Ivory Coast has been in the news headlines in recent months for the ongoing political conflict after the November 2010 elections and refusal of then president Laurent Gabgbo to step down. Images of Gbagbo’s recent capture by French Special forces in Abidjan and the violent reprisals, which have ensued between pro-Gbagbo loyalists and the forces of internationally recognised President, Alassane Ouattara continue to beam around the globe.
However, despite the country’s recent past, there are many for whom, Ivory Coast, remains a special memory. Marguerite Abouet is one such individual and she has aptly captured those memories in her trilogy of graphic novels, Aya de Yopougon, Aya of Yop City and Aya: The Secrets Come Out.
Abouet was born in Abidjan in 1971. She now lives in Romainville, a suburb of Paris, where she works as a legal assistant and writes novels she is yet to show to publishers. Her series on Aya is published in English and French. Her co-author and illustrator, Clément Oubrerie, was born in Paris in 1966. He has has illustrated more than 40 children’s books and is co-founder of the 3-D animation studio, Station OMD.
Set in the city of Yopougon, which remains a Gbabgo stronghold and was described by Al Jazeera’s, Haru Mutasa in a news report on April 16, 2011 as a ‘dangerous neighbourhood, Abouet’s Aya trilogy takes us back to a time when Cote D’Ivoire was a place of intriguing characters and a myriad of humourous experiences.
We meet Aya, a 19-year-old teenager with a strong focus and personality, a mind of her own and great aspirations. Aya is the dream of every parent who has ever had to deal with teenage angst. She is studious and aspires to go to university so she can become a doctor. However, her conservative father, Ignace views things differently and has other ideas. As far as Ignace is concerned, university is for boys not girls. So, we enter Aya’s world in this series of graphic novels inspired by Maguerite Aboute’s childhood in Abidjan in the 70s, the same period of time, the novels are set in.
Aya De Yopougon
Aya De Yopougon, published by Jonathan Cape is the first of the trilogy. We are invited by Aya to Yopougon, a working class neighbourhood in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Popularly referred to as Yop City, this is where Aya, her family and friends live. It is the summer holidays, Bintou and Adjoua are bent on being the life and soul of every party taking place in town.
Mamadou establishes himself as the guy who fancies himself as a ladies’ man, while Bonventure Sissoko, Aya’s fathers’s boss, has Moussa, his worst nightmare for a son and Herve, is the butt of everyone’s joke. Soon the teenagers learn there are responsibilities that come with behaving like an adult.
Aya de Yopougon
Aya of Yop City
In Aya Of Yop City, also published by Jonathan Cape, the story continues as Adjoua steps up and takes responsibilities for her actions with bleak future prospects. Bintou is still in search of the man of her dreams. Moussa remains a torn in his father’s Achilles heels. The young girls of Yop City contemplate their chances of winning the annual beauty contest.
Aya remains the wisdom centre her friends turn to for help as they seek solutions to their problems. The narrative gets complex as Abouet adds friction to the lives of her character’s daily lives.
Aya of Yop City
Aya: The Secrets Come Out
Aya: The Secrets Come Out, published by Drawn & Quarterly, Canada, is the final part of the intriguing trilogy. The inhabitants of Yop City prepare feverishly for Miss Yopougon pageant. Aya’s father has been indulging in some naughtiness which will leave the teenager heartbroken. The women of Yopougon stand united against one of their husbands marrying a second wife and Herve the butt of everyone’s jokes comes of age as a man. Bintou must dance to the music and Aya remains the level-headed girl we met at the beginning.
Aya: The Secrets Come Out
Aya is a breath of fresh air with its endearing and eclectic array of characters, which we can recognise in our family members, friends and neighbours. Marguerite Abouet writes with zest and passion, and the series is full of lucid humour, which leaps off the page. It is a delight to read about teenagers in a contemporary African setting, who have the same experiences, traits, desires and needs and angst like other teens around the world.
Aya is not your usual tale with a graphic set of images depicting swollen bellied African children or teenagers. It is an interesting series which serves as a great contrast to the majority of visual images and narrative of African children and teenagers the west has been accustomed to.
Aboute’s captivating narrative, which explores the themes of identity, family, love and relationships, friendship and rites of passage into adulthood, married to Cleme Oubererie’s vividly coloured and evocative illustrations reiterates the power of words and images to transport you to a different place and time, and position you right in the action, as if its your life’s story unfolding in the characters you are reading about. Aya and her friends will have you shaking your head and rolling your eyes as you remember your youth days and the many shenanigans you got up to. Aya, is an insightful, heart-warming, playful and enjoyable read for teenagers and adults of all ages for its ability to capture the sounds, sights and smells of Youpougon and its diverse inhabitants.
Belinda Otas (http://belindaotas.com) is a London-based journalist, writer and blogger. She is interested and passionate about Africa and loves theatre. In fact, she is a theatre fanatic, and reads a lot of novels and short stories by writers of African descent, but sprinkles it with her love of novels and works by authors from different parts of the world. Belinda is currently working on her first stage play.