Global Women of Color: Aya by Marguerite Abouet, Clement Oubrerie (Ivory Coast)

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.

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(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.

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Thanks to Marcie of Buried in Print for suggesting this book. And hey, join the GWC challenge here!

The Power of a Plate of Rice by Ifeoma Okoye

Cheta, a teacher at a Nigerian secondary school, is furious with the principal, Mr. Aziza, for withholding her salary because she took a few days off to tend to her sick child at hospital. Cheta is a widow with rent to pay and two young children and a mother-in-law to feed, and Mr. Aziza has now willfully held back her pay for 5 months. Matters are desperate, but Cheta has no legal or institutional recourse.

At this point, kill that voice telling you to skip a sad third-world tale of exploited women. Cheta is smart (bordering on smart-ass); when she remembers her mother’s advice to stay calm and do nothing in anger, she remarks, “Only an angel or an idiot would remain calm in my situation.” Obviously, Cheta isn’t going to take Mr. Aziza’s bullshit for long, and her response is magnificent, all more powerful for its spontaneity and primal nature.

Cheta begs Mr. Aziza for the better part of a month, imploring him for money for rent and food, but when he proves obdurate, she’s reduced to following him home after work one evening. Mr. Aziza ignores her, leaving her while his help sets dinner–and returns to find Cheta eating his rice and meat.  Oh, what audacity! What courage! What a masterstroke! A hungry Aziza, deprived of his dinner, finally realizes the position he’s placed Cheta in. Aziza is undone by Cheta’s actions, and faced with her unshakeable desperation, agrees to pay her salary, and asks her to get out. Which Cheta does, still chowing down.

Okay, let me count the ways I love this story. First: this is the story of a bully defeated, so it gets a thousand points. Second: gosh, it’s funny–I laughed out loud often, and my mental image of Mr. Aziza’s chagrin on seeing Cheta eating his dinner makes me smile weeks after reading. Third: Cheta is magnificent–she is brave and no-nonsense and resourceful, and I’d marry her in a flash if I could. Fourth: Okoye says so many things about Nigeria without ever spelling it out. That common people are often denied their rights–and can do nothing about it. That the bureaucracy has undue power, which they abuse without accountability. That professional women have it particularly hard in a patriarchal society where men can openly voice their reluctance to employ women–even when those women are the bread-winners in their families. That  traditions and customs can cripple as much as they can provide succour. And I was struck at each turn by how familiar this narrative is to anyone who’s ever lived in South Asia. And Fifth: the story is crisply written, with a chatty, no-nonsense tone that is a perfect fit for Cheta.

So: get hold of this story, which I found in Opening Spaces, a collection of contemporary African women’s writing edited by Yvonne Vera (you may find it elsewhere too). I reviewed this short story for Amy’s Nigerian Literature Challenge; if you are interested in going beyond Adichie and learning more about Nigerian literature, do check out the other entries in the challenge.

Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo

I’ve recently become more interested than usual in African and African-Canadian literature thanks to bloggers like Amy, Kinna, and Nana, and writers such as  Zetta Elliott, and so I was delighted when the Toronto-based Second Story Press sent me Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo for review. This picture book tells us about a seven-year-old African boy Maiko, who, upon losing his parents,  moves from his village to live with his aunt and uncle in a North American city. Everything is  terrifyingly unfamiliar–the green landscape, the cool weather, the school, festivals like Halloween–and a lonely Maiko misses his life back home with quiet desperation. His longing for his village crystallizes around his memories of a 2,000-year old baobab tree in whose shade he used to play.

Maiko finds a new companion in a little spruce exactly his own age that grows in his uncle’s front yard.  He shares his secrets with the tree, and in turn, listens to its song. But the tree has taken root too close to the house’s foundation, and must be removed.  Can the young tree find a new home, or it is destined to be chopped down?

There is a tragic dearth of Canadian picture books featuring PoC characters in meaningful roles, and I was truly happy to share this book with my son. And NOT just for educational purposes (which, as we all know, is adult-ese for boring). While the parallels between Maiko and the spruce are laid out explicitly for the book’s young audience, the narrative leaves plenty of scope for a child’s imagination, and the full-page illustrations by Qin Leng are drenched in color, vividly conveying the difference between Maiko’s village and his new home. This gentle, deeply-felt book provides a lovely teachable moment about belonging and alienation, not to mention diversity, for little ones.

If there’s one thing I found missing, it’s a mention of Maiko’s home country.  We know it’s in a part of Africa where baobabs grow and where ugali is eaten, and there are other subtle indicators, but they weren’t enough for me (and certainly not for the average Canadian child) to identify where Maiko is from.  I do understand that the author has deliberately left the specific locations un-named–an African village, a North American city–but it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity for getting kids to learn about Africa (not a country but a continent…) I looked up the book on Canadian Bookshelf and found that the publicity material mentions that Maiko’s from Tanzania; why not include that on the book’s jacket, I wonder?

And I also looked up Calgary-based Chery Foggo, whose fascinating body of work includes a theatrical adaptation of Things Fall Apart, research on Alberta’s Black Pioneers, and two YA novels, both of which I’ll be searching out after I post this review.

(Note: Canadian Bookshelf has the illustrator’s name wrong; it is indeed Qin Leng.)