Aya: Life in Yop City
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.
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.