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


*contains affiliate links

One year of Stronger than Death: Love and Service During a Deadly and Contagious Pandemic

Covid has made me think about tuberculosis many times (I also wrote about the way it connected with my cancer treatment here). Contagious, deadly, different people’s bodies have different responses, the feeling of being made a pariah or a leper, fear, societal changes, new vocabulary, life-long repercussions even when cured, global, no great treatment (yet), no vaccine (yet), racial dynamics, economics…

The overlaps could go on and on. And there are also the medical workers saving lives, risking their own lives, choosing to care for the vulnerable, and doing this in the middle of, in some places, broader violence and danger.

Like Annalena Tonelli did with tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa.

If you want to read about how a woman and a community faced their own “pandemic”, read this book. Read about how she consistently chose love and service over fear and rejection. Read about how she kept on choosing joy and life, even during war and terrible loss.

One reader asked if I hold Annalena as an idol. I don’t think I go to that extreme but I do admire, respect, and feel challenged by her. I know her weaknesses and the ways she frustrated some of the people around her. I know she wasn’t perfect and I don’t even come close to emulating her my own life. But I do find an example in her, an inspiration, ideas for how to live a little bit better, how to love a little bit more.

Every day this week, the 1-year birthday for Stronger than Death and the 17-year anniversary of Annalena’s murder, I will share experiences that I’ve had over the past year in talking about the book.

I’ll tell you about some mistakes and Lord knows I hate mistakes. About the value of reviews and how that little yellow “this book has issues” button that used to be on the Amazon page made me so mad. I’ll tell you about some of my favorite experiences while on book tour, share some reviews, share some reader concerns/issues, and give an update of the impact of the book. Be sure to check back in each day this week for these little tidbits.

And if you haven’t read the book yet, check it out! Also leave a review! Look at how excited I am, I’m using exclamation points!

*affiliate links

Books Are Not Babies and Will You Have a Party for Me?

I cringe at the comparison of books to babies.

I am not pushing a book out. No one is cutting a book out. Ebook, paperback, hardcover, donn’t matter. Not coming out my body.

I do not expect my books to call me even after they have existed for 18 years or more.

If I put a book on the roof of the car and forget it there and drive away, I won’t really care.

I don’t need to buy my books a passport or hold their hair back while they barf when they have the flu.

Unless I get a world record size paper cut, I do not expect my books to leave scars on my skin.


Let me tell ya something.

When I realized I would not be anywhere near my book on the day it officially publishes, I had a one second flash, one second, of the moments after I gave birth to twins. I had the not-awesome experience of birthing one child vaginally (with no pain medication) and one child via c-section (with all the pain medication) because of an emergency.

I glanced at the first baby as I was getting a spinal tap and then she was gone. I glanced at the second baby while I was getting sewn up and then he was gone. And then my husband was gone. I had just pushed out a baby and the docs chopped out a baby, doubling the size of my family in the span of 42 minutes and I was all by myself. I didn’t even know where they were. (Later I found out, one was in the NICU with my husband and one was in a crib in the nursery).

So, as annoying and utterly insufficient as the books to babies comparison is, I confess I thought of it as my book’s publication date looms.

There are loads of copies of the book out in the world. People are reading it. People will be reading it as of October 1.


I haven’t touched it.

I haven’t cracked that lovely hardcover spine.

I haven’t held it up and danced around the room.

I haven’t taken any photographs with it.

I haven’t cut into a box of books and laugh-cried while my family rolled their eyes.

And yet you, if you’ve ordered it, will have it in your hands! I’m so jealous.

You know how people say publishing a book doesn’t change your life? Well for me, it literally will not change my life. I will go for a run, go into the office at school, hang out with my husband, miss my kids, and wonder what you’re thinking as you crack open that spine and start to read.

I have a favor to ask.

I will have a launch party (and it will be super fun and in Minnesota and please come if you live nearby, I’ll send all the details later and I’ll have another in Djibouti and if you live nearby please come) and I will get my hands on a book. Eventually. But not yet.


Will you launch for me?

Will you party for me?

Will you take a photo with the book for me? And post it in all the places so we can celebrate together?

Will you put a review up on Amazon or Goodreads for me?

I need you guys to celebrate pub day for me.

That would be super duper amazing.

If you’re the hashtagging type, use #strongerthandeath

Headshots. Schmeadshots.

I love having my photo taken.


I am all about makeup and cute clothes.


It is super easy to smile and look natural while also looking cute and smart and interesting and trying not to look like the dorky, nerdy, clueless person I am.



I had new headshots taken.

I wanted a picture that makes someone think, “Oh, hey! I bet that lady wrote a great book. I would really like to read that book. I would really like to sit down with her over coffee and talk about the things she writes. She looks like someone I can trust, someone welcoming.” I kind of also wanted to look like someone who vacillates between wild hope and desperate cynicism. Not sure that came across but that’s where I sit, swinging between those two extremes and wishing that I could just settle into the happy middle. That’s what, I think, you’ll find in a lot of what I write.

The old pics were almost seven years old. In those seven years, schtuff happened. Schtuff that continued to develop both the hope and the cynicism.

I got cancer. Took it out. It came back. I graduated two out of three of my children. They haven’t come back (yet). I got more wrinkles, lost a lot of hair, developed new scars. Started to get more of those weird bumps that just pop out with age and also some of those funny red dots. What are they anyway?

Jessica Lee Gardner took the pics. We took them at Villa Camille, the cutest new cafe in Djibouti. I didn’t sweat through my shirt until we were nearly done. We did have to stop a few times to wipe the sweat that was dripping, dripping I tell you!, off my face from the exertion of sitting still and moving my face muscles.

Ah, the natural Djibouti glow.

It is funny, the things you know and notice about your own face that probably no one else even thinks about. I have to be careful of curls boinging out at strange angles so as to avoid looking like I have horns. I can see my scar in some of the pictures, depending on how my head is tilted or if I swallowed right when she snapped. I see the veins and lines and they all tell the story of me. Jessica said she didn’t notice any of these things and never even thought about the scar. So. We are all vain and we should all knock it off because no one else cares.

Here are a couple, you might see a variety of them in all the places we writers put our faces.

And if you are in Djibouti and want some pictures taken, Jessica is amazing. Check her out here.



By |August 14th, 2019|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: , , |Comments Off on Headshots. Schmeadshots.

Pirates! Poverty! War! FGM! On Manipulating Headlines to Capture a Reader

How the heck do writers get people to care about other parts of the world?

Editors often tell me (in my many rejection letters) that North Americans don’t care about the Horn of Africa.

Unless I can come up with a salacious or titillating angle (both intriguing words), why would a reader in, say, Minnesota, care about Djiboutian girls making bead jewelry? Maybe they like working their hands to create beautiful things. Maybe they are serving their families by earning extra income, maybe they are developing math, business, negotiation, marketing, and general work ethic skills, maybe they are forming a beautiful community.


Who cares?

Clearly, I do. And clearly, I hope you do. But writing about community, creativity, and beauty isn’t click-bait the way other things are.

(By the way, you can see the handiwork of these young women on Facebook and Instagram and you can even purchase it as of April 2 here)

Stories of hope and joy out of a far away region and culture, struggle to capture the attention of a general reader.

This is why Syrians are crying out for people to care but few respond. It is why many have not even heard of the war in Yemen, what has recently been called the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years, even with Syria in the picture.

How do writers up the readership on stories from this part of the world which I find inherently fascinating and which I love, but about which few outsiders care?

Here’s what I came up with (while on a run with a friend who also cares about this part of the world):

It has to be about FGM. Female Genital Mutilation. Or pirates, poverty, war.

So here are some possible headlines, to get clicks, readers, and attention. Whether or not they actually represent reality is highly debatable.

For a story about Dreamer and Co, the bead business:

Girls Saved from Pirate Marriages Turn Trash to Treasure

(granted, they were never at risk of getting married to pirates, but I suppose its possible, in the sense of all things are possible)

For a story about the most amazing place I visited in Hargeisa, Somaliland during Marathon week, a place that almost made me cry:

They Don’t Have Clitorises but They Have a Library!

(because who wants to read about a library in Somalia, even if it is the most inspiring place in the entire city)

For a story about the incredible strides Somali women are making in medicine:

Raped in the Middle of the Day, Now a Medical Student

(as if sexual assault has anything to do with her capability as a student or doctor)

For a story about the running club in Djibouti, Girls Run 2:

With No Bras, Underwear, Socks, or Shoes, Girls Still Run

(as if the most important thing about them is what they lack, rather than what they have to offer)

Of course FGM, piracy, poverty, rape, war…all these things are significant issues for the region, for the world. I’m not saying they don’t matter or shouldn’t be written about. I write about them, I talk about them with friends. And there very well could be a place in an article about the first class of medical students to graduate to write about assault and trauma. But using those kinds of troubling details as the main point or a kind of requirement for getting through the editorial doors, skews stories and perpetuates the ‘exotic’ otherness of people, rather than our shared humanity.

We are all broken, broken in unique ways. We can also all celebrate unique stories of healing and beauty, while lamenting the brokenness, without dehumanizing each other.

Maybe it is wishful thinking, to imagine people care about those far away and outside our own borders. There is both too much brokenness and too much beauty to expect anyone to hold it all. I can’t summon the emotional energy to care about all the joys and problems of the world. But at the same time, there are billions of us. Surely there is room for all the stories, surely we can diversify a little bit more, stretch our minds past presidents, past preconceived ideas, past our comfort zones.

Surely we can tell all the stories, in all their dark and beautiful complexity, without insisting on twisting them.

(and no, I will not be using any of those headlines. Preempting the fail of sarcasm online here)


Go to Top