Sweet Susal Stebbins

Features Issue 200 Jul, 2018
Text by Dinesh Rai

Most people will remember Susal Stebbins as one of those sweet persons who would never say anything to upset you. Always polite and attentive to what you were saying, she was a soft spoken person who never raised her voice. To put it simply, she was a very nice person who seemed to get along with everyone.

I may have met Susal at Mani Lama’s in Lazimpat, while she was studying photography under the seasoned photographer. But I got the opportunity to get to know her better when she was leaving her job as editor of ECS and I was about to step into her shoes. During the transition period, she brought me up to speed on where the magazine was at. We discussed future articles and the style that she had maintained. I guess it was her interest in photography that had brought Tom Kelly’s photographs to her attention and his portrait of a sadhu was about to appear on the cover of ECS with a photo feature inside, followed by a photo spread by Jill Gocher (yes, ‘Jill with the Hasselblad’). It was the February issue of 2004 and I had just quit Boss magazine to join ECS. It was her last issue as she was preparing to leave Nepal soon.

I remember Susal telling me, “I changed my name from Susan to Sujal, to avoid confusion as our previous editor was Susan Fowlds.” She decided to go by the name Sujal Jane Dunipace at ECS. However, Sujal was too difficult and unfamiliar a name for expatriates to pronounce, so she was generally known to everyone as Susal and that’s the name that stuck.

Susan Leigh Stebbins was born in Minneapolis, Minn., on 5th August 1958, to Robert E. Stebbins and K. Ann Stebbins. She attended Model High School in Richmond from where she graduated and received a BA in Music Performance from the St. Louis (MO) Conservatory of Music. Oboe was the instrument of her choice, a musical instrument that is not heard too often. She had also completed her MA from the School for International Training in Conflict Management and International Education. Susal and I had much in common; we were both into music and photography. We had also both become editors and that brought us close.
She worked for social change organizations as a teacher, lobbyist, fundraiser, grant writer and editor, both in the U.S. and in Nepal.

After returning to the U.S., Susal got married to William Collins and seemed happy. I would see her photos with him on Facebook with that engaging smile. However, she was diagnosed with a serious illness which was to change her life abruptly. She was already into Buddhist philosophy and the spiritual aspects of life and this new development pushed her further into it. She always maintained a close friendship with Nepali people living in the U.S., especially among Buddhists, and talked about it when she visited Nepal. She believed in karma and found meaning in the way she had come across certain Nepalis back home and thought they were destined to meet; she thought they had a part to play in her life. 

Susal spent her final years teaching intercultural communication at the School for International Training (Brattleboro, Vt.) and Mindfulness at Hampshire College (Amherst, Mass.). She had fully embraced Buddhism. She visited Nepal before she fell ill and the last time we met was in New Orleans Café & Bar in Thamel where we had dinner. Dinner time was filled with an interesting conversation about life in general and her philosophy. She also talked fondly of the Nepali people living in America whom she had befriended and met as often as possible. I updated her on friends we had in common and discussed the usual problems we face in our everyday lives in Nepal. She seemed to be doing alright back in the States, leading an active life, inspiring others. Reading about her in publications in the U.S. one gathers how much she was contributing to other people’s lives, because she cared for other people. She helped those in need, and in Nepal she was focused on the marginalized people of the Terai.

Susal died on 15th July 2016, in Dummerston, Vermont after a year-long struggle with a debilitating illness. She was 57 and is survived by her husband, William Collins; her mother, K. Ann Stebbins and two sisters. I came to know her only after she had decided to leave Nepal, but we had so much in common that we bonded instantly and shared ideas like old friends. The image that comes to mind when I think of her is of a relaxed Susal, sitting at the opposite end of the small table at New Orleans Café, sipping on a milkshake, looking very calm. I will always remember her smile; it was so warm and loving. It was a smile that said “I care for you.”


Mani Lama remembers: Susal came to me to study photography for one semester. She was a very friendly person and was always helping people. She spent a lot of time helping people from the Gandharva community who are known for their profession as gaines, the traveling minstrels. She was so dedicated that they accepted her in their community as one of them. She took many of them to the U.S. and even from there she supported those living in Nepal.

She will be missed and remembered always.


A Writer’s Reminiscence – by Baishali Bomjan

The last time I met Susal was the first time we bonded as writers and most importantly as women. I didn’t know her much beyond the scope of our work until we spent one last afternoon at her residence in Lazimpat before her departure from Nepal. We talked for hours that day, about my life, love, thoughts and plans, her incredible life in Nepal, falling in love with its people and culture. I sensed both an unspoken sadness for leaving a place she called home for years and yet witnessed her enthusiasm and excitement for what was to come in the next phase of her life. I left that day, never to see her again, with two ceramic plates and bowls each and a gas cylinder; I never asked her why she gifted me them.
I joined ECS magazine in the year 2003. An aspiring writer then, I vividly recall the first few days at my new office. Having made a transition from a bustling editorial team in my previous work, ECS seemed to me to be a rather quiet zen place. I had one more person in the editorial team and had been told that Susal, the then editor came to the office only twice a week. My first introduction to her was hence through an email. I had two assignments in the first week—first, to go over the past issues of the magazine to get a better grasp of its vision and style; the second, and more urgent one, to take up a half completed story started by a former writer. The magazine was to go to print within a week so I had a few days for research and a few more for writing. I was a bit nervous to actually meet Susal in person, but when I finally did, her big smile and warm personality immediately put me at ease. My first article, aptly titled by her ‘Life in a Click’ was published soon after. I couldn’t have asked for a better editor to show me what good writing entailed. I got to work with her only for a few months but I learnt three key lessons to grow in this sector:

1. Write true, write simple, and write from the heart, no matter your subject. No jargons, No show-off, No exaggeration.
2. Maintain editorial integrity. I saw how fiercely assertive she would be while negotiating with the marketing and creative teams.
3. Know your subject well. I was amazed to learn of her knowledge of Nepal and the Nepali community. At times she seemed more Nepali to me than myself.
Years later, we found each other on Facebook and that’s how we remained connected. To me she has been my quiet inspiration. I never got to tell her this, but 15 years later, across two countries, I still have those two ceramic plates.