Shugri Said Salh was born in the desert of Somalia in 1974, spending her early years living as a nomad, and has been storytelling since she could talk. In 1992, she emigrated to North America after the civil war broke out in her home country.
In this post, Shugri discusses how her quest to know her mother lead her to writing her coming-of-age novel, The Last Nomad, the benefits of being patient, and more!
Name: Shugri Said Salh
Literary agent: Gillian MacKenzie, Gillian MacKenzie Agency
Book title: The Last Nomad: Coming of Age in the Somali Desert
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Expected release date: August 3, 2021
What inspired you to write this book?
A few things inspired me to write this unique story of mine. In Somali culture, we say “Waarimayside war hakaa haro.” This proverb loosely translates,“You are not going to live forever, so you may as well leave your words behind.” From a young age, I knew my story was unusual, even within my culture. I love listening to other people’s stories just as much as I enjoy sharing my own, and sharing our stories and experiences helps to bring people from different backgrounds together. But one of the driving forces that urged me to sit and write down my story, unique or not, was my quest to get to know my mother, who passed away when I was about six years old.
In The Last Nomad, I explain how my memory of her is like a mirage that refuses to give up the promise it once held. Whenever I think of her or see my mother in my dreams, she is standing in our backyard among her nine children. I can see that she is pregnant and wearing a guntiino, a sari-like garment. But when my eyes move up to see her face, the details end just above her neck. I have always been frustrated by not being able to see her face. When my oldest daughter turned six, the need to excavate my dead mother's story gained urgency. When I learned that there were no pictures of my mother, I became determined not to let her stories die as well. My book is not just about me: it encompasses three generations of my family, and the beauty of a waning culture. One of my favorite African proverbs says “When an elder dies, a library is burned”. I did not want any more stories to be lost.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
I think the whole process took me about five years. In the beginning, I only focused on writing and getting my story out, and worked on getting it to the level where it could be read and understood. I wrote during the week while still working as a nurse, and every weekend my friend Gayla and I reorganized and edited until we were happy with it. While the idea for my book didn’t change, it took a while to find the correct beginning to my story. Once we got that, it really sparked us. I initially had enough stories to fill three books, so the editing process actually took longer than the writing. It became hard to part with some of the stories—we were attached to so many of them. I had some more friends read it and give me feedback, both good and bad. This helped a lot. You have to let go of your ego if you want honest criticism. Fresh eyes also helped us pare down the book a bit more.
In the fourth year, we felt like the whole manuscript was done enough to have professionals look at it, so Gayla and I started researching the first step to getting a book published, which was finding a literary agent. We wrote and sent endless query letters, and in the meantime, I started telling my story to anyone who would listen. I ended up finding my literary agent through a friend of mine who writes children’s books. My agent, Gillian MacKenzie, was the perfect fit for me and was worth the wait. Our first conversation felt like two people who already knew each other. Literally an hour went by and it felt like only ten minutes.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
I had a lot to learn because this was my first time writing and publishing a book. In my naivety, I thought I would just need to hand over my finished manuscript and the publisher would do the rest. To my surprise, there were a lot of steps in between!
First I had to write an eighty-page book proposal for my agent to show potential publishers when I had the full manuscript right in front of me! Having to work within the specific format of the proposal was frustrating and confusing to me. Once I had a publisher, I was surprised to learn that although the contract was signed in 2019, the book would not be released until 2021. I kept asking “Why?” And then I found out: Edits, edits and more edits, fact checking, cover design, font and chapter heading styles, book jacket, author bio and photo, dedication, acknowledgements, choosing an audiobook narrator, and then when I thought it was time to sit back and relax, the publicity campaign started. I’ve been writing essays, answering questions, and doing radio, print and Zoom interviews (forcing me to deal with my bushy eyebrows and crazy pandemic hair).
One thing that really showed how inexperienced I was about the process was when my agent told me I would get a book advance. I didn’t understand why they were giving me money when the book wasn’t even published yet! My sweet-natured agent had to explain the whole process to me. Luckily for me, my publisher Betsy Gleick at Algonquin Books and the whole publicity team there have been patient, supportive, and have a deep sensitivity and understanding of my cultural background. They made everything so much easier for me.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
I think the main surprise was how hard it was for me, especially in the beginning. I was the kind of student who always scored high marks in chemistry, but if a teacher asked me to write an essay, panic set in. What kept me going was that I come from a culture that is rooted in storytelling. From the time I was a little girl, I listened to ancestral stories and folktales around the fire in the evenings after a long day of animal herding, and I leaned on this experience when writing my story. I also had to tame the English language enough to make myself understood. It’s worse than a disobedient camel! I have my own way of speaking that comes from the poetic Somali tradition and I had to keep that voice true. I am grateful to have friends like Gayla who understand my way of speaking and can help make the English correct without changing my voice.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I hope they will gain an understanding of a culture that is so different from their own. Every time we share stories and learn about each other we bridge a gap. I know I have been enriched by many books about other cultures and I hope my book does the same for my readers. I also hope my story will empower others and help them get through hard times like I did. I was born during one of the worst droughts in Somalia, I’ve been bitten by scorpions and snakes, chased by angry warthogs, escaped a civil war, survived a refugee camp and landed in Canada in the dead of winter and I am still here! I’m even still functioning! I believe that possibility for resilience lives in all of us.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
Be patient. It is a long, tedious process that will make you question everything, but it is worth it in the end. And learn to leave your ego somewhere in the forest (or the desert) and accept criticism gratefully. You will also get better at it as you go along. Good luck, I am rooting for you!