Aya tells a story both familiar and refreshingly new, at least to those of us who have little exposure to media that show more of African countries than civil war, AIDS, and poverty. In a way, Aya is just another coming-of-age story, dramatizing the period when protagonist Aya, 19, and her two best friends, Adjoua and Bintou, grow into adulthood and begin to grow apart. We know this story, probably all too well. But Aya is set apart from most coming-of-age stories in that its setting is distinctly localized to 1978 Yopougon (aka Yop City), a working-class neighborhood of Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. That the story is rendered graphically underscores its emphasis on the local, with vivid panels bringing the neighborhood and its residents to life.
Narrated from Aya’s perspective, the story begins with her family and friends gathering to watch Ivory Coast’s first television ad campaign: the ad is for Solibra, a local brand of beer and the company for which Aya’s father is manager. From there, the narrative follows the escapades of Adjoua and Bintou as they sneak out to meet up with boys and go dancing, while ambitious Aya, who wants to become a doctor, stays home and studies. Pretty soon Adjoua and Bintou are fighting over the same loser dude, who just happens to be from a wealthy family — let the catfights begin. Aya is a fly on the wall to her friends’ antics; she stands by bemused, uninterested in the men her friends can’t get enough of and looking forward to the day she can go off to university and work toward a career in medicine.
Aya is a whimsical exploration of the class and gender politics of working-class Abidjan in 1978, a time that was la belle époque to many Ivorians. As Alisia Grace Chase explains in her preface, Ivory Coast in the two decades after it won independence in 1960 saw a time of “unprecedented wealth.” Its capital, Abidjan, was considered the ‘Paris of West Africa,’ its cultural cachet rising with the GNP: This is the time period that Aya takes place in. Just a few years after the events of the novel, the economy would begin to stagnate, resulting in social unrest. In the decades since, Ivory Coast’s wealth and stability has steadily declined in the face of a serious recession, a wave of crime, and a series of coups and rebel uprisings that ultimately led to civil war.
The book serves as a reminder of a period of greatness for a country that is now struggling to regain its footing. As such, the story is awash in nostalgia. As wise and compassionate as its titular protagonist, the book is a charming cultural ambassador from Ivory Coast to the hip North American audience cultivated by Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly. Written by Ivorian ex-pat Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Clement Oubrerie, and translated from the French by Helge Dascher, Aya is a tidy little package of cultural exchange, accompanied not only by Chase’s contextualizing preface, but also an appendix including a map, two recipes, a glossary of Ivorian slang terms like “freshnie” (“a nice looking girl”), and an illustrated guide to wearing a pagne, a versatile, sarong-like cloth worn by women. The appendix is written in the same whimsical style as the text of the novel; what could come across as overearnest cultural exportage comes off instead as a number of fun and educational bonuses.
Abouet keeps her writing to a minimum, adding in the occasional narrative exposition but keeping her words mostly to the lively dialogue that moves the book forward. Oubrerie contributes to the book’s momentum by placing the characters in action; he’s an expert at articulating emotion through body language and facial expression. Oubrerie is similarly skilled with setting: he’s as adept at creating strong, distant cityscapes as he is at populating Yop City’s busy maquis and imagining the interiors of Aya’s home. His illustrations are playfully drawn and semirealistic, deriving most of their aesthetic impact from their color palette.
While time cues are used from time to time, sometimes the authors neglect to provide any signal for a new scene, leading to a book that seems disjointed in parts. For the most part, however, Abouet’s modest exposition and Oubrerie’s shift in color palette work together to signal new scenes and connect the narrative as a whole.
Even as I was drawn in to Aya’s life, delighted by her friends’ sassiness and the beautifully drawn streets and maquis of Yop City, I had this nagging suspicion that something was missing. Upon further thought, I came to understand that what I believed to be missing from Aya was that element of soulcrushing oppression — ironic, since the story’s lack thereof is exactly what makes it a joy to pick up and savor.
At least in the U.S, if people are going to read about the huge, heterogeneous continent that is Africa, they’re generally more likely to veer towards heavy, heartwrenching reading material about child soldiers, famine, corruption, and the AIDS crisis than anything as supposedly simple as a few days in the life of an ambitious young woman with boycrazy friends. For whatever reason, we seek out stories of oppression from Africa that ask us to become a mock-horrified voyeur all too eager to see how terrible the world is for people who are not us. Then maybe we’ll be ‘INSPI(RED)’ to help all the sick people by buying a t-shirt at the Gap.
While epic novels of crisis have and deserve their place, light comedies like Aya are easily dismissed when compared with them. Should such a comparison even be made? Probably not. But such a small sliver of African and African-centric literature(s) is translated into English that it’s usually the so-called Important stuff that gets translated while more modest stories never make it to an English-speaking audience. Those modest stories, like Aya, are just as important — especially those that demonstrate strength and resilience, in this case through a slim slice of one young woman’s promising life.