Stories from the Real Africa
Susi Wyss’ portrait of African life rings true| From Alumni Books | By Susan Seligson
Wyss laces her novel with searing detail: a car stalled by a blizzard of butterflies, a plumber named Nobody. Photo by Esther Wyss-Flamm
Susi Wyss knows Africa the way few Americans do. She lived in Ivory Coast for part of her childhood, when her father worked for the World Bank in Abidjan.
And as an adult, Wyss (SPH’90) lived in several African countries, working in public health. This wealth of knowledge and experience is reflected in her first book, The Civilized World: A Novel in Stories.
The Civilized World is a series of nine gentle, interlocking tales of ordinary Africans and white Westerners reaching across the cultural divide. Mostly well-meaning, the characters narrow that divide with varying success. But their encounters paint a picture of African life and values that is more sedate, and rings truer, than the grim images dispatched through the filter of Western media. In one of the novel’s threads, an enterprising Ghanaian woman tries to make amends for the crime her twin brother committed against a trusting American who had employed her years earlier in Cote d’Ivoire. In another, a white American clashes with her Ghanaian mother-in-law over the care of her baby; the intrusive grandmother, clinging tightly to the norms of her homeland, is named Comfort. Another story unites several of the characters in Ethiopia, where an American couple has traveled to adopt a son. Wyss laces her spare narrative with searing detail: a car stalled by a sudden blizzard of butterflies, a Malawian plumber named Nobody, a Ghanaian visitor’s disgust and amazement as she witnesses for the first time an American scooping up dog feces with a plastic bag.
The 45-year-old Wyss, who has a master’s in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins as well as a master’s in public health from BU, now lives in the Washington, D.C., area. Bostonia spoke with her about The Civilized World (Holt, 2011), its long gestation, and her perspective as an American in Africa.
Bostonia: Did you first conceive of the book as separate stories?
Wyss: Yes. I basically wrote the first three stories over a period of five years, very slowly, and then when I had the three stories I looked at them and said, I want to know more about these characters and how their lives might intersect. And it took off from there.
Having lived in several African countries, do you think most Americans have no sense of the real Africa?
Oh, definitely. I think that there’s this thought that Africa is what you read about in the newspaper—AIDS and coups and southern Sudan. People associate Africa with crises. The notion that people have day-to-day lives and they’re not that different doesn’t hit home. That’s one of the motivations of my writing, to make Africa more accessible, so people don’t have this us-and-them mentality.
Susi Wyss’ book is a series of interlocking tales of ordinary Africans and white Westerners reaching across the cultural divide.
The book gets to the heart of the racial and cultural divide. Living so long in Africa, did you ever bridge that divide?
Yes, it’s always there, and yes, you can bridge it. I come from a multicultural background: my parents are Swiss and I grew up in the United States. I’ve always been an outsider, and I’ve always had to bridge the cultural divide, even between the United States and Europe.
Working in public health for many years, were you mostly inspired or disillusioned? Did you burn out?
I still believe in public health programs, but I also recognize their limitations. I think aid programs help people, but only to a certain level. Western programs deal with a Band-aid approach for more immediate health problems. By not dealing with underlying causes, there’s no end in sight.
Have you always written?
I came to it late. Through high school I dabbled in writing. But when I went to college I felt like writing was not a serious career; it was too frivolous. I felt this way in part because I lived in Africa for three years as a child, and I felt like doing something about the situation there. Public health was a way to do something. It took me maybe 15 years before I finally felt like, oh, maybe I do have something to say. I wrote for many years before I wrote this book. It didn’t feel frivolous any more.
How often do you return to Africa?
Since I quit my job in 1996 I haven’t been back. Before that I was going three or four times a year. I’m sort of waiting for the travel bug to hit me again. I’m sure it will at some point.
What writers have inspired you?
There are five authors whose books are cited in the back of my volume, including Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) and Edwidge Danticat (Breath, Eyes, Memory). I also like Jhumpa Lahiri (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97), and I love Sherman Alexie. I recently read In the Kitchen by Monica Ali.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel about the Central African Republic, where I was a volunteer. It’s going very slowly because my first love is short stories. There’s a real difference—a short story is serial monogamy and a novel is like a marriage. You’re stuck with the project for years, and you have to love it in a long-term way. A short story is an intense experience, with an epiphany at the end. You can move on to the next one before the excitement wears off. This is part of growing as a writer. I’m ready to be in it for the long haul.