There are no happy endings in Marguerite Abouet’s graphic novel Aya of Yopougon, and that’s fine.
Set in “Yop City,” Cote d’Ivoire, and 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 is awesome: 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. She’s your typical 20th century Disney heroine: intelligence and ambition balanced with incredible sex appeal, which is balanced with virginal purity. Progressive, but not transgressive.
That’s why the real action isn’t with Aya de Yopougon, but with Aya’s flawed friends Bintou and Adjoua, who go out like normal people and are destined for what Aya despairingly calls “Series C”: hairdressing, dressmaking and husband-chasing. Adjoua wears short dresses under longer ones just in case there’s a party. Bintou plots to trap a husband. Both dance, have regrettable sex with men in public, fight with each other and lie to their parents, until the plot is a hot mess of cars, money, and clubs with names like, “It’s Gonna Get Hot.”
They’re not Disney, they’re not role models, and they’re great. They’re savvy, confident girls who don’t wait agonizedly for a phone call or smile shyly before ducking behind a tree. These secondary characters aren’t exceptionally intelligent or imrobably brave like Aya, so they negotiate the cultural imperatives of looking nice, getting married, and making a living as best, and with as much fun, as they can. Their stories are bare, emotionally unadorned, because they are recounted from Aya’s distance, and the result is a calm, funny story of love triangles, quadrangles and hexagons which expose the bargaining that underpins contemporary “romance.”
Marguerite Abouet sketches the Africa of her childhood with a light touch, far from the sensational newspaper amalgam of famine, fun and coups d’etat. “L’Afrique, ce n’est pas seulement ça,” Anna Gavalda writes in the introduction. The illustrations of the Cote d’Ivoire 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.