Life with Susan Linnee, the old Africa hand from Minneapolis

Saturday November 11 2017

American journalist Susan Linnee.

American journalist Susan Linnee, who has passed on. She worked as a consultant editor at the Nation. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

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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 This not only saved me money, but it also saved me the discomfort of having a stranger read through my unpublished script and – most important – saved me the typos that these people often introduced into the manuscript.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 old-school newsroom editors were either chain-smokers or battled problems with the bottle. Deadlines in that thankless little world are their ever-present 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.

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