Canadian author Savannah Grace chats about her book “Sihpromatum – I Grew My Boobs in China”, a memoir of her family’s extended travels in China and Mongolia and her atypical transformation from adolescent to young adult.
1. Could you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from? Where do you now call home?
My name is Savannah Grace, born and raised in North Vancouver, Canada. I’m the youngest and probably least adventurous member of a very adventurous family. By the age of 7 they’d already dragged me through 30 U.S. states on various family camping trips. At age 14 I was pulled out of school, this time to backpack around the world for an amazing 4 years. I’m 22 now and couldn’t be happier about the experience I was forced to endure. I’ve visited 98 countries thus far and because of these extraordinary experiences I was able to follow my dream of becoming a writer and have finally released my first book “Sihpromatum – I Grew My Boobs in China”. I’m currently living with my Dutch partner in The Netherlands, where I continue to follow that dream.
2. The title of your book is “Sihpromatum – I Grew My Boobs in China”. What exactly does Sihpromatum mean? When and how did you first decide on this title?
Honestly, Sihpromatum, pronounced SIP-ROW-MAY-TUM is just a word I made up which means “A blessing that initially appears to be a curse.” It actually derives from the word metamorphosis. This thought came because I liked the idea of a metamorphosis, representing transformation in my own life, but felt it was too common a word for me to use.
I didn’t want to make a boring, predictable title like “Family around the World” or “One Family, 4 Years, 80 Countries” or “Backpacking Family” or “Long Journey Home”. In fact, I didn’t want to have any of the words “travel”, “family” “backpack” “road” or “world” in my title because I wanted it to be something meaningful to me rather than obvious (which in marketing might not always be the best strategy) because for me, I feel like the story has a lot more depth to it than just some family holiday. It’s a tale of personal struggle and growth, family hardship and bonding, love, laughter, tears and ultimately about the power that the experience of travel can have in helping us all to understand and come closer to the humanity within us all.
My parents, partner and I were all sitting together discussing a title and metamorphosis kept coming up. It was then that my partner pointed out that I didn’t become a butterfly but rather the opposite, I went from my la-la, care-free butterfly world to a grounded into the earth, down in the dirt, realistic caterpillar. So then it was decided to use sihpromatum which I created from a reverse of the word metamorphosis. In time, it just developed into this “blessing that initially appears to be a curse” concept which to me expresses the trip in a million ways. Now we use it around the house all the time and whenever anyone gets down, we say “it must be a sihpromatum”. Sihpromatum is just our way of keeping a positive mindset, and believe me, it works!
I have had many people think it is a real word. Mark Barwell, author of “The Turning” thought it was some ancient, long lost Mongolian word which I found very romantic! I have had doubts about the choice in title because it is hard to remember, but if people feel the way Mark described then I think I’m doing something right. But really, if you think about it there is no such word for the phrase, “blessing in disguise”…Until now!
3. You mention in the book that you encountered some opposition to the idea of taking a hiatus from school to travel. An old cliché says “travel is the great educator.” How would youinterpret that statement in light of your experiences? Is there anything you would like to say to those who did not originally support the decision?
There were many people out there that disagreed with what we were doing, especially taking a teenager out of school for so long. The main person I would be responding to though would be myself and in that case I would like to tell my younger, worrywart self to stop stressing so much. Things work out. Stay positive. There is so much to see and learn.
Now I just sound like Mom!
I always think back on the time we were backpacking in Eastern Europe and we stopped to visit Auschwitz in Poland. It was one of the most heart-wrenching, touching lessons of all, one I will not forget. While I was there my peers back home, coincidentally, were in class learning about WWII and Auschwitz too. Although I wasn’t being tested on what I learned, I definitely walked away from the old concentration camps and gas chambers with a huge sense of gratitude and understanding mixed with stomach turning disgust.
Travel IS a great educator because you are impacted by the experiences and lessons you learn along the way. They become real and engraved in your brain. History comes to life, you interact with people you otherwise would’ve cast out and you learn to tough out a hard situation and push yourself past your limits and become stronger. It won’t necessarily teach you all the school subjects, but it keeps your mind working, processing, absorbing and reflecting. I learned life lessons that can’t be taught within four walls. I learned to appreciate and be grateful for what I have by understanding the living conditions and level most of the rest of the world lives in.
4. Your family members form a major part of the book. Were you close with your family members before embarking on the trip? How did your relationship with them change while traveling?
I always liked to think that we were a close family and we actually were, but there’s no denying that after sharing so many experiences for so many years, being glued to each other literally 24/7, you become closer than ever. If I think back on it, Ammon and I weren’t extremely close before I left, he being 11 years my senior. He was often irritated and annoyed by all of his younger siblings. But our relationship changed a lot while traveling as I matured. I think that his view of me changed from that snotty little brat sister into caring about me and taking on a parent role. He was forced to feel responsible for all of us. And I saw a side of him that I probably never would have been exposed to, had this trip not put us in so many diverse situations.
I was always Mom’s shadow and still am today but the trip added another dimension to our relationship. During the trip we were both equally clueless so that brought us to a level of equality.
I can imagine Bree and I would have grown apart as our peers would have become a higher priority with growing up, so I am extremely grateful that I was able to share all those incredible memories with her before we went our separate ways. Though now we are living on different continents we are all still extremely close.
5. Traveling with others can be difficult at times. Can you recall any particularly tense moments that divided the group during your travels? Were there any moments that brought you definitively closer?
Oh yes, there were definitely tense moments. We’d have to be saints or robots if we never had moments when we wanted to kill each other. I don’t want to give away too much, but there was one time when Bree had a fist-fight with Mom in India. That story will probably make it into book 2. There were many times crossing Asia when Mom and I had to pull Ammon and Bree apart as well. And of course there were a few cases where if there had been an airport nearby, Mom would have sent Bree or me home. Fortunately we were usually travelling far from any airports and things cooled down between us quickly. These were just the normal cases of us trying to adjust to each other and outbursts caused by the stresses and challenges of the way we were travelling. It’s not easy and that boils over from time to time.
6. Where is the one place you have talked about in your book that you yearn to return to? Were there any places that you could have done without?
Yangshuo! Sometimes I wonder if it is so mystical and lingers in my mind because it was one of the first places we visited and I was easily impressed or if it really is as impressive as I remember. I do plan to go back. It was just so magical and beautiful. I absolutely loved Asia.
Places from this book I could have done without? No, I really think every place was worthy. I was underwhelmed by Songpan because I had been expecting a lot out of it, but I still wouldn’t take back any of it.
7. On marathon train and bus rides, what was your favourite way to pass the time?
If it’s a train, definitely playing cards is my #1 pastime. We were playing an ongoing game of cards throughout the entire trip. Each round played the winner was given 3 points, by the end of the trip our scores were up in the ten thousands… you can imagine how many rounds we played. Reading would be my second choice. On buses you can’t play cards as easily, though we did manage to play cards even then, so it was mostly reading. That was always funny too because Bree and I are such dramatic readers either screaming, laughing, gasping or crying in response to the plot. We’d usually attract dozens of stares while reading in public.
8. Upon returning from your travels, did you find it hard to adjust back to “real” life? Were there aspects of the “nomadic” lifestyle you have come to miss?
Oh yes, it was definitely a culture shock returning “home”. In the end I think it was actually harder going back than it was going out. I had wanted so desperately for the first 1.5 years to go home, but in the end I went back and had a hard time relating to my best friends. Their spoilt attitudes and ever demanding materialistic mindsets mixed with my simple joy for things they overlooked such as ice cubes, hot water, street lights and clean sheets didn’t mesh as well when I returned. They only wanted to party and gossip and had no interest or understanding of what I had been through in the last 1.5 years, trekking in the Himalayas with the sherpas or traveling over the Khyber pass and along the ancient Silk Road.
I also felt overwhelmed with guilt being surrounded by all the luxury. Things like buying a $300 pair of shoes that I’d once been jealous of now made me sick, knowing how that money could CHANGE a person’s entire life. That was the culture shock of the first time I went home, but it wasn’t long before we set out again. When the nomadic lifestyle really ended, it was nice but also difficult. I still have a bit of a hard time finding my roots and have a hard time satisfying my constant need to explore. Sometimes I feel lost and miss that lifestyle because even though we were nomadic, I did have a routine, goals and lifestyle which suddenly stopped. Since then I feel like I have had a lot less routine. I seem to be flittering about not knowing what I need to do.
9. Publishing a book is a major accomplishment. Is there any advice you could give to would-be writers looking to publish their own book?
Do your research, don’t jump into anything. 100% recommend editing, you need to take it seriously if you want others to take you seriously, so make sure you do everything to make it the best you can. Along the way I have learned a few things and am still learning for my next book. One thing I’ll do differently next time is market and promote the book BEFORE it is even published. It’s just one big learning process. Make sure the final product is something you love and are passionate about, that’s the freedom and greatness of self-publishing. Put that extra effort to make it look professional, be patient and never give up. If this is your biggest dream DO NOT let the doubts, discouragement or anything else stop you!
10. Finally, “I Grew My Boobs in China” is the first volume in your planned series. Could you give readers a sneak peek at what is still to come?
There will be a few more books in the series to come. It would be impossible for me to wrap up the entire 4 years and 80 countries in one book. The next installment covers our overland journey through Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Western China, Tibet, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka and India. The characters will continue to grow and develop, with the group dynamic ever evolving and fluctuating. New characters are introduced because a few friends from home flew out to join us for a few weeks each at different times. You will experience parts of the silk road, Tibetan monasteries, the strength of Nepali sherpas in the incredible Himalayas then live in the colors and chaos of India and then contrast this with the relaxing beauty of the Maldives. And of course with all the adventure, humour and excitement that was found in my first book too.