Aya: Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This French series of graphic novels by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie is a nostalgic and pleasant reflection on the problems of youth and age during the middle-class boom of the 1970s in the writer’s native country, Côte d’Ivoire. While the bookish and ambitious nineteen-year-old Aya is our title character and narrator—and likely the bookish and ambitious Abouet’s surrogate—the story is an ensemble piece, wending its way deftly through a number of believably realized characters, from the alienated rich-kid Moussa and the sweet teen mother Adjoua to the men and women of the older generation.
Abouet, a French citizen since the age of 12, has stated her intention to display a side of African life the Western media rarely portrays: middle-class modernity. Aya largely celebrates this modernity, which it identifies with the emancipation of women and sexual minorities; the graphic novel’s tone, while consistently light-hearted and comic, addresses serious social issues, such as divorce, bigamy, homophobia, and domestic violence, even as it portrays the difficulty of the older generation’s adjustment to their children’s new freedoms under an urban and bourgeois regime. Abouet is not merely dismissive of the traditional culture of the Ivory Coast, but she tends to relegate it to the aesthetic realm—e.g., this book concludes with pages of recipes and guides to Ivoirian traditional clothing and childcare. As a book apparently intended for younger Western readers, it communicates its cosmopolitan message very well, though an older reader might wish to see a greater acknowledgement of modernity’s price.
As for Oubrerie’s art, it is beautiful and immersive: his characters are more gestural or cartoonish even as they move through richly detailed backgrounds that make one feel the atmosphere of Abidjan quite persuasively; the coloring is especially exquisite, its palette going from bright yellows and pinks to the blue-black of night. The visual storytelling uses an understated six-panel grid, punctuated with tone- and scene-setting splashes and a few formalist flourishes. The lettering, however, might have been neater, given the book’s overall production quality. Also, I respect Oubrerie’s stylistic decision not to rule the panel borders, but some of them are so sloppy as to be an eyesore.
Overall, a wonderful graphic novel—even if I am not quite its target audience!