INTERVIEW: Susi Wyss

With humor and freshness, Susi Wyss’ debut novel, Civilized World, chronicles an Africa that westerners hardly hear about. Civilized World, published by Henry Holt, is not set in the bush with people struggling against the elements, soul-crushing poverty, or worried about being carried away by wild animals. Instead, the novel in stories follows a cast of middle class characters who are refreshing and vibrant with astonishing names such as Grief, Comfort and Why as they navigate much of the same terrain as their western counterparts: relationships, connections, loss, love, sorrow, and forgiveness.

Through these stories that include both African-born and western expatriates, Wyss demonstrates that despite cultural differences, we are bound by common threads, and both westerners and Africans live by social traditions and customs that on the surface appear vastly different, but in reality, reflect the same mighty effort to shape society and live in a “civilized world.”
Susi Wyss recently sat down with Rosalia Scalia to discuss the book.

Rosalia Scalia: I loved your book—it reminded me a little of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. How did you come to write this book, set in Africa, so different from what a westerner would expect African stories to be?

Susi Wyss: I’ve heard that comparison before—that the book reminds people of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, though I tried to give The Civilized World a wider scope. I wanted to write a book set across Africa because I’ve spent so much time there—as a child in the Ivory Coast and then as an adult managing health programs across the continent. I deliberately set out to write a book that’s less about what Americans read about in the media and more about day-to-day life. The African protagonists are more or less middle class. There is a middle class in Africa—it’s small, but it does exist.

RS: Your characters have interesting names, Comfort, Why, Grief. Where did that come from? And the days of the week signaling character traits?

SW: Those are real names. In Malawi, it’s not unusual to find nonsensical names like Address and Square, or even negative ones like Nobody. In Ghana, you find more positive names, like Comfort and Peace, or names that refer to the day of the week on which the person was born. One of the Ghanaian protagonists is named Adjoa, which means born on a Monday. Ghanaians believe that the day of the week on which a person is born determines their character traits.

RS: How did you set off to write the novel in stories? Which one did you write first?

SW: I wrote “Monday Born” [the first story in the book] first. After it was published in the Connecticut Review, a few of my friends were kind enough to read it and their feedback was basically, “I liked the story and the characters, but you kept me hanging in the end—what happens next?” I looked at that story, and two more I’d written since then, and decided that I, too, wanted to know what happened next with the characters. How might their lives intersect in different configurations and in different countries? I wrote the final story in the book last and it took me a long time to figure out what happens in it. All I knew was that I wanted to bring the story full circle to Adjoa and Janice, who meet in the first story and have unresolved business that develops over the course of book. I also knew I wanted to end the story on a note of hope.

RS: Talk to me about the Linda/Comfort story, “A Modern African Woman.”

SW: A good friend and neighbor of mine is married to a Tanzanian, and her mother-in-law came to the U.S. to take care of their first baby. Although she gets along fabulously with her mother-in-law, I started to wonder, what if they didn’t get along? What would it be like if they couldn’t see past each other’s cultures and differing views on how to care for a baby?

RS: Well, Comfort, the mother-in-law, meddles quite a bit, especially when she’s back home in Ghana.

SW: She does, but her meddling later saves Adjoa from making a big mistake.

RS: She meddles, but she’s not malicious. She’s well-meaning, even with Linda. Talk to me about Ophelia and Janice, two women who obviously want children but who don’t get along so well on the trip to the orphanage.

SW: In Africa, people assume all white people know each other and get along. When I was there, people would often point out to me where another white person lived with the expectation that we’d already know each other, or that we’d want to know each other. But I knew from the beginning that Ophelia and Janice wouldn’t get along, even though they faced similar sorrows, because they have such different personalities and values.

RS: Talk to me about Bruce. I found him a bit funny and the situation tense that Janice would try to convince herself she needed this man/relationship to become a mother. And the scene with the white butterflies is just wonderful!

SW: It becomes obvious on their trip in the Central African Republic that Janice and Bruce have very little in common and that Janice is with him for all the wrong reasons. But women can talk themselves into anything when it comes to men! The flurry of white butterflies—that really happened when I was a Peace Corps volunteer there. I was in a car on the road between the Dzanga-Sangha Park and Bangui, the capital, when they all appeared out of nowhere and made the car break down. I was struck at the time how much they like looked like snow.

RS: I was intrigued with Adjoa’s arm problems after her brother died.

SW: You know, illness is often linked to psychosomatic causes. The pain in her arm is linked to the way her brother dies, but the real cause of it is the burden of the secret about her brother she’s keeping from her family. Secrets weigh us down and eat at us, they cause us enormous pain.

RS: How difficult was it to find an agent?

SW: I had good luck with that. I didn’t have any connections but I contacted a few agents anyway—there aren’t many agents who take on short story collections, so the list was short. Within four months I had two offers—and went with the agent who’d been on the very top of my list. I was just really, really lucky.

RS: You named a number of Hopkins instructors in your book.

SW: That’s right. Ed Perlman—who’d been my thesis advisor—was a huge support in writing this book. He read different versions, and was always incredibly encouraging. And Margaret Myers gave me great feedback on one of the stories, in addition to being a source of inspiration because of her own novel-in-stories, Swimming in the Congo. Mark Farrington gave me advice on a very early and very bad draft of the first story and David Everett has just been a great source of encouragement all along the way.

RS: What’s next? I understand you’re working on a new novel. Is it harder or easier than the first one?

SW: The second book is harder, mostly because I was able to take time off from my job to write The Civilized World—I wrote the bulk of it over a period of about eight months. But for the one I’m writing now, I’m working 28 hours a week, and don’t have the same kind of time to devote to it as I did for the first one, so that’s slowing things down considerably.

RS: What’s this novel about? Is it also set in Africa?

SW: It’s a coming-of-age novel about a girl in the Central African Republic—I don’t want to jinx it by saying any more than that!

Susi Wyss will be reading at the April 510 Readings, held this month at Baltimore’s CityLit Festival this Saturday, April 16th, in the Fine Arts Department of the Enoch Pratt Library, Downtown branch, from 3:30-4:30. For more about Susi Wyss, go here.

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