Thursday, April 12, 2012

Guest in Progress: Julie Wakeman-Linn on Writing in Tanzania

In this report, guest writer Julie Wakeman-Linn follows up her previous post about creating writing space in her new life as an ex-pat living in Tanzania…what has happened during her time away from her real life?  (And, yes, how I love the format of the “letter” to a publication, as if we’re back in the pages of The New Yorker in the fifties with Janet Flanner and her “Letter from Paris.”)

Dear Leslie,
My year of writing by the Indian Ocean is ending and it has been amazingly productive despite being under heavy assault by life. I’ve had three stories accepted, created an anthology and published it, and my first novel, Chasing the Leopard Finding the Lion will be launched this month.
Several distractions dragged me away from my desk. My husband’s job morphed like international postings do, I was recruited to run a big charity bazaar, and my daughter was seriously injured in a hit and run accident.
The writing life anchored me through all these wild upheavals. The best news is that my daughter is making a complete recovery. The charity bazaar was a huge success, raising $40,000 in a single day, and my husband’s job shook itself out in a new better direction. All year I observed and recorded and even bitched at these twists in my Tanzanian existence.
But… the year, you ask… what do I do? I wrote daily and if I didn’t, I got unbelievably cranky. I set wildly ambitious goals. In May I tried to write or at least start a short story every single day in honor of Short Story Month. Daily I recorded oddities of Tanzanian life in journals, in emails and in a list that now runs to ten pages.  I planned to revise the second novel and then start on the third, the prairie novel. Well, something had to give. The third novel is notes only.
Two tasks reinforced my triple role as writer, editor and teacher. Last spring, missing my network and my writer friends, I volunteered at the Bethsaida Secondary school for Orphan girls. After a four week workshop course, their stories so impressed me that I worked with the girls to produce a beautiful anthology of their stories that is now a fundraiser for their school. It’s available through Amazon or ABC or you can email me.
Last summer I edited Issue 50: Best of Potomac Review. My PR editorial team had pulled together all the selections in an amazing collaboration of associate editors, poetry editors and all my interns.  I did the final edits and shepherded the issue through the publication process—all of this from 16,000 miles from the PR offices.  It is a beautiful issue. You can order it here.
Bookending my summer, I attended two writers’ conferences to re-connect with good friends and to study with one of my favorite teachers.  I returned to  Gettysburg and all my pals in June. In September, my time in Sicily studying with Margot Livesey and the Breadloaf crew was a week out of time. I love Sicily for its antiquities, its food and the wonderful people. It was hard to go back to Dar Es Salaam with the power cuts and the heat.
In contrast to other writing residencies, Tanzania has its own strengths. It was completely unlike VCCA with its near-monastic quiet of the day.  In TZ, the writing was special. When properly quiet and working, I could have been anywhere. My housekeeper Elris quickly figured out that I didn’t want to be interrupted. She would run interference, answer the door, deal with the pool cleaners, the guards, the gardeners or the handyman or fundi , as much as possible.  If some unavoidable daily crisis erupted, she’d stand in the door to my writing room and say, “Madam.” I would jerk to alertness and then she’d say so sorry to disturb you. She protected my work.
Tanzania is not normal for an American citizen.  It’s wonderful or terrible:  there is never ever an ordinary boring day. Extraordinary beauty of flora, fauna and the Swahili language inundate the senses.  In the ocean air, everything rusts, roads crumble, rains flood.  “Kiswahili Time” means ‘whenever’ but certainly not now. Tanzanians are unflappably polite even while they are lying or avoiding the truth.
The key to the writing life was the ocean. Staring at it from my desk or walking on the balcony, it was soothing against the zaniness of power cuts, Swahili time, and my initial loneliness for my writing network, my circle of friends.  Later, when I got inevitably connected to the ex-pat society, the ocean would draw me back to my desk, when life in Dar heated up with volunteer activities.
Living in Tanzania, while revising my second novel, the Zambian novel, has been enlightening .The two countries have cultures as different as Massachusetts is from Georgia, as Germany is from France. I will sift through my ideas and story starts and notes for another five years until hopefully I will return again to Africa. But for now, I am enjoying my last weeks, watching the ocean.   

ABOUT:  Julie Wakeman-Linn's novel, Chasing the Leopard Finding the Lion, which was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, will be published this April by Mkuki Na Nyota, an award-winning Tanzanian publishing house. A dozen of her stories have appeared in JMWW, Rosebud, Grey Sparrow Review, Santa Clara Review, Danse Macabre, and other journals. She blogs at Gecko Tails and her website is


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.