Volunteer Andrea interviews Susi Wyss, winner of the Peace Corps’ 2011 Maria Thomas Award for Fiction.
Volunteer Andrea: How did you find out that you won the Maria Thomas Award for Fiction?
Susi Wyss: I was contacted by John Coyne, Editor of Peace Corps Writers, two days before the award was announced on their website. About a week prior to that, he’d informed all the finalists that their books were under consideration, but there were so many terrific novels by returned Peace Corps volunteers in the running that it was a really nice surprise to learn my book, The Civilized World, received the award.
Volunteer Andrea: How did you pick the various African settings for The Civilized World?
Susi Wyss: With the exception of Malawi, they’re all places I’ve lived in or visited. Often, I had a visceral memory—like the flurry of white butterflies surrounding a car in the Central African Republic or the ancient monasteries of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia—that I wanted to share with the reader. Part of the fun in writing the book was figuring out in which countries the recurring female characters might run across each other. Since two of the characters are Ghanaian, the most frequent setting is Ghana (for three of the stories), while the others are set in Côte d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Malawi and the U.S.
Volunteer Andrea: What tensions were you trying to convey in The Civilized World?
Susi Wyss: Other than the conflicts between characters, one of the tensions that emerged was between the modern world and traditional African culture, particularly the negative impact of economic development on African culture. Traditional values, such as respecting human relationships over material goods and revering old people, have been weakened as people take to the cities. In the opening chapter, one of the Ghanaian characters, Adjoa, watches helplessly as her brother—who lives with her in the city of Abidjan, far from the support system of their family—succumbs to the lure of fast money. That starts a downwards spiral that spans the book and affects not just Adjoa, but also Janice, an American aid worker.
Volunteer Andrea: What do you miss most about living in Africa?
Susi Wyss: I think what I miss most is the civility. Africans generally take time to shake hands, to exchange what we in the western world would dismiss as needless formalities. In the Central Africa Republic where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer, there is a local word—fono—that means to stroll around and talk to whichever of your acquaintances you happen to encounter. The aim when you fono isn’t to visit a specific person but just to interact. When people don’t have phones or email, they interact face to face, and it’s a much warmer interaction.
Volunteer Andrea: How is your life now influenced by your time as a Peace Corps volunteer?
Susi Wyss: One of the things my time in the Peace Corps drove home for me is just how superficial the cultural differences are that separate people. As I got to know Central Africans, I realized that we all have the same needs to be loved, healthy and safe, and that we share similar desires and dreams for ourselves and the next generations. That sense of shared humanity has stayed with me ever since and has influenced my writing. The Civilized World doesn’t leave out distinguishing cultural details, but it focuses more on what connects the different characters together as humans.
Volunteer Andrea: What are you working on now?
Susi Wyss: I’m working on a novel I started eight years ago about an African girl growing up in the Central African Republic and the Peace Corps volunteer who befriends her and returns twenty years later to find out what happened to her. It’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time, and I just hope I’ll be able to do it justice.
Prior to writing The Civilized World (Henry Holt, 2011), Susi Wyss spent nearly twenty years working in international health, mostly in Africa. In addition to winning the Maria Thomas Award, her book was named a “Book to Pick Up Now” by O, the Oprah Magazine. Susi holds a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University and currently balances her creative writing with her work at Jhpiego, a Baltimore-based international health organization. You can find her online at http://www.susiwyss.com.