My guest author today brings her own unique experiences to storytelling. Please help me welcome MaryAnn Shank to the interview hot seat! Let’s peek at her bio and then we’ll find out more about what inspired her story.
In the 1960s MaryAnn answered President Kennedy’s call to, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” This idealistic young woman went to Somalia as part of the new Peace Corps, and when she returned home two years later even her own mother did not recognize her. Now, after fifty years, she has set her experiences in this exotic, mystical land to print. In between, MaryAnn served as a research librarian, a business writer, and a web coach helping entrepreneurs create new businesses. It took the screams of TV newscasters shouting about “Somali war lords” and the massive misrepresentation of Somalia in Black Hawk Down to persuade MaryAnn to put pen to paper to tell the real stories of Somalia, as she does here.
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
MaryAnn: Fifty years ago I spent two years in Somalia, with the Peace Corps. This was not the Peace Corps that you see in brochures, with palm trees and laughing children. This was the Peace Corps of extremes – live bullets, seething hatred…and kindness beyond belief. It was a very dramatic time in my life, and is a story that I have wanted to tell for a long time. It has taken me all of those 50 years to focus my thoughts so that I could write the story. I wanted honesty in the story, and I wanted the world to know that not all Somalis are represented in Black Hawk Down.
Betty: Which character arrived fully or mostly developed?
MaryAnn: We might suspect the main character, a woman, a lesbian. But that isn’t so. I actually had a difficult time writing her story. Perhaps she was just too close. A couple of men were much clearer.
One was Padre Vittorio, the head of the orphanage, the one intent on giving “his” orphaned boys a real chance at life. The power of his goodness stays with me even now.
Omar “Chicago”, our landlord, was another. There was a great deal that I have never understood about Omar, but I do know that he would have given his life to protect me. I depicted those men as clearly as I remembered them.
Betty: Which story element sparked the idea for this story: setting, situation, character, or something else?
MaryAnn: I was watching the news one day and saw the reports of the “Somali pirates” and how terrible the “Somali warlords” were. I nearly jumped out of my chair. There are no “pirates”, no “warlords” in Somalia. Most clans have elders they respect and look to for guidance, even to judge a dispute. These clan leaders are far more intent on maintaining peace among the tribes than in fighting them.
I heard this depiction of Somalis as “war lords” again and again. The news media had found a fear it enjoyed: African war lords.
Somalis are a strong people. They walk with their backs straight and eyes level, no matter their station in life. They have faced severe drought, devastating floods, centuries of foreign invasion. And yet they have survived. They are a proud people. They are tall, dark, and very beautiful. Of course they scared the daylights out of modern white men, but there was no need for the fear. Somalis are also among the kindest people I have ever known.
Bringing this duality of “strength” and “kindness” into one story was the real challenge. I opted to center the story on a young woman much like myself, one who knew first hand the intensity of emotions in Somalia. I wanted my readers to be able to relate to Somalis through the eyes of this young woman, so I opted to tell stories about her life in Somalia. Each story speaks to this duality of strength and kindness, even the stories with bullets flying.
Betty: Which character(s) were the hardest to get to know? Why do you think?
MaryAnn: It was very hard to get to know the Somalis themselves. They are a private people. I was intrigued with folk tales and songs, but they were reluctant to share even that with me. I didn’t learn the story of the Goddess Arawello until many years after I returned to the U.S. Somalis had been battered and ridiculed for so long that they held their culture close to their hearts. My being a woman confounded them even further, for they had woefully little contact with foreign women. The emotions they did express were extremely subtle, like they put on a “public face” whenever they saw a foreigner. They all knew what these public faces said, but I had a much harder time deciphering them.
And since I was writing about real experiences, I often included real people, especially real foreigners and real Peace Corps volunteers. The more I could “invent” a character, the easier it was to write about that character. Friends are hard to put into a story. I didn’t want my friends’ warts to dominate a story. I knew that we had all had our challenges in Somalia. But I wanted it to be real. It was a constant balancing act.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
MaryAnn: Fortunately, I didn’t have to do a lot of research. A lot of research simply would not have been possible; it had never been written. I was there, I knew most of it. But other Somali Peace Corps Volunteers were a huge help with details, like I had forgotten about the glorious pink bougainvillea on the government buildings. And one volunteer told me the story of his cat, which I had to include.
And my friend Abdi who lives nearby was kind enough to read the final draft and correct a few things, one even that Wikipedia had gotten wrong! Abdi is a Somali who lived in Baidoa, the town I was in, and he attended the Catholic school where I taught. We missed meeting in Baidoa by a couple of months. I left Baidoa about two months before he went to the Catholic school. But Abdi came to the US on a basketball scholarship and stayed, marrying a wonderful woman named Mary. We serendipitously met, discovering that we were neighbors. We’ve spent many hours talking about Baidoa life. He and his extended family here have been a magnificent source of information and inspiration for me.
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
MaryAnn: Lots. Each chapter became a story in its own right, and each story was revised many, many times. The only story that came intact was the one about Christmas in Baidoa and my conversation with Padre Vittorio.
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
MaryAnn: If Mystical Land of Myrrh were a poem, I would likely finish it in a few hours … or a few weeks.
If it were a business plan, I could whip that out in a few days … or a few weeks … something that I did for over a decade in the venture capital world.
If it were a web page, odds are that I would devote an hour or two to writing it before loading it up.
But Mystical Land of Myrrh isn’t any of those things. It is an historical novel, a biographical novel. A very personal novel. That is why it took fifty years for the words to be set on paper; fifty years for me to focus my thoughts, prodded no doubt by the unfair, shattering bad press of the U.S. government when the president put Somalia on the “no entry” list, when the media told the stories of Black Hawk Down and the Somali pirates, with barely a sentence devoted to the Somali point of view. It was all so wrong, but I didn’t know how to make it “right.” The Mystical Land of Myrrh is a small step in that direction.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
MaryAnn: I begin with handwritten sketches, usually over a cup of coffee at my favorite coffee house. That forms the “skeleton” of the story. For The Mystical Land of Myrrh the “skeleton” had to be trimmed down and down and down – I had just too many stories to fit into a book, so I had to do a lot of selection.
I also like to gather around me “things” that feel like the story. In the case of The Mystical Land of Myrrh, I brought out a real piece of myrrh, a small carving of a lion that a Somali did, and a carved headrest that nomads use. I put these in my display case (out of reach of my two kitties). Things like this seem to keep me grounded in the environment I want to be in.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
MaryAnn: “And” and “But” are the biggies. There always seems to be more to write AND those conjunctions do the job – lol.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
MaryAnn: I have two role models whose examples are with me every day: my two grandmothers. Both grandmothers were born in the late 19th century and lived to see the world transformed through two world wars and immense technology.
One grandmother raised two boys by herself, supporting the family with a one-pump gas station and a small apple orchard. She told me long ago that her proudest time was when she could put two decals on her front window: one for a son who went into the Army, and one for a son who went into the Navy. This was during World War II.
The other grandmother, a Christian Scientist, turned to nursing to support her family of five children and a crippled husband. Few occupations were open to women, so she chose nursing, in spite of her religion.
I am in total awe of the strength of character and resourcefulness of these two women. The challenges were simply dumped on them, and they responded without question, raising families that anyone would be proud of.
I know there are many women today who find themselves in similar situations, and I have but the highest respect for them all. I simply feel so blessed to find two such strong, loving women in my own family tree.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
MaryAnn: My coffee house, of course. I am also working on some children’s stories about a little fairy, and I find inspiration for her in a nearby park. She seems to scamper and hide behind bushes, just to tease me.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
MaryAnn: I am retired now. My former jobs – a research/children’s librarian, a researcher/writer for a venture capital firm, a web coach for entrepreneurs – all honed skills that I use daily now. I have indeed enjoyed my career and am pleased to live in southern Oregon where inspiration is contagious.
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
MaryAnn: First, just beginning to write is a major accomplishment. It is scary. It is a solitary task that no one understands until they try it themselves.
Second, finishing a book. “Finishing” is a tough word, for it is hard to “finish” anything artistic. There just comes a point where it has to be introduced to the world, and that is a major achievement. I am proud that I am able to speak of a people so sorely misunderstood, my biggest regret being that I couldn’t find a way to paint them more completely.
Betty: What other author would you like to sit down over dinner and talk to? Why?
MaryAnn: Shel Silverstein. I was a librarian when the book Where The Sidewalk Ends was first published. I have never seen poetry so enrapture children, and adults too. I don’t know that I could learn that much from him, for he is genuinely gifted, but I know it would be a raucous, wonderful dinner!
Betty:Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
MaryAnn: I am old enough to know that money isn’t the answer to anything. I treasure a nod or a smile from a reader, an acknowledgement that Yes … Yes.
Moira, a young Peace Corps Volunteer, and a lesbian, confronts a magical, sometimes terrifying land of Somalia. Ancient tales hold Somalia together while modern warfare tears it apart. Moira quenches her soul at the women’s watering hole, and in the classrooms of her students, while all manner of peoples – local clan leaders, nomads, earthy waitresses, Italian ex-pats and the orphans of the Catholic sanctuary – all pull at her energy. Over it all is the aura of Arawello, the Somali Goddess Queen, who once rose from Her people to save the nation, and who may do so again. So strong is the pull on Moira’s heart that in the end even she hardly recognizes herself anymore.
Buy Links: Amazon
That’s a fascinating background to The Mystical Land of Myrrh. I hope many people will read it to learn more about your experiences in Somalia.
P.S. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for my newsletter, which I send out most every month, including news like new covers, new releases, and upcoming appearances where I love to meet my readers, along with recipes and writing progress. Thanks and happy reading!