LIFE WITH SU­SAN

STAN­LEY GAZEMBA

The East African - - FRONT PAGE -

Gar­dener and au­thor remembers the sea­soned editor

Creative peo­ple al­ways have a group of men­tors that they look up to for guid­ance, cri­ticism and – yes, com­pli­ments – es­pe­cially in the la­tent stages of their ca­reers when they are still de­cid­ing whether they are re­ally in it for the long haul or are just do­ing it for fun.

I equate these guides to the peo­ple who stand in a boxer’s corner in the ring hold­ing the towel, bucket and wa­ter bot­tle, wait­ing for the bell in or­der to point out where their charge is get­ting it right or blun­der­ing. I was for­tu­nate to have Su­san Lin­nee in my corner, a tough no-non­sense lady who was at the same time ex­tremely gen­er­ous with both her time and re­sources.

I had the good for­tune to work in Su­san’s gar­den, grow­ing her veg­eta­bles and tend­ing to her lawns and hedges in Nairobi’s Lav­ing­ton sub­urb long be­fore I be­came a pub­lished au­thor. This op­por­tu­nity brought me close to some­one who was not only widely read and trav­elled, but it also al­lowed me to ex­ploit her world knowl­edge to bet­ter my lot – and I did so shame­lessly, tak­ing ev­ery avail­able op­por­tu­nity to pick her brains on ideas that were de­vel­op­ing in my head long be­fore I put them down on pa­per. And she was ex­tremely gen­er­ous in the sense that she would take time to lis­ten, crit­i­cise and give di­rec­tion, with­out ever sound­ing con­de­scend­ing. I am cer­tain some of my ideas sounded out­right ridicu­lous. But the beauty with try­ing them out on her was that she al­ways said ex­actly what she thought; which is a rar­ity in this world.

My jour­ney to pro­fes­sional writ­ing started on an old Olivetti man­ual type­writer on which she had started out her own ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist, and which she had kept in tip top shape even as com­put­ers took over the world. When she learned I was writ­ing she ad­vised me to type my own work in­stead of tak­ing the hand­writ­ten manuscripts to pro­fes­sional typ­ists to have them type­set for the pub­lish­ers. This not only saved me money, but it also saved me the dis­com­fort of hav­ing a stranger read through my un­pub­lished script and – most im­por­tant – saved me the ty­pos that these peo­ple of­ten in­tro­duced into the man­u­script.

That Olivetti was like noth­ing I have ever ex­pe­ri­enced. The fonts were truly clas­sic on the page, just like they would ap­pear in a real book, and the smooth keys and the way they clat­tered on the drum was a lux­ury that com­put­ers robbed writ­ers of. It was sweet mu­sic to my ears as I laboured in the lone­li­ness of chilly mid-year Nairobi nights to com­plete my man­u­script, first pub­lished as The Stone Hills of Maragoli, and which has since been pub­lished as For­bid­den Fruit by The Man­tle of New York City. Su­san played a piv­otal role in the suc­cess of this book, and other subsequent ones. Apart from pro­vid­ing the type­writer, she was also my first reader and critic while it was still at the man­u­script stage; not to mention it was con­ceived in her gar­den! But writ­ers don’t just write out of the blue. Of­ten they are in­flu­enced by the world around them; and even that beyond them. In this age, any writer worth his salt not only needs to know the world around them in­ti­mately, but they also need to know a bit about the world beyond their im­me­di­ate realm. It is im­per­a­tive that a good writer knows about cul­tures other than their own. While in the more de­vel­oped world writ­ers are able to get fund­ing for travel and re­search while they are work­ing on their next project, in Africa that is a rar­ity. Which is where know­ing Su­san came in handy. She had a vast home li­brary stocked with books from ev­ery corner of the world. It was knowl­edge trove that I dove into, broad­en­ing my world view and knowl­edge of literature, art and mu­sic. It was this knowl­edge that fired my own imag­i­na­tion and in­spired in me the con­fi­dence to pen down my own thoughts and take on the gi­ants who had come be­fore me. And I wasn’t pay­ing a cent for it!

But life with Su­san wasn’t al­ways a stroll in the park. She had her mo­ments when you wanted to keep your dis­tance. For one, she had a very sharp temper that ig­nited like a flare. I pre­sume this came from her line of work. One of the places where stress lev­els are con­cen­trated al­most round the clock is a news­room, which is prob­a­bly the rea­son why most old­school news­room edi­tors were ei­ther chain-smok­ers or bat­tled prob­lems with the bot­tle. Dead­lines in that thank­less lit­tle world are their ev­er­p­re­sent night­mare. And when you work in such an en­vi­ron­ment most of your adult life, it is bound to take its toll. It must have been the rea­son she oc­ca­sion­ally flared up the way she did. But then, strangely, this anger pe­tered out al­most at once, and the next minute she would be laugh­ing and it would all be for­got­ten. It took me quite a while to learn this about her.

There are scores of other things we clashed about, most of which were di­rectly at­trib­ut­able to cul­tural dif­fer­ences. De­spite hav­ing spent years in Africa, the Amer­i­can in Su­san never quite left her, and it of­ten sur­prised me that she ques­tioned the pace at which things were mov­ing in Kenya. She may have been an old Africa hand, but it would seem like she never re­ally un­der­stood how the African did things; and she would of­ten be ex­as­per­ated to the point of tear­ing out her sil­ver hair. For­tu­nately, we na­tive African hands were al­ways at hand to re­mind her that this is not Un­cle Sam’s fa­bled land of op­por­tu­ni­ties where things move like clock­work; that the av­er­age African still re­tained some pri­mor­dial in­stincts that the New World had failed to erase.

Still, at the end of the day, there was al­ways a com­pro­mise. And it was al­ways re­fresh­ing to see her stern face dis­solve into a broad smile ac­com­pa­nied by a good hearty African laugh when the jokes were crack­ing; es­pe­cially so when you were soft­en­ing her up in or­der to whee­dle yet an­other “soft” loan out of her to bail out your other cousin back in the vil­lage –(she al­most al­ways obliged.) She will be missed greatly by those who truly knew her.

Su­san had a vast home li­brary stocked with books from ev­ery corner of the world. It was knowl­edge trove that I dove into

Stan­ley Gazemba, au­thor of The Stone Hills of Maragoli, is a writer based in Nairobi

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Nyaga

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