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The Civilized World

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About The Author

Susi WyssSusi Wyss

Susi Wyss's fiction is influenced by her twenty-year career managing women's health programs in Africa, where she lived for more than eight years. She holds a B.A. from Vassar, an M.P.H. from Boston University, and an M.A. in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University.... More

photo: Esther Wyss-Flamm

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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.

1. The main characters in The Civilized World are all women. What common bonds do these women share? What divides them?

2. Ophelia discusses the power of names with Philip, telling him that a name "can leave a psychological imprint." Do you believe that's true? Adjoa lists for Janice the qualities associated with her name—do you think her name fits her personality? Do you think it's possible that she is who she is because of her name? What about the names of some of the other characters, such as Comfort?

3. What do you make of the mysterious pain Adjoa feels in her right arm? When does the pain seem to flare up most frequently? How does the loss of Kojo affect Adjoa?

4. Certainly there are some major cultural differences between life in the United States and in Africa portrayed in the novel; despite this, there are still also many overarching similarities. Think about Comfort and Linda, and Comfort and her mother-in-law, for instance. Can you think of other examples? What do these similarities seem to indicate about human nature?

5. At one point Janice thinks, "What did it mean to be civilized anyway?" She asks Bruce regarding the Baka women, "How do you know whether their quality of life is better or worse than ours?" What do you think? What does it mean to be civilized? Is any one way better than another? What do you think the novel has to say on this matter?

6. Janice feels most at home in Africa; Ophelia feels uncomfortable and out of place there. To what do you attribute this difference? Are they simply different women with different tastes? Or do you think they have different expectations for their lives in Africa, expectations that are in some ways self-fulfilling? Do you agree with Gifty's assertion that: "Life is like a mirror . . . if you look at it well, it will return the look"?

7. Watching Philip at one point, Ophelia thinks to herself that she "wanted to reassure him that she would change back into the person she once was. . . . Once the baby joined them, she would be the best mother and wife he could wish for, they would be a family, and everything would be fine." Do you think this is a reasonable thought? Does Ophelia truly believe it herself?

8. Think about Janice's relationship with Bruce, and Adjoa's with Kwame. Do you see any similarities between the two? Consider Ophelia and Philip as well. Do you think the women are trying to convince themselves that these relationships are something that they're not? If so, why?

9. Why does Marvin make Linda so uncomfortable? What did you think when Peter assumed that Marvin's friends were black? What does the situation with Marvin reveal about Linda and Peter's relationship?

10. Because the novel is structured the way it is, we are able to see many characters both through their own eyes and through the eyes of the other characters. How did your views of some of these characters change after witnessing them from another perspective? Did you find any of the characters to have particularly incongruous views of either themselves or others? How does the use of this technique further illuminate the characters?

11. Each of the main characters feels fearful at one point or another—this seems less true of the male characters. Do women generally feel more vulnerable to unsafe situations than men? In the final story, Janice vows to help her daughter "grow into a fearless and self-assured young woman, despite the reality of a world that could knock you off your feet when you least expected it." What role does this vow play in Janice's decision at the end of the novel?

12. This novel is made up of nine stories—what does this structure lend to the novel? The final story is the only one told from two perspectives—Adjoa's and Janice's. What do you think the purpose of this is? Do you think the ending is a hopeful one?

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