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
When Adjoa leaves Ghana to find work in the Ivory Coast, she hopes that one day she'll return home to open a beauty parlor. Her dream comes true, though not before she suffers a devastating loss—one that will haunt her for years, and one that also deeply affects Janice, an American aid worker who no longer feels she has a place to call home. But the bustling Precious Brother Salon is not just the "cleanest, friendliest, and most welcoming in the city." It's also where locals catch up on their gossip; where Comfort, an imperious busybody, can complain about her American daughter-in-law, Linda; and where Adjoa can get a fresh start on life—or so she thinks, until Janice moves to Ghana and unexpectedly stumbles upon the salon.
At once deeply moving and utterly charming, The Civilized World follows five women as they face meddling mothers-in-law, unfaithful partners, and the lingering aftereffects of racism, only to learn that their cultural differences are outweighed by their common bond as women. With vibrant prose, Susi Wyss explores what it means to need forgiveness—and what it means to forgive.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
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About the Author
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. The Civilized World is her first book. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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.
Read an Excerpt
Adjoa had been going to Madame Janice's every week for the last three months, but she still couldn't put her finger on why her stomach clenched and her shoulders stiffened every time her twin brother, Kojo, drove her to the white woman's well-kept house. Madame Janice was a perfectly pleasant American lady who seemed to appreciate Adjoa's massages. Other than the African masks and statues displayed prominently in the living room, other than the rather rude night watchman, there was really nothing about Madame Janice or her home that could account for Adjoa's anxiety.
Rolling her shoulders in an effort to loosen them, Adjoa guessed her unease had more to do with the drive itself, particularly since it was nighttime and the old car that Kojo often borrowed from a friend made loud clanging noises every time he shifted into a new gear. Abidjan was not the kind of city where two Ghanaians ought to be meandering about in the dark in a clanging car. Kojo knew this as well as she did — she could tell by his silent concentration, by the way his eyes narrowed into thin slits as he picked the streets he drove on, avoiding the ones that were rumored to have police checkpoints.
Adjoa was often able to read her twin's thoughts, and she knew, watching him now, that he was thinking about last week's drive when they'd been pulled over by an Ivoirian policeman. He'd asked for Kojo's papers, examining them for so long that Adjoa began to wonder if he could read. He claimed there was a fine for broken mufflers, a heavy one he could overlook for the reasonable sum of 1500 CFA francs — the mere cost of two cold beers. It took fifteen minutes for Kojo to negotiate him down to 500, and the policeman had leered at Adjoa as he took the money. "Beaucoup de graisse, pas comme les gôs Ivoiriennes," he'd muttered appreciatively. Lots of fat, not like the Ivoirian girls.
Please God don't let us run across one of them tonight, Adjoa prayed, as the car made its noisy way down the street. She leaned her head against the headrest and gazed through her open window at the half-constructed concrete mansions looming in the darkness — colossal, abandoned structures in huge lots of overgrown grass. When had it become like this? Twelve years ago, when they'd come to Abidjan to find work, Ivoirians had welcomed foreigners, especially to work as domestiques and day laborers. With her beauty-school degree, she found jobs at various salons, working her way up to hairdresser at the Hôtel Ivoire. Meanwhile, her brother found a string of construction jobs in a city that seemed to expand and grow like the belly of a pregnant woman. The problems seemed to start when President Bédié publicly complained that foreigners were taking jobs from Ivoirians, blaming them for the country's worsening economy. How conveniently he'd overlooked that his own ethnic group, the Baoulé, were Akan people who'd migrated long ago from what was now Ghana.
Adjoa let loose a sigh and leaned her head closer to the window to catch a warm breeze. If only they had enough money saved up to go home. It didn't take an expert to see things were just going to get worse. The bubble of hope following General Guéï's coup d'état last Christmas Eve had already burst. Basic prices were going up, and the rent for their one-room cinder-block house had nearly doubled — their landlord's attempt to either gouge them or get rid of them. Even with all of this, they might have managed if construction hadn't come to a virtual halt and her brother no longer found work.
"Sometimes I wish we could just go home," Kojo said. Adjoa looked at his profile. He had recently taken to wearing his cap backward — a look she'd told him she didn't like. Still, beneath the cap was the same Kojo, the twin who regularly started discussions that joined seamlessly with her trains of thought.
"Soon," she promised. Only a week ago, they'd calculated it would take another six months — if there were no surprises — to save the additional 200,000 CFA they needed to open a beauty salon upon their return to Accra. Over the years, they'd mapped out all the details. Adjoa would be in charge of the beauty treatments, hiring and overseeing staff for routine services like manicures and braiding hair, while providing the more complicated ones herself. Kojo would use his construction skills to transform a rental space and keep it in good working order. He referred to it as an investment, clearly enthralled by the prospect of being his own boss, but Adjoa thought of it differently. She envisioned being known in her community — why not in all of Accra? — for running the best, friendliest, and most reliable salon. Women would come to her exhausted from tending to children, households, and jobs, and they would be treated like queens just long enough to leave refreshed and reenergized. She'd not only be helping other women, she'd also finally be recognized for it.
"You call six months soon? No, Adjoa, we have to find other ways to get money." Kojo turned the car into Riviera III, the neighborhood where Madame Janice lived. The residential street was dark and quiet, with an almost eerie absence of people. "For instance," he continued, "why not ask Madame Janice to pay more for your massages?"
Adjoa shook her head. "I don't know if that's a good idea. She already pays ten thousand for a single hour. That's more than I get paid for a whole day's work at the hotel."
Kojo slowed the car as he turned onto Madame Janice's street. "In my eyes," he said, "it's better to return home with our pockets half full than being shipped back in coffins, all our savings spent on our funerals."
Adjoa turned to give her twin a sharp look, even though his eyes were still on the road. "Kojo," she said, "where's your good sense? You know better than to say things like that."
"Twelve years in a place like this is enough to chip away at anyone's good sense," he muttered, as he pulled the car to a halt in front of Madame Janice's villa.
"Just remember where we're from, Kojo," Adjoa said. "Remember the hands that fed you." She shouldn't need to remind him that their honest and hardworking family — no matter how poor they might be considered by others — was rich in common sense. Their roots were the one thing that had kept them grounded this far.
Instead of answering her, Kojo leaned back on the headrest and sighed. Adjoa pulled down the visor and glanced at her reflection in the lighted mirror: a round, makeup-less face, her straightened hair pulled back into a bun. She patted down a few hairs that had come loose in the wind. A God-fearing woman, her brother always called her.
"Will you wait for me here," she asked, "or should I take the woro woro home?"
"I'll wait," Kojo said, reaching beneath his legs to pull a small transistor radio from beneath the front seat.
Adjoa raised herself out of the car and shut the door. She carefully brushed at the folds of her dark blue skirt and tugged at the back of her blouse to loosen it where the sweat had glued it to her back. Madame's villa was hidden behind a high cement wall, painted gray and embedded with broken glass on the top to discourage thieves. All along the empty street, similar walls with glass or iron spikes enclosed the other homes. Stray branches of bougainvillea planted on the inside of Madame's garden had escaped and were splayed out like snakes, weighed down by the thick blossoms barely visible in the dark.
When Adjoa rang the doorbell, the security guard, Maurice, called out from the other side of the metal gate, "Qui est là?"
"C'est moi," she said. "Adjoa."
"C'est qui, 'Adjoa'?"
She sighed. As if she hadn't been coming here every Wednesday for a good three months. "La masseuse."
She heard Madame Janice open the sliding door of the living room and call out to the guard to let Adjoa in. As Maurice finally opened the front gate, he took a few steps backward, his arms stretched out as if to protect Madame's red Mercedes-Benz behind him. Adjoa ignored him and walked toward her client.
"Good evening," Adjoa said, clamping her mouth shut before the word madame could escape. Janice had told her more than once not to call her that, after which Adjoa stopped calling her anything. Janice sounded much too familiar.
"Hi, Adjoa. Come on in," Madame Janice said, waving her into the air-conditioned house and quickly sliding the door shut against the mosquitoes and the sticky, humid night. She wore jeans and a T-shirt, her straight brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, and Adjoa wondered — not for the first time — how old she might be. Her best guess was that she was in her mid-thirties, about the same age as Adjoa.
"You have no idea how badly I need you this week," Janice said. "My neck is in knots, complete knots."
"I'll do my best," said Adjoa.
"I'm sure I'll be putty once you're finished with me. Would you like a glass of water?"
Adjoa shook her head. "No, thank you. I'm ready when you are."
"Okay," Janice answered, turning down the hall toward her bedroom. "I'll call you as soon as I'm ready."
Swathed by the delicious air-conditioned air, Adjoa looked down at the overstuffed sofa and wondered yet again whether she should take the liberty of sitting down. She decided — as she always did — to remain standing.
In three months, all Adjoa had learned about Janice was that she'd lived in Africa for thirteen years, she'd come to the Ivory Coast to work for an American organization, and she lived alone. She tried to glean clues about her client by looking around the living room, but there were no personal photographs, no clutter to reveal whether she had any hobbies or special interests. The living room was a sparsely furnished, wide-open space with a light-gray tiled floor, bright-white walls, and a sweeping archway leading to the dining room. One door led to the kitchen, another led to the hallway toward the bedrooms. Adjoa wasn't sure how many bedrooms there were, but in the past she'd counted five closed doors when she walked down the hallway to Madame Janice's bedroom.
It was a large house to live alone in, she thought, even for a white person. If she herself lived in a place like this, she would fill it up with family; she didn't have children of her own yet, but there were plenty of them in her family back home. Adjoa particularly liked the living room — this was what she wanted her beauty salon to look like: bright, wide open, and clean. Not small and cramped and dirty, like the neighborhood salons where she'd first worked, towels gray with use and balls of hair gathering in the corners.
Adjoa looked at the shelves against the wall, filled with carved African statues. As usual, she eyed them suspiciously. Some of the objects were obviously made for tourists, but why risk having any of them out in the open? Though Adjoa was no more superstitious than anyone else she knew, it was clear that exposing sacred objects was dangerous — an invitation for bad spirits to enter the house. She'd hinted at this last month, but Madame Janice had missed it entirely, going on instead about how she enjoyed being surrounded by souvenirs from all the African countries where she'd lived over the last thirteen years.
"You must be eager to return home after such a long time," Adjoa had said, struck by the fact that Janice had been away from her homeland even longer than she and Kojo had.
But Janice had merely shrugged her shoulders. "I'm used to moving around a lot," she said. "When I was a kid, my family moved to a new town every year or two. Besides, the States don't feel like home anymore; it's just a place to visit."
Recalling Janice's words as she waited for her, Adjoa felt sad. Madame Janice had choices — she could live anywhere she wanted, yet she didn't seem to belong anywhere. Adjoa, on the other hand, who knew exactly where her home was, couldn't be there until she had the means to set up a business to provide for herself and her family. How unfair the world sometimes seemed. She scanned Janice's thirteen-year accumulation of souvenirs, finally settling on a matching pair of male and female statues, about twenty centimeters high, with bulging eyes, arms akimbo, and headdresses colored with blue powder. Madame Janice had pointed them out to Adjoa once, referring to them by a name she couldn't recall, and explained that the figures, which represented twins, were carved by the Yoruba in Nigeria, where twins were even more revered than in Ghana. Apparently, when a twin died young, the Yoruba made a statue of the dead twin to house his or her soul, so that the dead twin wouldn't come back to harm the living one.
Why were there two figures? Adjoa wondered. Could it mean that both twins had died? No, she reproached herself, this was not a time for bleak thoughts. She pulled her eyes away from the statues and rested them on an enormous blank TV screen instead. She was relieved when she heard Madame Janice's voice calling her and hurried down the hallway without looking back.
In the bedroom, Adjoa found Janice lying on her back on the bed, dressed in panties with a towel spread underneath her and a bottle of lotion placed on the nightstand. As if readying herself for prayer, Adjoa lowered herself onto her knees at the side of the bed. She poured a pink pool of lotion on her hands, rubbed them together briskly to warm the lotion, and then began to massage the woman's neck and upper chest, feeling the small, pronounced bones beneath the slack skin. She used soft motions, afraid that rubbing the skin too hard, with so little flesh underneath, would leave bruises. As she massaged a shoulder, a sigh swept out of Janice's lungs, like a hushed gust of wind during the small rainy season. After rubbing each arm, Adjoa finished with the hand, the webbing between the thumb and forefinger, and gave each finger a light tug.
Adjoa thought of asking Janice about the twin statues but worried that her employer might wonder why she was looking so closely at things that didn't belong to her. While Janice didn't hesitate to ask Adjoa questions about her, Adjoa didn't feel it was proper to reciprocate. She squirted another dollop of lotion onto her hands and began massaging Janice's stomach and legs. Sometimes, though, she wished she could be as direct as her client. The first day they'd met, Janice had immediately asked her about her name.
"I have two names," Adjoa had explained. "Ataa Adjoa. Ataa means female twin, and Adjoa means a girl born on a Monday. I don't use the name Ataa anymore because it confuses people to call my brother and me by similar names; he's called Ata, for male twin." She pronounced Ata with a short a and Ataa with a stretched aa, even though she knew that Janice's American ear probably couldn't hear the difference. She didn't bother to explain that Kojo had dropped Ata around the same time for the same reason.
"Does being born on a Monday have any special meaning in your culture?" Janice asked.
"It's just our tradition to name children after the day of the week on which they're born, though many people think a person's qualities can be predicted by their name. Monday-borns are said to be quiet."
Janice had smiled and said, "That certainly seems true in your case."
Adjoa finished massaging Janice's feet. She was breathing deeply, as if she were sleeping. Tapping her on the shoulder lightly, Adjoa whispered, "It's time to turn over." With her eyes still closed, Janice turned onto her stomach. This time Adjoa started from the bottom up, the backs of the legs, the buttocks, back, and then neck. Modesty had prevented her from telling Janice the other traits typical of Monday-borns — that they were believed to be hardworking, disciplined, and loyal. Nor did she mention that despite their reputation for being quiet, Monday-borns were not to be taken for granted because they were also strong-willed.
Adjoa felt tight clumps of muscle in Janice's neck and spent at least ten minutes trying to release them. Then she closed the bottle of lotion, tapped her again on the shoulder, and said, "I'll be waiting in the living room."
"This time you have to ask for a raise," Kojo said, his eyes scanning the road ahead of them.
"I know, Kojo." It had been a long week, starting with Kojo going out without his identity card. He'd had the bad luck of taking a bus that was pulled over at a makeshift checkpoint and, with no money to pay off the police, he'd spent several hours in jail. For days afterward he sulked at home, not even bothering to look for work. On top of this, during their weekly phone call home at the nearby télécentre, their eldest brother, Kobby, informed them that their mother had been checked into the hospital after what appeared to be a stroke, and they needed money for her care. Adjoa had of course gone immediately to the Western Union office, trying hard not to think of the possibility that she might not see her mother again. Instead, she went over the numbers in her head, counting up their remaining savings, calculating how many more months it would take to save the money they still needed. She already knew that the most they could borrow from the bank in Accra was half the cedi equivalent of the total 2 million CFA they needed. So far, they had saved 800,000 of the remaining million — until last weekend, of course. That had set them back 50,000. Still, with just 250,000 to go, they were so close — couldn't Kojo see that?
Excerpted from "The Civilized World"
Copyright © 2011 Susanne Wyss.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Monday Born Adjoa and Janice, Côte d'Ivoire,
Names Ophelia, Malawi,
A Modern African Woman Comfort and Linda, U.S.A.,
The Civilized World Janice, Central African Republic,
The Precious Brother Salon Adjoa and Comfort, Ghana,
Waiting for Solomon Ophelia and Janice, Ethiopia,
Life Is Like a Mirror Adjoa and Comfort, Ghana,
Calculations of Risk Linda, U.S.A.,
There Are No Accidents Janice, Adjoa, and Comfort, Ghana,
Meet Susi Wyss,
On Writing The Civilized World,
Questions for Discussion,
Five Books Susi Wyss Can't Live Without,
Reading Group Guide
1. The main characters in The Civilized World are all women. What common bonds do these women share? What divides them?
2. Ophelia discusses the power of names with Philip, telling him that a name "can leave a psychological imprint." Do you believe that's true? Adjoa lists for Janice the qualities associated with her namedo you think her name fits her personality? Do you think it's possible that she is who she is because of her name? What about the names of some of the other characters, such as Comfort?
3. What do you make of the mysterious pain Adjoa feels in her right arm? When does the pain seem to flare up most frequently? How does the loss of Kojo affect Adjoa?
4. Certainly there are some major cultural differences between life in the United States and in Africa portrayed in the novel; despite this, there are still also many overarching similarities. Think about Comfort and Linda, and Comfort and her mother-in-law, for instance. Can you think of other examples? What do these similarities seem to indicate about human nature?
5. At one point Janice thinks, "What did it mean to be civilized anyway?" She asks Bruce regarding the Baka women, "How do you know whether their quality of life is better or worse than ours?" What do you think? What does it mean to be civilized? Is any one way better than another? What do you think the novel has to say on this matter?
6. Janice feels most at home in Africa; Ophelia feels uncomfortable and out of place there. To what do you attribute this difference? Are they simply different women with different tastes? Or do you think they have different expectations for their lives in Africa, expectations that are in some ways self-fulfilling? Do you agree with Gifty's assertion that: "Life is like a mirror . . . if you look at it well, it will return the look"?
7. Watching Philip at one point, Ophelia thinks to herself that she "wanted to reassure him that she would change back into the person she once was. . . . Once the baby joined them, she would be the best mother and wife he could wish for, they would be a family, and everything would be fine." Do you think this is a reasonable thought? Does Ophelia truly believe it herself?
8. Think about Janice's relationship with Bruce, and Adjoa's with Kwame. Do you see any similarities between the two? Consider Ophelia and Philip as well. Do you think the women are trying to convince themselves that these relationships are something that they're not? If so, why?
9. Why does Marvin make Linda so uncomfortable? What did you think when Peter assumed that Marvin's friends were black? What does the situation with Marvin reveal about Linda and Peter's relationship?
10. Because the novel is structured the way it is, we are able to see many characters both through their own eyes and through the eyes of the other characters. How did your views of some of these characters change after witnessing them from another perspective? Did you find any of the characters to have particularly incongruous views of either themselves or others? How does the use of this technique further illuminate the characters?
11. Each of the main characters feels fearful at one point or anotherthis seems less true of the male characters. Do women generally feel more vulnerable to unsafe situations than men? In the final story, Janice vows to help her daughter "grow into a fearless and self-assured young woman, despite the reality of a world that could knock you off your feet when you least expected it." What role does this vow play in Janice's decision at the end of the novel?
12. This novel is made up of nine storieswhat does this structure lend to the novel? The final story is the only one told from two perspectivesAdjoa's and Janice's. What do you think the purpose of this is? Do you think the ending is a hopeful one?