entertain ourselves, to stimulate our brains, to forget that being bored was even an option before we picked up the book.

That’s why it’s curious, and ultimately brilliant, that Naomi Shihab Nye begins her essay about post-9/11 Arab-American identity with a scene of boredom.

The sentence’s second word, ‘idling’, cues our brains to slow down, and is followed by an all too familiar situation, of waiting in a line that refuses to move fast enough, in this case at a fast-food drive-through. Adding to the ennui, the sentence’s second clause informs us that, for Shihab Nye, a fast-food joint is, ‘the kind of place I usually avoid.’ So there she is, moving at a snail’s pace through a line at a place she doesn’t want to be, all so she can feed her hungry teenager, who ‘needs a hamburger.’ Exciting stuff, right?

Honestly, yes, and without incorporating even a single vampire.

I feel pulled into Shihab Nye’s dilemma both for reasons of relatability and because I quickly find myself liking this narrator. In regards to relatability, it’s easy to relate to being stuck in a line I don’t want to be in, even if not specifically at a fast-food restaurant. Due to that relatability, I feel a kinship to the story, as if it’s speaking both to me and to a problem specific to my life. It usually feels good to read someone else’s complaints about something I’d like to complain about too.

It’s also easy to like the narrator even before reaching the sentence’s final and important clause, and not just because I can relate to her. There she is, subjecting herself to boredom in order to please her son. She’s willing to endure pain, however minor, to bring happiness, or perhaps just a small moment of relief, to someone she loves. That personal sacrifice is an admirable quality in a person, and the mark of someone I want to spend more time with, so I keep reading.

But Shihab Nye isn’t the only one waiting in line. We’re waiting too.

From the beginning of the sentence through the word ‘hamburger’, there are three clauses, none of them shorter than 11 syllables, each adding a bit more to the picture without fully taking us where we’re meant to end up, as if we’re idling too, lazing from clause to clause, inching through each one – wait to order, order, wait to pay, pay, wait for the food, receive the food, and finally drive away – biding our time not only in the sentence, but in each part of the sentence, as we wait for that final clause, for the relief that comes after ‘hamburger’. Even once we get to the final clause, we obviously have more to read, meaning that while our idling has reached its final stage, it is still being endured.

Beautiful how the sentence structure mimics the physical events. It’s great writing invested in both the awareness of and portrayal of time. Not only can we relate to waiting in line, and not only can we appreciate someone enduring pain to help someone they love, but we feel that pain of waiting ourselves. Just like Shihab Nye’s teenager ‘needs a hamburger,’ the structure makes us crave the sentence’s final clause.

Before we get to that final clause, also of note in the first three clauses are the uses of alliteration, simple detail, and italics. Alliteration occurs with, ‘fast-food franchise,’ adding a sudden speed to our slow sentence. This intentional modulation of pace signals that Shihab Nye is aware of the sentence’s inherent idleness such that we trust that this idleness won’t drag on any longer than it has too. She has the control to speed things up when she wants. The alliteration is a promise of, ‘don’t worry. I know what I’m doing here. Bear with the initial slowness and it will all be worth it.’

The italics appear when she writes that her teenager, ‘needs a hamburger’. That simple stress adds melodrama to the scene. Rarely is a hamburger needed, as if not only does life or death rely solely upon food, but specifically upon a hamburger. Yet wants and needs are relative to their situations. In the grand scheme of things, needing a hamburger pales in comparison to needing a roof over your head on a frozen night or needing a heart transplant, but relative to a particular person’s mindset (and especially the mindset of a shortsighted teenager), needing a hamburger can feel of the utmost importance. The italics allow us to feel the irrational, momentary significance of this hamburger for which Shihab Nye is enduring the slow line.

She’s also not enduring this wait just anywhere. The simple stated detail of place, ‘Texas’, informs us that Shihab Nye is waiting for this hamburger in what is probably a hotter setting than most. If there’s anything worse than waiting out in the cold, it’s waiting in the heat. Sure, she might be comfortably contained in an air-conditioned car, or it might not be a hot day in Texas, but we don’t know that. What we know is that Shihab Nye is waiting in line in her car in a state known for extreme heat, adding to the urgency, and the pain, of her situation.

Just like a hamburger can satisfy after a long hunger, so too does the final clause deliver following our long wait. It’s hot. Shihab Nye is bored. She doesn’t want to be here. She’s waiting for a freaking fast-food hamburger and not even for herself, ‘when a curling strand of delicate violin rises from National Public Radio.’

Wait, what? In a flash, I’m soothed. I’m relaxed. I’m comforted by the beautiful music emerging out of the hot idleness, just for me.

Just as the previous parts of the sentence mimicked the physical action of idleness, the final clause imitates the feeling of a delicate strand of music curling out of the car’s speakers, into Shihab Nye’s ears, and comforting her. While I can’t hear the music, I can imagine what that violin might sound like, I can feel that strand of music curling out of the speakers, and I am moved by it.

That occurs due to word choice on two different levels. On one level, the words, ‘curling’, ‘strand’, ‘delicate’, ‘violin’, and ‘rises’ are all either benign or positive words. There’s a certain beauty to each word, as well as all of them in combination, that elicits the beauty of Shihab Nye’s described music. A ‘curling strand’ is more inherently soothing than a curling buzz or a twisting strand. A ‘delicate violin’ sounds gentler than a pretty violin or a delicate guitar. There’s an optimism to the described music rising, as opposed to falling or hovering, especially during a trying situation.

On another level, three words in this final clause are longer than two syllables (‘delicate’, ‘violin’, and ‘National’), matching the total words longer than two syllables in the much longer portion of the sentence prior (‘usually’, ‘teenager’, and ‘hamburger’). This denser collection of long words allows this short final piece of the sentence to feel stretched-out, as if some long, curling strand of delicate music is slowly winding out of the speakers, into our ears.

The final detail worth noting is that this music comes from National Public Radio. We’ve all heard of NPR, and many of us listen to it. This national radio station is not some niche local pleasure, but a large station that seeks to appease a diverse collection of people throughout the United States of America.

On the one hand, naming NPR signals that both what is to come in the essay and the meaning of the music connect to a larger, national discussion that Shihab Nye wants to have, which ends up being about Arab-American identity post-9/11. On the other hand, there Shihab Nye is, stuck in her car, in the Texas heat, waiting for a hamburger for her teenager, playing a radio station best known for its array of intellectual talk shows, when this station meant for everyone sends out an uncharacteristically beautiful sound.

Boredom disrupted by the beautiful.

A gift from NPR, just for her.

The essay’s physical wait isn’t over, but a small miracle has occurred, creating a sudden internal intimacy in the narrator that is felt in how gracefully she describes the music. That’s the ultimate pull of this opening line. It urges you to read on, to find out more about the music, to find out more about why the sound of a delicate violin would stir Shihab Nye so, to journey on with her long after the drive-through window is gone.

Click here to read a version of Naomi Shihab Nye’s This Is Not Who We Are, provided by Oprah.

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