In five African countries and one US city, the five female protagonists of The Civilized World navigate expectation, trust, and risk, their lives intersecting in meaningful and surprising ways. In her debut novel of collected stories, author Susi Wyss tells the tales of two African women and three American ones — aspiring young businesswoman Adjoa, expat aid worker Janice, foreign-service wife Ophelia, busybody Comfort, and her American daughter-in-law Linda — as they at first repel one another but eventually come to understand that their humanity and compassion are what render them truly civilized.
Raised in the United States and the Ivory Coast, Wyss, like The Civilized World‘s solitary, rootless Janice, worked for many years managing health programs in Africa. And, like Janice, Wyss — who visits Mrs. Dalloway’s (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, May 14 — once found herself surrounded by thousands of white butterflies while driving in the Central African Republic; just as they do in the book, the butterflies got into the car’s fan, stranding Wyss on a remote road. “The image of those butterflies fluttering thick as snow has stayed with me ever since,” said Wyss. “It just took a long time before I could figure out how to use them in the right story.”
A resident of Washington, DC, Wyss has lived in or visited almost all of the places in The Civilized World, “from Bahir Dar in Ethiopia and the Dzangha-Sanga Park in the Central African Republic, to the capital cities of Abidjan and Accra.” The only one that she has not traveled to is Malawi, the setting for “Names,” one of the book’s most haunting stories. “I never planned to write a story set there until a Ghanaian friend who worked in Lilongwe told me about some of the Malawian names she’d heard. In Ghana, names are considered self-fulfilling, so she was shocked to hear some people called Nobody, Why, and Grief — or, nonsensically, Address, Square, and Tonic. I knew there was a story in what she’d told me, but it took some time before I found the voice to tell it: that of an expatriate woman inexplicably obsessed with these odd names. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the story that I finally understood the reason for the narrator’s obsession.”
As for the novel’s structure — that of nine short stories, each of which could easily stand on its own, but all of which profit from their relation to the others — it was born of affection and curiosity, as many series and longer works are. “I wrote the first three stories in this collection over a period of three years,” Wyss recalled. “It was a slow start because I had a crazy work and travel schedule, and I didn’t know that I would make a book out of them. When the first story was published in the Connecticut Review, several of my friends who read it told me it left them wanting to know what happened next to the characters. I looked over the three stories I’d written, and realized I, too, wanted to know what happened to the five female characters in them and how their lives might intersect in different ways and in different countries.” 4 p.m., free. 510-704-8222 or MrsDalloways.com