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“people still live their lives”

30 July 2011
by

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.

That is Susi Wyss on her new book, The Civilized World, a collection of interwoven short stories. It’s 226 pages long, but I read it in less than a day.

The different stories reminded me of expatriate women I know that have traveled to work in various parts of Africa. The first, “Monday Born,” that told the story of Ghanaian immigrants in Cote d’Ivoire reminded me of the research Claire Adida has done on immigrant exclusion in Africa. Another, “Names,” reminded me of a former student who has just spent her entire academic summer working in Malawi, at one point writing about the interesting names she had come across. And all of the stories that featured Ghanaian food reminded me of my recent trip with Karen Grépin and how much I loved jollof, red red, omo tuo, and especially spicy groundnut soup.

Though one of the first novels to get me interested in reading again was a story set in Africa written by an American, I have more recently made a concerted effort to seek out works by African writers. There are a lot of reasons why, not the least of which is the danger of a single story of Africa — particularly likely when always told by the same [types of] people.

There’s something about Wyss’s book, however, that makes me want to recommend it to others. First, she seems sincere in her hope “to represent the Africa I know and love, not the sensationalistic one people hear about in the media.” Her book also keeps its ambitions small, in telling the stories of just a handful of women. Finally, because of the way the book is written — as a set of interwoven short stories — it also allows Wyss to show the variation and [sometimes] continuity across African contexts.

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