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The Civilized World

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Susi Wyss on Writing The Civilized World

Susi Wyss, author of The Civilized World

I can't point to one particular experience that inspired me to write The Civilized World. Instead, it's a culmination of my experiences from the time I lived in the Ivory Coast as a child through my career managing health programs in Africa.

After completing my master's degree in public health, I worked for over a decade, traveling to more than a dozen African countries and living in two of them, before the notion of writing fiction even occurred to me. During that time, I listened to people's stories, paid attention to my surroundings, and watched the world around me. I listened to a Burkinabè friend complain about being hauled off to the police station in Abidjan because he wasn't carrying any ID. I watched two Ethiopian boys fight each other with walking sticks near the falls of Bahir Dar. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic, I came across a flurry of white butterflies on the road from the Dzanga-Sangha Park to Bangui, and was struck by how much they looked like white snow. Maybe that was the beginning.

Or maybe it goes back further than that. Every writer needs skills of observation, and mine were honed in my childhood. I was always an outsider. As children born in the United States to Swiss parents, my sisters and I spoke Swiss-German at home. I didn't fit in at school—I wore the same clothes two days in a row, even my lunches of liverwurst on rye bread seemed all wrong. When my family moved to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, for three years, I was more of an outsider than ever, but I didn't feel the same pressure to blend in. Then we returned to the United States, and I felt like an impostor again. I learned to scrutinize my peers as a means to fit in—skills of observation that would also serve me as an adult in my international career, and, finally, as a writer.

When I began to write fiction as a way to explore my impressions of Africa, I consciously tried to represent the Africa I know and love, not the sensationalistic one people hear about in the media. Yes, famines exist, as do civil wars and AIDS. But people still live their lives, with the same joys and frustrations and desires all of us experience. I pictured characters who were like people I'd known, often struggling, sometimes succeeding—both supported and held back by their rich traditions.

By the time I wrote "Monday Born," the first story in this collection, I'd almost completed another master's degree, this one in fiction writing. Carving out writing time between trips overseas, I then wrote "A Modern African Woman." Another year passed before I received a visit from a Ghanaian friend who had moved to Malawi and told me about some of the Malawian names she'd heard. In Ghana, names are considered self-fulfilling, so she was shocked to hear people called Nobody, Why, and Grief—or, nonsensically, Address, Square, and Tonic. I knew she'd given me the seeds of a story, but it wasn't until later that the voice finally came to me to tell it—that of Ophelia, an expatriate woman with an obsession for names that masks a personal sorrow.

Around this time, Connecticut Review published "Monday Born." Several of my friends who read it complained that it left them hanging—they wanted to know what happened next to Adjoa and Janice. I looked over the three stories I'd written, and realized I, too, wanted to know what happened to the five characters in them. In what ways and what settings might their lives continue to intersect?

By this time, I'd decided to take a two-year hiatus from my job to write full time and finish a manuscript. I wrote the remaining stories over eight months, the characters becoming more layered with each story and asserting themselves as their lives took them in directions I hadn't anticipated. By the time I came to the last story, I knew I had to return to the beginning—to Adjoa and Janice and a pair of statues that had foreshadowed their misfortune. I knew, too, that this time the statues would serve a more noble purpose, and that the story would end on the same note of hope I have not just for my characters, but for Africa, as well.