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. She is the author of the novel The Civilized World. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Where are you from?
I envy people who have a simple answer for this question. I was born in Washington, D.C. to Swiss parents, giving my sisters and me dual citizenship. Growing up, we spoke Swiss-German and understood we would return to Switzerland some day. Instead, my father's job brought us to Africa for three years, and then back to the U.S., where I felt more than ever like an outsider. As an adult, I spent almost as much time in Africa as in the U.S. because of my career in international health. Now, even though I travel less and have made a home for myself in the outskirts of D.C., that feeling of "outsider" continues to color my perception of the world.
Who are your favorite writers?
Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Amy Tan, Anne Lamott, to name just a few.
Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Memoirs of a Geisha inspired me to take the risk of stepping into the shoes of people from a different culture. Other books I adore for capturing setting and for their beauty of language include: A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, and Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
I like to pull out my djembe drum and hammer out rhythms I learned from a master drummer when I lived in Abidjan. I don't play as much as I'd like, though, because the noise tends to bother my dog, who is skittish from her first year living in an animal shelter in Okinawa. After so many years of traveling, I relish the feeling of falling asleep in my bed under my own roof. I like fixing things around the house, tooling around the yard, cooking up a batch of granola, having friends over and spoiling them with good food.
What is your favorite quote?
"A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song." (I've seen this quote attributed to Maya Angelou and also referred to as a Chinese proverb.)
What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
What compels you to write about Africa, rather than other places you know, like Switzerland or the U.S.? I write about Africa because most people outside the continent haven't had the same opportunities to visit it or to experience it that I've had. As a result, their impressions are largely colored by the sensational stories reported by the media-famines, the AIDS epidemic, civil wars. While those things exist, and the cultural backdrop of Africa is very different from the U.S., I want to show that people still live their daily lives, with the same joys and frustrations and desires all of us experience. I want to show characters who are like people I've known, sometimes struggling, sometimes succeeding-both buoyed and held back by their rich traditions.
What inspired you to write your first book?
I wrote the first three stories mostly as a way to start putting to the page the Africa I knew and loved-to explore how urbanization and globalization were contributing to the breakdown of traditional culture, to better understand how the challenges faced by African women and American expatriate women differed-and how they might also be similar. In that process, the five female characters took a hold on me. I realized that I wanted to know more about what happened to them, and how they might impact each other as their lives intersected in different and unexpected ways.
Where do you write?
At home in my study. On the wall I've posted a card I bought after I quit my job to write-it reads: "Leap and the net will appear." Back then, I was running on sheer faith that leaving my full-time job wasn't going to be the biggest mistake of my life.
The Civilized World
Henry Holt and Co.
A glorious literary debut set in Africa about five unforgettable women—two of them haunted by a shared tragedy—whose lives intersect in unexpected and sometimes explosive ways