Comic Book Review: Aya – Life in Yop City


Aya: Life in Yop City
Marguerite Abouet
Clement Oubrerie

I like comics like this a lot: a glimpse into another culture made especially rich by the blending of word and art. I think that’s why there seems to be a whole subgenre of comics that are basically cultural memoirs or travelogues. Pioneered, perhaps, by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis? Either way, I see a lot of these on the comic shelves and they’re usually much more enticing than the latest issue of Musclebound Uberdudes.

Marguerite Abouet states that one of the reasons she wrote Aya was to give another view of Africa than the unceasing misery and poverty we’re fed on TV. It’s hard to be interested in culture and history and miss how diverse Africa is, and since ‘real Africa’ isn’t exactly heavily represented in Canadian media, it’s great to see this snapshot of another time. Set during an economic boom in Ivory Coast in the 1970’s, the action of Aya could easily have happened in any North American city. It’s not the plot that keeps the attention, though it skips along through the drama of affairs, teenage love and beauty pageants—it’s the rich details, the extraordinary colours that artist Clement Oubrerie uses to bring Yop City to life, and in the loving, compassionate way that Abouet writes her characters.

The action largely revolves around the antics of the main trio on the cover: Adjoua, Aya and Bintou. It is a soap opera. There’s a lot of love in Aya, close relationships between family and neighbourhood. The reality, that people are make bad choices that have repercussions but in the end they are still human and family, is the sensibility that underlies interactions. I found myself feeling very affectionate towards nearly everyone (even hidebound, philandering Ignace, the titular Aya’s father). I kept reading because I cared. I wanted everyone to be alright, and most especially I wished people would wise up!

Aya alone seems… not uninteresting, but she has a severe case of MainCharacteritis, where the side characters are much more colourful and interesting. Aya’s main role is confidante. She’s level-headed and calls her friends and family out for their bullshit, and not always nicely. But she’s always there to help out. Her ambition is to be a doctor, and it’s clear that’s a great profession for her. Her father, Ignace, isn’t for it, being old-fashioned, but that’s not going to stop Aya. She alone of nearly every character in the book has no love interest. I’d like to spend more time with her, and maybe less time with her friend Bintou, whose relationship with the Parisian Gregoire is rather like a slowmotion trainwreck.

Aya Panel

I’d be remiss not to bring up the art. While I’m not usually a fan of very stylized cartoons (common, I believe, in French comics?), the style here worked for me. I really enjoyed the action and movement. The characters are easy to differentiate by body and face shape. I had a very good idea of what these characters would look like in real life. I also really enjoyed the variety of skintones. While every character is black, the variety of tone added to the realism and brought home just how often there’s only a token black character in the media I’m exposed to.

Then there’s the landscapes and colour choices. The way colour is used just blew me away. The times of day radically effect the colour choice in each panel. Night scenes are blueish black and so dark that it’s hard to make out the characters—which is important as the characters mistake their lovers in the ‘Thousand Star Hotel’. At least one page has a scene taking place at dusk, and the colours change accordingly. Though I’ve never been to Ivory Coast, I imagine the various incredibly bright and beautiful colours of sky in Aya are representative. The atmosphere feels different: hotter and brighter and dustier than Vancouver Island—heck, even the rendering of the rainy season doesn’t look like the rain we get here (and we get a lot of rain!). Masterfully done.

I enjoyed Aya and I’m glad that the library has the next two books. I wouldn’t say it’s dramatically altered my life, or made me think very hard, but it was a fun read, it had terrific atmosphere, and I care very much about the characters—and I learned a whole bunch about Ivory Coast. I definitely recommend it.


Reflections on Craig Thompson’s Habibi

Craig Thompson’s Habibi attracted me from the first glance for its beautiful Islamic-inspired art. He seduced me on every page with patterns and calligraphy, for bringing up the stories I grew up on: the Bible, the Thousand and One Nights, and the stories I have been learning since high school: the stories of the Qu’ran.

Yet throughout Habibi, I became more and more uncomfortable. The art is gorgeous. But the messages and the story are problematic.

The primary issue is our main character, Dodola. She is sexualized completely and her many rapes also sexualized (particularly by Zam, the other major character). The second issue is racism, of course, because it turns out that Craig Thompson is an American with a post-9/11 guilt complex who doesn’t speak Arabic, only writes it. From what I can tell, he knows his Arabic calligraphy well, and is probably accurate as to the Qu’ran and Islamic elements. So he did some research. I wish he’d researched, I don’t know, women, and particularly rural Muslim women and harem women, because even though I don’t know much about women in these situations, I could tell something about their portrayal just wasn’t right.

Dodola at first seemed like an interesting heroine. She is sold at a very young age to her first husband, a calligrapher. He rapes her, but there is some affection and pity in their relationship that I wanted to see more of. He also teaches her to write. I thought, here is a place to explore a very uncomfortable relationship, humanly flawed, tragic and fascinating. How will learning to read and write empower Dodola and shape her? But soon he is killed, and Dodola is seized by some dudes to be sold into a slave market.

Thus starts the continual cycle of Dodola as sexual object. There is an entertaining section where she rescues a black baby (Zam) in a crazy chase through the marketplace, where she ultimately outruns the slavers and flees to the desert to live with Zam. This is the last of feisty empowered Dodola. Afterwards, sex and her body becomes her trade. She sells her body to caravaners for food; her calligraphy is only used to make protective amulets for Zam: mostly she tells stories she remembers learning from her husband. For a good portion of the book, she lives in a decadent harem straight out of Orientalist fantasy.

Ah, yes. Orientalist. After I put down Habibi, I felt terribly conflicted, and I ended up taking a book out of the library trying to alleviate my discomfort: Scheherazade Goes West, by Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, feminist and author.

Scheherazade Goes West seeks to answer the question: why is there such a disjunct between the harem and harem fantasies Fatema Mernissi grew up with versus the Orientalist fantasy exemplified by Ingres’ paintings of odalisques?

It was such an absorbing read, and a quick one, that I read it all in a day. The main thesis of the book is that Eastern and Western male conceptions of what an attractive woman is are entirely different. In the East, men are attracted to women who are mobile and intelligent, but they are afraid of them too, so they lock them up in harems and try to keep them out of the public sphere. Harems are hotbeds of jealousy and intrigues. But the Western ideal of an ideal female is, my terms, one who is stupid, silent and childlike. These male fantasies are on a cultural level, not on an individual one.

Hence the Western conception of the harem being a place full of languid beauties eager to please. Which is exactly what we have in Habibi, by the way: an unsexy sultan (short, portly, and illustrated rather in the style of my least-favourite comics artist, Crumb) that Dodola hates but has sex with anyway because… um… it’s preferable to death I guess. She gets pregnant, has some revelations about motherhood, but then lies around in an opium daze.

So here’s Dodola: she’s defined by sex and motherhood and telling stories (but not writing). Er.

And the harem is exactly like an Orientalist fantasy. Everything is about bodies. Fatema Mernissi writes that caliphs sought out talented women who could sing, write and recite poetry, who were artists and well-spoken, for their harems. Harun al-Rashid, the great Abbasid caliph, wrote (albeit, bad) poetry to his loves. Brains are sexiest, yo.  Why the heck is this sultan in Habibi presented this way? He just comes across as a bad knock-off of the sultan in Disney’s Aladdin.

Oh, and Dodola has no interaction with any of the other women. There are no jealous intrigues or close friendships. She has a servant, and the eunuchs are fond enough of her to participate in a plan of hers. There’s some women who don’t like her. I was totally unsatisfied with that. Surely she ends up with some friends?

This reminded me of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Avatar, the third book in her first trilogy. Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers. The main character, Phedre, is captured by a twisted, evil ruler and made the favourite of his zenana (harem). Phedre is a marked by the god Kushiel to be a sacred masochist, basically, so she enjoys the torture the ruler puts upon her, even as she hates it. But they have conversations about more than just sex, and eventually they love each other: Phedre uses this opening to kill him. Meanwhile, in the zenana, she reaches out and makes both friends and enemies with the other women and boys. After the ruler’s downfall, they help each other to bury the dead and heal the wounded. I honestly don’t know if the Kushiel books are great literature or not, but this nuanced, complex approach to a harem and women’s relationships makes Habibi‘s laughable and sad.

So ultimately, I was really disappointed in this book. It just seemed… unapologetically Orientalist with a lamentable female character. Repeat after me: a woman is not just a sex object who births babies. A woman is a human being with desires and dreams that may include sex and children. There’s an interesting note near the end, where Dodola realizes that in wanting a child to nurture, she really wanted to nurture herself, who was stripped of childhood so early.

Then she purchases/rescues a child at a slave market. Why was this not brought out more? That’s interesting! Where’s the story of Dodola nurturing herself and her storytelling/writing abilities?

Clearly in another book, where being a woman isn’t defined by sex organs.