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One year of Stronger than Death: What people wish I had done differently

The most critical pushback I have experienced for the story of Stronger than Death has been from American Christians. We are a hard group to please!

I told a story and tried to be as faithful as possible to the research, interviews, letters, and photographs used to uncover that story. But I’m telling the story of a woman I never met, who is now dead. There is, by necessity, interpretation.

I also told a story which intersects with my own life, which was why I made the ultimate decision to place myself in the book, something I tried hard to avoid at first. This means at times I interact with the story I’m telling. Some readers told me they wished I had presented my own opinions about Annalena’s choices more firmly, or that I had pointed out where I (or they, or they assumed that I) disagreed with her thoughts or behavior. Maybe they’re right, I’m not sure. This isn’t my story and it isn’t a story of a worldview or a religious view in the way some readers hold it. It is Annalena’s, filtered through mine. I stand by what I wrote, which does make some people with some worldview uncomfortable.

This is not a missionary biography, which some readers read it as, because she was a Christian Italian living internationally and because I am a Christian American living internationally. But Annalena said herself that she was not a missionary. It isn’t a “how-to” book of how to live among people of a different religion and culture or of how to treat sick people or of how to develop systems of care or of how to change people’s minds about religion. Readers don’t have to agree with her choices, I don’t agree with all her choices. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read her story. If I could only read things I agreed with, well, that doesn’t leave me with much of anything and would be pretty boring. When I read things I disagree with, I am forced to respond to it, forced to figure out why I don’t agree, what I might do differently. This is what living abroad does for me, I live among people who see the world very differently to how I see it. This is fantastic for personal growth.

This is not a book that presents “The Gospel,” meaning it does not present a step by step guide of becoming a Christian as Evangelicals understand it. There is no Bridge Illustration, no Romans Road, no Sinner’s Prayer. Which I am comfortable with for all kinds of reasons I won’t go into here (teaser for Book Two!).

There is just a story of a woman who chose radical love both for people and for Jesus. She took the words of Jesus seriously, more seriously than almost anyone else I’ve read about or known. Give to those who ask. You can’t serve both God and money. Blessed are the poor. And I do find that inspiring.

Imagine if we all did that: chose radical love. What a world! We might not be so angry, broken, and divided.

I do know that some people wish I had written a more religious book while others wish I had written a more scientific book and others wish I had written a “how-to” book and others wish I wasn’t a white woman writing about a white woman in Africa (there is a whole chapter to address that).

I wrote the book I wrote. I will end by letting one reader’s words stand. This was written down after I gave a talk at a school in Djibouti. The person who wrote it read it out loud during a small group discussion afterwards. I asked for permission to photograph it because I found the words so moving.


Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Barnes and Noble: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Amazon: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

One year of Stronger than Death: What has been the impact of this book?

Writing the book impacted me by the sheer joy of immersing myself in Annalena’s story. I have been challenged in how much I am willing to give up, in my idea of what it looks like to love people and to be a good neighbor, in how I think about Jesus and how I choose to embody my faith convictions.

I believe a little bit deeper that I am loved. How did this come from writing a book? I called one of my sisters while on book tour, almost in tears. I told her I felt like such a fraud, fake, idiot, what was I even thinking in putting my creative work out there and asking people to buy it and respond to it…She said some loving, gentle things, and then basically told me to knock it off. “Are you having fun? Do you think maybe you’re good at this?” she asked. “You aren’t forcing people to read the book or come to your events. They come because you wrote a good book and because they either want to meet the author, or they love you and want to support you.”

It was positively mind-boggling to accept this. To believe it. And yet, how could I not? I felt so loved. So. Loved. It was such a powerful experience to meet people across the country and to reconnect with old friends. I can’t even put words to it, and I’m a writer. Y’all moved me to tears multiple times.

The book has not changed my life in remarkable ways. People often ask how it is selling and I say, it could always sell better (go get it here)! I don’t really know exactly. I do know that I broke even with how much I spent on the writing and research process. Which means I earned approximately $0.00 on my time spent writing, okay a little bit more but it gets complicated really quickly. That seems about average for authors. Maybe? Where on earth does the idea come from that writers are rolling in money? Sure, a few are. But the rest of us hope to break even and when we do, we’re thrilled. We aren’t in it for the money and certainly not the fame – which I do not have and do not want. We are in it for the work and the story and the delight and the compulsion.

The book has led to beautiful conversations with Somali Muslims, with American Christians, with French Muslims, with atheists…with people from any place and any religious background. It has opened up new friendships and connections and increased my belief that people are supportive, caring, and kind. Sometimes. But enough times that I will settle there in how I view “us.”

I had a couple of book events in Djibouti and hosted a giveaway for free copies. Many Djiboutians can’t afford the luxury of purchasing a hard cover book, or any book. It was with great joy that I totally rigged the drawings to make sure local readers won the free books and I’ve since heard from a few of them that they are powerfully moved by Annalena’s story.

One told me, “I want to love and serve the poor like Annalena did. She was motivated by her love for Jesus, and I want to live in a similar way.”

My own increased belief that I am loved, new friendships, inspiring a few people to care for the poor among them, and giving people a book they are glad to have read…these are some of the gifts and impacts of the book in this first year.


Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Barnes and Noble: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Amazon: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

One year of Stronger than Death: Reviews Matter

Reviews are really important. I didn’t quite understand that before. But reviews and star rankings on Amazon, Goodreads, Indie bookseller pages…they matter in how the sites rank and place books. They help get eyes on books and help readers decide whether or not to invest time and money into a story.

So please, if you haven’t already, consider leaving a review at one of these places. And while you are there, leave a review for other books you’ve read. They don’t have to be five-star reviews either. I won’t feel bad if you give it your real, honest opinion. Also doesn’t have to be long. I’m a fan of leaving 1-2 sentence reviews. Just don’t be a jerk.

There used to be a notice on Stronger than Death’s Amazon page that the book had “issues” reported. This is because when it was first published, the wrong book had been loaded into the Kindle content. Meaning, everyone who pre-ordered or purchased the Kindle book for the first few days found a different book inside (a great book, but not the one they wanted).

This issue was fixed. A LOOOOOOONNNNNNGGGG time ago. Like the first week. But still, that stupid flag remained and I hated it. I think it has been finally removed, but once in a while it does show up again.

Leaving a good review can help conquer reader doubts about the book after they see that flag.

Here are some, from short to long:

“Could not put this book down. Very interesting true story of what it means to be selfless in a selfish world.” Mac girl

“I think everyone should know what it looks like to really love your neighbor as yourself, which is what Annalena did and in the greatest humility.” Deb Brunsberg

This is a hard, but inspiring read. It both horrifies and uplifts. The author did a fabulous job researching and compiling a well-written book on the life of a woman I had never heard of, but will never forget. This is a woman every bit as heroic as Mother Theresa but who insisted in living a life of quiet service to those most in need, without the recognition and accolades she so deserved. This would be a fabulous book for book clubs or for anyone wanting to know more about the deprivations and hardships in countries such as Somaliland. Kudos to the author for both bringing this story to light and for having the courage to live in such a hostile land herself. I feel like my review really doesn’t do this book justice, but it should be required reading to help our children understand some of the difficulties that region faces, to help adults understand the politics and turmoil of that area, to raise awareness in politicians, and to inspire each of us to live a more selfless life.” WiWise

“Interwoven throughout this biography is historical and cultural facts about the people that call the Horn of Africa home, but it is also a memoir of sorts as Rachel shares how she and her family were affected by Annalena’s murder. On top of all this, there is some journalist reporting, as Rachel shares her own thoughts and questions regarding some of the decisions that Annalena made. I believe that if you are interested in the Horn of Africa, humanitarian aid work, female genital mutilation, or Muslim/Christian relationships than you should read this book.” MD Mauer

“If you want to be challenged, if you want to love more, if you want to read how love changes lives, read this book. Annalena wouldn’t want to be made into a celebrity. She fought that her whole life. And she definitely wouldn’t want to be made into a saint. But she shows us how to live as a human fully — loving with all we have and loving every second of our days and nights.” Jane Hinrichs

“This book is deeply involving, and at times totally stark and grim, but it gives a vivid and authentic picture of a woman who was completely dedicated to the concept of service in love. Annalena perceived her call to serve the poor totally, with utter involvement and boundless determination. Although she was not a doctor, she was a magnificent organizer and meticulous record keeper, and turned out to be uniquely qualified to institute a “DOTS” (Directly Observed Therapy Short-Course) tuberculosis program among Somali nomads. It was, however, her personal charisma that provided the necessary motivation which convinced the patients to commit to and continue with the course of treatment that led to the extraordinary cure rates the program accomplished. The medical success story, though, was continually interrupted by war and acts of atrocity, and was eventually reversed when the scourge of TB was compounded by the HIV/AIDS invasion from other nations following the disruption of the Somali social structure and the increased political tension after the American reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the rise of ever more militant Islam. Although Annalena never proselytized, and indeed at one point had FGM performed on her own adopted Somali daughters in order to not challenge the prevailing beliefs and customs, she remained Christian in outlook and to some extent in observance. This inevitably led to the eventual resentment of her presence and success which caused her death in October of 2003.

Author Rachel Pieh Jones does a magnificent job of maintaining balance and integrity in her narrative. She is honest about the failings both of those who attempt to bring aid to the war-torn areas of the world, as well as the gory and corrupt local conditions which often stymie those efforts. Annalena was, of course, totally unique in her refusal to be limited by the bureaucracy of many self-serving groups, both religious and otherwise. She had a small coterie of backers in Italy whom she knew personally, and was to some extent supported by the WHO, but refused to let her efforts be subsumed and diluted by fund raising endeavors. The way she circumvented much of the bribery and graft that was considered obligatory at the time is a truly fascinating sideline. Though this book is very painful at times, it is also a deeply moving, rewarding and inspirational story.” Trudie Barreras

Buy the book!

Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Barnes and Noble: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Amazon: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

One year of Stronger than Death: Unforgettable Conversations from Book Tour

One.

In Washington D.C., I was preparing for my first ever book tour event. I felt nervous, out of place, uncertain of what to expect, and a little bit like a fraud – who would actually come out to hear me talk?! And then…friends, strangers, and even a family member showed up. Friends from my church in Minnesota, a young woman who had spent her entire life in Djibouti and whose mother helped me translate throughout my second pregnancy, David Brown journalist with the Washington Post, and my brother-in-law who came bearing gifts of snacks, a plant, and skull socks (don’t ask, I’m not sure!). At the second event, the former ambassador to Djibouti came and we took a selfie together. She lived in Djibouti before I had even heard it existed, but we know and love some of the same people.

Two.

In Colorado Springs I got to meet Dimity McDowell of Another Mother Runner. I totally had my own little fan girl moment when she came to my book event! I wanted her to sign my book, what a treat. Also Amy Young, author of so many wonderful books and whom I had not yet met in person. Internet people are real people, internet friends are real friends, go figure!

Three.

In Chicago worlds collided as I met for the first time the editor of some of my very earliest published work, in EthnoTraveler, and friends came from Indonesia, many friends from Djibouti showed up, and more internet people turned real.

Four.

In Minneapolis. Ah, Minneapolis. Afro Deli hosted the most wonderful book launch party ever. We packed out the place. I had hoped a few loyal friends and family would come and almost 100 people turned out. Chef Musa and Kahin were incredibly generous and joyful and it was such an honor and privilege to be welcomed into that space, for this book.

White Minnesotans told me at many events, how much they appreciated this book for how it opened up the world of their Somali coworkers, neighbors, and friends in a new way. They said it helped them think of conversational questions and topics, and that they hoped it could be a bridge to deeper relationships. Somali Minnesotans told me the exact same thing, in reverse.

At one event, two Somali Americans sat in the back, and we enjoyed a question and answer period so much that afterwards, they took my phone number, then called that night and said, “We have to keep talking!” I was leaving the country in two days so we had a quick breakfast in the morning and have stayed in touch. What I loved about our conversations is that we understand so much about each other – the American and the Somali parts – and barely needed extra explanations.

I was invited to speak to a class at St. Olaf University in southern Minnesota. When we lived in Somaliland, my kids played with a neighbor girl. When we fled, my daughter cried, specifically about not seeing this girl ever again. In 2018, this girl turned up at St. Olaf University in Minnesota as an exchange student. I invited her to come to my event and we had the most incredible conversation, as both of us heard stories from the other that we had never heard before about the aftermath of Annalena’s murder and our sudden departure. She said something I will never forget, and I loosely quote it, “We used to think foreigners were dangerous and shouldn’t live in our town. But because of Annalena, even though she was a white Christian, we now are open to letting other foreigners, even Christians, Americans, white people, anyone, live among us, because we have seen her love.” What a testimony to the power of how Annalena’s practical service has opened the way for ongoing partnerships and relationships.

At my last in-person book event, a Somali man arrived early and we started chatting. He said he grew up in Wajir, Kenya, where Annalena had initially worked. He knew her, and Maria Teresa, and others quite well. He remembered the Wagalla Massacre, after which he had fled the region and eventually the continent, to settle in Minnesota. Then he said, “You know how Annalena smuggled the list of names of the dead out of Wajir during the massacre? The person who carried those names out, that was me.” I almost fell over. He started to tell the story of getting that piece of paper that would expose the government’s crimes, from the town to the capital.

Through all these conversations, one thing stood out. I had the immense privilege of writing this story. But writing it wasn’t about earning Annalena glory (she would turn over in her grave) and certainly not for earning me glory.

It was for these stories, for honoring these memories, for forging these new connections, for moving into dialogue and conversation and relationship.

 


Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Barnes and Noble: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Amazon: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

One year of Stronger than Death: Learning and Humility

Celebrating the one-year birthday of Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa.


Typing notes from interviews in Italy at a park outside the once-fortress of Caterina Sforza, now turned into a prison.

So many note cards! I need to see my work and touch it and move it around, not just on a computer. This filled our living room and I refused to use fans because the cards would fly around. Imagine! I also refused to let anyone else from the family enter the room for weeks on end.

Did you listen to The Caliphate podcast by Rukmini Callimachi? I did and I loved it. Now, a lot of her reporting (for that podcast and other pieces) is being called into question. This is so disappointing, frustrating, infuriating, confusing. And she, like many others, is doubling down rather than admitting she might have made some mistakes, might have been misled, might not be immune to human fallibility. By doubling down, she seems to be making things worse. Can we not just admit that every single one of us will make mistakes? If we can’t admit our own, how will we respond to others’ mistakes? We need grace, we need so much grace, and I want to be always practicing grace on me and grace on you. I tend toward cynicism and critical spirited, so this is a check on myself.

Let’s start with the parts that make me nervous.

Why on earth would a writer spill the beans on things that aren’t quite right in her work? Partly because of my pride. I want you to know that I know they are there. But that’s weird because it means pointing out things you might not have noticed otherwise. So at the same time, it takes me down a notch – revealing the imperfections. So why do it?

Because I find it fascinating. That is literally how much of a word nerd and book lover I am. I love this stuff – understanding why and how mistakes get made and overlooked, digging into the writing process, mental games, and even the publishing aspect of it all. I nitpick because it is interesting to me. I expose the nits I find because it is interesting and because I wish other authors did this more.

And let’s be clear, I am not blaming anyone for these things except myself.

Oh the folly of trying to do anything with perfection.

I cannot tell you how many times I read this book. I even read it out loud to myself. I read it so many times I could complete sentences in my mind or tell you which draft page they were on. But that’s a problem because it means the mind skips over things, or reads words and spellings that aren’t actually there.

There are some typos. And y’all know how I feel about typos. But, I keep finding them in other books (and I’m not even an editor, how must actual editors feel when reading these things?!), which helps, no one gets this right all the time. Not even National Book Award winners. What the what?! Its true. Finding them in my own work helps me have more grace on others. Take the plank out of your own eye first, right?

There is a factual error which partly comes down to being a sentence I had in my mind one way but the way it came out onto the page was different. The Somali President I mention who is assassinated wasn’t the first Somali President. He was the first Somali President to be assassinated. Grrr. I hate that I missed that. Most of you probably didn’t even notice.

(Oh and guess what – if you buy enough books and we do another edition, I get to fix these things! So go buy it, give it to people, use it as a giveaway, go nuts!)

Maybe we shouldn’t admit to mistakes like this in public, as authors. I don’t know. What’s the proper protocol here? Humility and transparency seem best but I could just be hopelessly naïve.

All of us make mistakes. It is OKAY. Let’s do our best. Let’s accept that everyone is doing their best.

Grace. Gentleness. Humility. Kindness. Oh how badly we need these traits in 2020.

Now you can leave comments telling me what an idiot I am, both for telling you these things and for making the mistakes in the process. I won’t read them. Or maybe I will. Or maybe not…

Buy the book!

Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Barnes and Noble: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Amazon: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

 

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