Review: Graphic Novel AYA by Abouet & Oubrerie

This past August, in dire need of some pure escapism, I came across the four-part AYA de Yopougon graphic novel series at the Park Avenue Renaud-Bray. I thumbed through the first volume of the brightly coloured panels of the life of Aya, a young woman living in the Ivory Coast in the late 1970s. What initially piqued my interest was finding a series taken from the point of view of a young African woman — indeed a rare occurrence. Although I had the initial impression that the story by Marguerite Abouet revolved around the bright and studious Aya, it in fact revolved around three families living in a suburb of Abidjan, which the characters refer to as Yop City. Aya is the eldest daughter of one of the families, while her two best friends, Bintou and Adjoua, are members of the other two.

Aya is different from her friends. She is serious and plans to become a doctor, while her friends prefer the nightlife of the maquis, a type of outdoor restaurant and dance bar. Aya is a friend to many in her community. She empowers the powerless, but also puts her friends in their place when they need it. Aya is not perfect, and her family has its share of problems. We discover that Aya's father has a mistress. She stirs the pot in volume 3 when she arrives unannounced on his doorstep with two little additional surprises. Not to be outdone, the skinny Koffi, Bintou's father, announces that he is going to take a second wife, the village beauty, who is the same age as his daughter. His news creates an uproariously funny fallout in the community.

One of the reasons that I enjoyed this series so much was that it looks at the daily lives of people in the Ivory Coast, rather than the problems in Africa. We see an Africa replete with intrigue and beauty (the work of Clément Oubrerie, the illustrator, is fabulous). The series tackles a wide variety of issues, such as class difference, women's rights, infidelity, homosexuality, shot-gun marriages and polygamy. Most of these issues are not necessarily what we would associate with Africa in the late 1970s, as we were dealing with them ourselves here in North America. And we mustn't forget that we are not above polygamy here in Canada or the US.

I originally read the series in French. But because the fifth installment has not yet come out, I decided to buy my favourite volume, number 3, in English and read it again. The Mile End's graphic novel publisher Drawn and Quarterly located on Bernard Street is responsible for the English version of this series. The original text is written in French as it's spoken in the Ivory Coast and comes with a glossary at the back as part of the bonus features. Part of my reason for buying the English was to see how the translator was going to address certain African terms.

The publisher chose to keep the glossary and use enough Ivoirianisms and French words to remind the reader that French is the official language of the Ivory Coast and that the setting is indeed Africa. For instance, the publisher decided to keep such terms as, maman = mom; yako = I'm sorry; palu = paludisme, the French word for malaria, but which can also mean minor infections, fever or fatigue; and côcôta = noogie, to name just a few.

While I enjoyed the series immensely in French, I did spend a lot of time flipping back to the glossary. It was only after reading volume 3 again in English with much less flipping that I discovered just how funny this series was. I shed many tears of laughter, and what makes the English version even more attractive: it's about $8 cheaper.

In short, I highly recommend this series in both French and English. See the book trailer in French here for a taste of the Ivoirian accent and music.


John_Ward Leighton | November 9, 2009 at 11:08 AM

I'll look it up at the library, it sounds very interesting


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