Given the disturbing events of recent weeks, a new movement, labeled with the hashtag #BlackoutBestsellerList, encourages people to purchase books by black authors between now and June 20. The goal is to push black authors to the top of bestseller lists around the world. There are, of course, countless exceptional and important works to choose from and I’m the first to admit that this post does not cover any of them. However, I’ve been meaning for months to blog about the French-Ivorian author, Marguerite Abouet. Her graphic novel series, Aya de Yopougon, isn’t a deep dive into race or racism but perhaps it chips away at these issues just a bit by giving westerners a view of African life that has little to do with suffering, oppression, or warfare.
An Addictive Series
I first came across this series in the French section of my public library. Volume 1 was there for the taking and the colorful illustrations caught my eye. There are 6 volumes in the entire series. The central character is Aya, a young pre-med student living with her parents in Yopougon, a middle class suburb of Abidjan in Ivory Coast. Abouet is an excellent storyteller. Her cast of endearing characters and their dramatic entanglements resembles the script of a soap opera. Like all good soap operas, when I got to the end of volume 1, I had to know more.
Unfortunately, this first volume was all that my library carried. So, over the next few years, when traveling in France or Quebec, I gradually purchased used copies of the remaining 5 volumes. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each addictive book and will be happy to purchase volume 7 if Abouet ever decides to continue.
Marguerite Abouet was born in 1971 in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. When she was 12 years old, her parents sent her and her brother to live with their uncle in Paris. Far from her homeland, Abouet turned to writing as a way to relieve stress and relive fond memories of her childhood. Aya de Yopougon (the English translation is Aya of Yop City) takes place at the end of the 1970s. Life in Ivory Coast at this time was relatively prosperous and peaceful.
As a young black woman living in France, Abouet didn’t appreciate the prevalent negative stereotypes of Africa and its people. They didn’t represent the Africa that she knew and loved. “I wanted to show that in Africa there isn’t only war and famine, but also stories of everyday life: people love, argue… That was the Africa that I knew when I was young. That was the life.”
A Perfect Match
When the publisher Gallimard became interested in producing a graphic novel based on Abouet’s stories, the choice of illustrator was obvious. Her French husband, Clément Oubrerie, was known at the time for illustrating children’s books. However, he had traveled to Abidjan on several occasions and no one could be better at illustrating the mind of Abouet than the author’s life partner. She describes her scenarios as 50% reality and 50% imagination.
The combined talents of the young couple produced a sensation. As proof, volume 1 won the prize of Best First Album at the Angouleme International Comics Festival, the Children’s Africana Book Award, and the Glyph Award. It has also been included on best lists from The Washington Post, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal. In 2013, with the backing of TF1 Films, the couple completed a project to adapt the first two volumes into a film.
The Adventures of Aya de Yopougon
Aya de Yopougon takes place during a hopeful period in West African history. In the 1970s, Yopougon, or Yop City, was growing in prosperity. Ivory Coast had one of the highest per capita incomes among sub-Saharan states without petroleum. As in other parts of the world, women were becoming increasingly independent and challenging traditional gender roles. Aya, the series’ central character, is unlike her girlfriends who are staking their futures on finding a good man, marrying, and raising a family.
Aya is a serious student who hopes to go to medical school. Her best friends, Adjoua and Bintou, love and respect her. When their various schemes to ensnare a man fall apart, they often turn to Aya to help them find a way out of their predicaments. The series is filled with colorful characters, many of whom have their own subplots. Throughout the books, both male and female characters, young and old, find themselves turning to Aya for advice. Aya’s reactions range from sympathetic to disappointed to enraged, but each time she manages to deliver sage advice while preserving her own quest for a better future.
You might characterize the books as young adult fiction but they are full of humor and intrigue that appeal to all ages. Abouet shows us the universal side of human existence. Her characters marry, divorce, laugh, cry, deceive, dream, rejoice, denounce, have children, bury elders, complain, cavort, conspire, and conceal. In general, the books provide fun and lighthearted reading but the series also addresses serious issues such as class divisions, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexual harassment, and women’s rights.
More than a Story
As with many graphic novels, part of the richness lies in the illustrations. Ouberie’s vibrant and multicolored frames help recreate the look and feel of Ivory Coast. His depictions of dazzling sunshine, or driving rain, or star-filled heavens provide a subtle backdrop that strengthens the reader’s perception of African life. Ouberie also adeptly employs different hues and shading to help us keep track of subplots, venue changes, and flashbacks. There are hundreds of beautiful frames in this series, making it an impossible task to choose a representative subset for this post.
While Aya’s world is largely composed of close friends and family members, the cast of characters is rather large. Happily, Abouet includes a tree of characters at the front of every volume. I found this especially helpful when starting a new volume after a pause of many months.
The language in the series is full of Ivorian slang, le nouchi, and colorful expressions. A petit lexique is found at the end of each volume to help translate their meanings. Abouet also includes a “secret” recipe in every book. Each one promises a different benefit. For example, Aya’s mother’s Peanut Sauce, never fails to bring her husband home from the office and keep him there for the rest of the evening. These finishing touches further capture the spirit of the time period and setting.
Light-hearted and Enlightening
Traveling back to Abidjan for a comic festival one year, Marguerite Abouet was surrounded by many children wishing to get her autograph. None of them held up books for her to sign. Instead, each child waved a single page from some dismembered volume of Aya. Realizing that books were a scarcity throughout Ivory Coast, Abouet launched the charitable organization Des Livres Pour Tous—Côte d’Ivoire, Books for Everyone—Ivory Coast.
Abouet’s writing may not rise to the level of a Langston Hughes or Toni Morrison novel, but Aya de Yopougon is a story that appeals to the masses. Its portrayals of everyday life remind us that Africa is much more than violent regime changes and appalling living conditions. Aya’s world has none of that and yet it’s a real world, a place that westerners rarely see. If you’re looking to read something that’s light and uplifting this summer, yet mind-opening and thoughtful, I highly recommend this series.
- The Guardian, Can #BlackoutBestsellerList be the reckoning the publishing industry needs?
- Marguerite Abouet, Auteur d’Aya de Yopougon aux Editions Gallimard
- DailyMotion, Interview de Marguerite Abouet, scénariste de la bd AYA
- du9, Marguerite Abouet & Clément Oubrerie
- Wikipedia, History of Ivory Coast (1960–99)
- Vimeo, Des livres pour tous – Côte d’Ivoire | Association de Marguerite Abouet
- Using Graphic Novels in Education: Aya: Life in Yop City