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.


(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.


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

Reading Global Women of Color: Anita Amirrezvani (Iran)

Anita Amirrezvani‘s The Blood of Flowers is a fascinating novel, packed with details about carpet weaving in 17th century Iran, but fear not! the story wears its research lightly. The novel’s protagonist  is an unnamed fourteen year old village girl in 1620s Persia. She happens to have a good eye for color, and has already sold a carpet she designed and knotted–the proceeds will come in handy for her wedding later that year.  But when her father dies suddenly, all plans are overturned–the girl and her mother must make their way to Isfahan, Persia’s capital city, and live on the largesse of a richer relative, a wealthy carpet designer Gostaham.

Isfahan under the rule of Shah Abbas was one of the grandest cities in the world, much bigger than London or Paris, and a key node of global trade. There’s much demand for beautiful carpets, and while women aren’t encouraged to pursue a  trade, the girl’s uncle recognizes her talent, and secretly helps her to learn more about carpet making. Skill is but the least of her lessons. A beautiful carpet is much more than a pleasing combination of shapes and colors; it demands a unity and integrity in its design that hints at the greater purpose of art. “All rug makers know that beauty is a tonic like no other,” says Gostaham,  citing a time when Tamerlane sacked the city of Isfahan, killing all but the rug makers, whose value was “too great for them to be destroyed.” The rug makers responded to the carnage by creating even more exquisite carpets, for they believed art’s duty in the midst of suffering and sorrow was to remind the world of the face of beauty.

But if beauty is redemptive, it also demands fearsome sacrifice–as always, from the weakest and most helpless. Women are sometimes deformed by long work hours spent hunched at the loom, so much so that during childbirth, “their bones form a prison locking the baby inside”, leading to their deaths. The youngest knotters suffered “aching backs, bent limbs, tired fingers, exhausted eyes…sometimes it seemed as if every thread in the carpet had been dipped in the blood of flowers.”

(And it’s not a problem confined to 17th century Iran–you probably know that child labor is endemic in the South Asian carpet industry, for children’s smaller hands are thought to be more adept at making smaller, finer knots.  If you are buying a carpet from the region, look for the GoodWeave mark certifying that the rug wasn’t made with child labor.)

But let’s return to our heroine, whose life is just about to receive more than its fair share of misery, when, due to financial pressure,  she enters into a temporary contract-based marriage known as a sigheh (permitted in Shia but not in Sunni Islam).  The contract is renewed at the discretion of the man, depending on whether the wife has pleased him sufficiently. In a culture prizing female virginity, the sigheh is considered a shame for an unmarried girl, but the our protagonist has few options–she has no dowry, hence making her dream of a traditional marriage virtually impossible. While she does undergo a sexual awakening, the sigheh essentially reinforces her powerlessness as an economically dependent woman.  

But our girl learns well from her hard lessons, and learns that her true value lies not in her marriageability but in  an economic independence that’ll allow her to shape her life. The last part of the book is an enjoyable paean to female empowerment; hurrah! Read this one for the splendor that was Persia (oh, how I long to visit Isfahan), for the wondrous fables nested within the narrative, for an appealing protagonist who makes plenty of mistakes but never repeats them, for thoughtful explorations into the knotty relationship between desire and love, for the profound questions raised about the purpose and duty of art, and oh, for a vivid, juicy, richly-detailed read that reminds you just how enthralling a good story can be. Recommended.

I read this book for Marilyn’s Global Women of Color blog challenge.  

Join the challenge here, you know you want to! Lots of suggestions for books by women of color from all corners of the world.