Generally, I'm not a huge fan of graphic novels. As a writer, I develop a very personal relationship with every book I read and graphic novels never seem to exhibit enough depth for me to want to sustain a relationship. Well there's always exceptions to every rule and Aya, written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clement Oubrerie, is that magical exception. Whimsically drawn with watercolor hues, the book literally called to me in a crowded bookstore. Once I picked it up, it was over. I kick-started a relationship with Aya, a smart, 19-year-old living in the Ivory Coast circa 1978. That was the time of the charismatic president, Houphouet-Boigny's 30-year leadership of a prosperous, forward moving Ivory Coast. Such was the elegance and creativity of the country's capitol, Abidjan, it was dubbed "Paris of West Africa." I have read and heard stories about this glamorous era but it's a vivid reality for me on the pages of Aya.
Aya lives in Yopougon, a bustling Abidjan neighborhood that she and her friends call Yop City. While Aya focuses on her studies so that she can become a doctor, her friends Adjoua and Bintou concentrate on more pressing teen matters, like dancing at the open air nightclub and sneaking off to the local market square make-out spot, also nicknamed the thousand star hotel. Soon Adjou and Bintou are fighting over Moussa, a shiftless boy from a wealthy family who drives a "chic" yellow Toyota. It's all funny and familiar and yet the scenes of Aya carefully wrapping her pagne or wax-printed skirt, Adjoua enlisting her cousin to take her place among the eight kids asleep in her house so that her father won't know that she snuck out, make it fresh. There's a glossary included that lists popular Ivorian terms like freshnie for pretty girl and tassaba for derriere. There's even instructions on how to properly roll your tassaba while dancing and how to cook peanut sauce. Based on Marguerite's own youth in Abidjan, it's a witty and breezy African story without famine, wars and suffering, told authentically through African eyes. Thankfully, my version of Aya is colorfully translated from French by Helge Dasscher so that I could absorb every gesture and innuendo. There are two other Aya books that continue her story and like any good relationship, I'll be there for those as well.