Required Reading: Aya de Yopougon
Marguerite Abouet’s graphic novel Aya of Yopougon makes great required reading for all the wrong reasons.
Set in “Yop City,” Cote d’Ivoire, and ostensibly centered on a young woman named Aya, the comic book seems ready to follow Aya’s battle to become a doctor (likely villainous obstacles: money problems, distracting friends, and a father who thinks marriage is more appropriate than medicine).
Aya would be a great hero and role model. She has witty retorts for street harassment. She’s wise and also kind, dispensing good advice to all her neighbors and still finding the time to braid her sister's hair. She is beautiful. She doesn’t go parking with boys.
See where I’m going? Aya has all the problematic virtuousness of your typical 20th century Disney heroine: intelligence and ambition are justified by the unlikely combination of incredible sex appeal and virginal purity. An ability to conform to male fantasy while checking boxes off a progressive list is just dull tradition in the genre of stories about young women.
Luckily, author Marguerite Abouet dispenses with all that med school and straight-edge stuff in the beginning pages, and soon reveals that the story isn’t much about Aya. The real action lies with Aya’s flawed friends Bintou and Adjoua.
Bintou and Adjoua go out! They dance and have regrettable sex with men in public places. They fight with each other and they lie to their parents. Bintou plots to trap a husband. Adjoua wears short dresses under longer ones just in case there’s a party. Their dramas fuel a fast-paced story, which begins with using a young man for his car and cash at the local club (called “It’s Gonna Get Hot”) and develops into a mess of sex, lies and Cote d’Ivoirien slang until someone gets married. But hang in there.
Okay, it’s classic romantic comedy stuff. Yeah, there is a lot of heterosex, and way too many commercial exchanges based on said heterosex. Bintou and Adjoua claim to be happy with what Aya despairingly calls “Series C”: hairdressing, dressmaking and husband-chasing. But here’s where Aya of Yopougon deviates from the blockbuster norm: no romance.
Deadpan narrative relates a hormonal coming-of-age without any mushy stuff: no crushes, no anguished longing, no embarrassed smiles. Hallelujah! Bintou and Adjoua aren’t meant to be role models; they’re reflections. This is what savvy, confident teenage girls look like in a society where virginity is paramount, but so is being “saved” by a man.
Abouet’s genius is in using the idealized Aya as a critic of the un-ideal, of the real lives of real girls.
Aya is an improbable exception. Bintou and Adjoua are not exceptions, so they’re forced to negotiate cultural imperatives like looking nice, getting married, and making a living without upsetting anyone's gendered expectations. Their stories are bare, emotionally unadorned, because they are recounted from Aya’s distance. The result is a calm, funny story of love triangles, quadrangles and hexagons which expose the bargaining that underpins heterosexuality and the cult of romance.
Marguerite Abouet doesn’t need a helpless, wide-eyed victim to illustrate injustice. She sketches the Africa of her childhood with a light touch, far from the sensational newspaper amalgam of famine, war, and coups d’etat. "L'Afrique, ce n'est pas seulement ça," Anna Gavalda writes in the introduction. So Aya of Yopougon remembers another Africa, where poverty, like misogyny, isn't a UNICEF campaign or a special "awareness-raising" day. It's a simple fact and part of the tale.
Aya of Yopougon is about the Cote d’Ivoire. The illustrations are awesome. Things do not end happily ever after. These qualities alone are probably enough to recommend the book. Any remaining questions may be answered by the tongue-in-cheek “Ivoirien Bonus” appendix, which explains, among other things, how to wrap a pagne and how to make peanut sauce (Abouet calls it aller-retour or “roundtrip” because “once you try it, you come back to ask for more”)
Disclaimer: Aya of Yopougon is the first in a six-volume series of graphic novels about Aya, so the title character probably has a lot of development and depth to reveal. If you read #2 through #6, let me know.
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