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Aya

Written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie
Drawn & Quarterly
112 pages, $19.95
ISBN-10: 1894937902
ISBN-13: 9781894937900

 

The titular heroine, too smart to stay in the limelight for long, and her two closest friends, who aren't. Sequence from Aya, ©2007 Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie.

 

Marguerite Abouet's fictionalized account of 1970s village life in Africa's Ivory Coast, takes two themes — sex and wealth — and weaves them into a rich and inviting soap opera. At its most basic level, Aya is a fairly straightforward account of young adults pairing off and exploring romance: some making life-altering mistakes along the way; others hanging back and watching others make their mistakes. Among the latter is the nominal lead character, Aya herself, practically sidelined by her relative lack of interest in either sex or easy prosperity. Aya avoids men because she sees how much the mating dance has shaped the lives of her friends; she studies diligently in hopes of becoming a doctor, so that she might be able to fashion a better life with her own two hands. These are both wise and worthy life choices for a teenager, but they also render her a supporting character, the self-appointed Greek Chorus observing life as it swirls around her. She'll undoubtedly join the chaos once she's ready, but for the moment, she's content to watch those around her provide object lessons in what not to do.

The setting adds a thin veneer of exoticism to the proceedings. It's a false veneer, but it may take a few pages to realize this. The storytelling genius of Aya lies in the way it depicts the everyday lives of ordinary people: Folks go to school, trudge off to work, plan for the future and allow themselves to be ensnared in domestic entanglements on the Ivory Coast the same way they do everywhere else. The rich segregate themselves off from the peasants and delude themselves into seeing their differences as having some deeper meaning than mere money and leisure time — perhaps a little more overtly there than here in the West, but the principle is roughly the same.

 

Wealth is implied by open interior spaces and bright, lifeless color. Sequence from Aya, ©2007 Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie.

 

In fact, despite the seemingly overwhelming emphasis on the courtships between boys and girls, it's the class distinctions and the power of wealth to dictate one's surroundings that truly sit at the heart of this story, informing many of its characters' actions and dictating the resulting consequences. Men defer to the rich because it could lead to improved job prospects. Girls are attracted to men with money, hoping that the security offered by others will take the onus to forge their own futures off of them.

These twin themes come together in the relationship between one of Aya's friends and Moussa, the son of the local oligarch. At first, it seems as though they fall together through sheer happenstance. It's only after you hit the final page that you realize that one of the two has been playing fast and loose with the truth in order to get what they wanted. It's a neat trick insofar as you don't see it coming, yet it makes perfect sense in the face of what you've learned about the assumptions of the town's inhabitants.

 

Dancing at night, enveloped in warm colors. Sequence from Aya, ©2007 Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie.

 

Marguerite Abouet weaves her tale with a rich sense of character and a keen eye for detail, the two elements that invariably separate good melodrama from mere soap opera. She doesn't call attention to the specifics of life in the Irovy Coast; rather, she wraps her characters in subtle detail and lets them fulfill their roles at a natural pace, allowing incidental business to keep the eye busy while the story unfolds. The way women dress, the way men chase after them — these are presented as well-worn paths, and Abouet's characters go about their business without pausing to notice such surroundings. A less-aware author would have stopped at every point along the way, noting the details and revelling in the chance to show his or her readers Life On Another Continent, but this strategy would only make the surroundings seem exotic and artifical, pushing the audience away and blunting any sense of indentification. That's not what happens here.

Artist Clément Oubrerie adds life and flavor to Abouet's tale, rendering her detailed world in a warm, cartoony line that completes the illusion of a lived-in world without smothering it in excess detail. His sense of color is immaculate, shifting from warm tones to cool according to how Abouet wants the reader to approach the scene. Evening scenes may be bathed in dark reds or deep blues and purples, depending upon the required mood. It's as masterful a performance as the storytelling of its author, and the seamless way that art and writing blend together successfully paints a warm, vibrant tale of small-town life and the people who live it.

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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