My second read for the Global Women of Color challenge is my first ever book set in the Ivory Coast, and it’s a charmer. Aya, a graphic novel by Marguerite Abouet (illustrated by Clement Oubrerie), was published in France in 2005; the English translation was published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2007 .
Aya chronicles the the lives of three post-adolescent girls in Abidjan (the capital city) in 1978. The titular Aya is an endearingly level-headed nineteen-year-old who dreams of being a doctor, but her two friends Bintou and Adjoua would rather party, and focus their energies on finding rich husbands. In the working-class neighborhood of Yopougon, there are few secrets and fewer private spaces, but Bintou and Adjoua mange to sneak away with their boyfriends and hoodwink their respective parents. It’s all fun and games, until the consequences creep in.
(From Drawn and Quarterly. PDF link to first 5 pages of Aya.)
I went through Aya very fast because I kept wondering what would happen next, and thus missed everything important. There isn’t anything surprising or startling in the story (unless the reader had assumed that the country of Africa was populated solely by wild animals, starving babies and extremists), the plot is fairly skimpy, and the ending feels abrupt. But my second, close reading produced rich rewards (there’s a life lesson here, right?) Aya‘s appeal lies entirely in the telling–the characters, the setting, the gentle humor and the visuals all come together to create something magical. Abouet pokes sympathetic fun at the characters (there’s the peachy-pink eyesore of a house of a nouveau riche businessman, and his wife skimping on expenses for a party, instructing the caterer not to provide silverware as the guests will eat with their hands), and there’s so much goodwill and warm affection towards them that you can’t help but care for their future. You hope Bintou and Adjoua will stumble upon a long-hidden vein of common sense, you pray Aya becomes a doctor, you cross your fingers that her father doesn’t behave like an ass just because he can, and yeah, I wouldn’t mind the handsome Mamadou passing by my front door sometime. The artwork is enchanting, and I love Oubrerie’s palette–for instance, there’s a scene where night falls and the sky gradually darkens from pink to fuschia to deep purple over twelve panels spread over two pages. It’s so clever–the elements stay the same, only the colors slowly vary and twist. Of course I missed it all on my first read.
Oh, and readers with a South Asian connection will find much that’s delightfully familiar–the extended families with the ever-expanding tribe of young siblings, daring outfits concealed under a convenient pagne (a versatile piece of cloth somewhat akin to the Indian dupatta), the colonial history, the assumption that there’s no such thing as a private family celebration… I’ve learnt so much about the Ivory Coast and its people from Aya; if only all my lessons could be delivered with such grace and humour.