The French have a long and impressive heritage in telling compelling and varied stories in their ‘bandes dessinees’. Aya of Yop City by Marquerite Abouet and Clément Ouberie is yet another to impress with its heart warming and quirky tales of middle class life in 1970’s Ivory Coast.
Much of the content is drawn from Abouet’s own experiences growing up in the Ivory Coast before her emigration to France. In today’s media fuelled world, with its coverage of tragedies in Africa, it is easy to forget that it was not always so. Across much of Africa, once the imperial powers had left, an before international pressure for quick economic growth bought about debt and poverty, stable nations briefly flourished and grew. Free from the yoke of France the Ivory Coast was one such country.
It is against this backdrop of stability that the stories of Aya, her friends and her family unfold. There is a slight soap opera feel in the telling of these normal family ‘ups and downs’. However, unlike the modern soap opera, there is no tendency to hyperbole and exaggeration. The tales, woven together into one narrative engage the reader through delightful story telling and well-observed characterisation. This is due not only to Abouet’s writing but also the playful and well-drafted artwork of Ouberie. Each character, even the ne’er do wells, are lovingly drawn in both word and art.
Aya of Yop City appears to be more a collected edition rather than a traditional graphic novel and there is a noticeable episodic feel. Also it is the second part of a three book series. Such is the skill of Abouet that there is no feeling that something has been missed and the various plot strands can be picked up clearly through the subtle use of story telling.
Throughout the book, the cast of delightful characters find themselves in a variety of trying situations. However, despite disputes over a baby’s parentage, local employers closing down, charlatan gigolos and infidelity the tone of the book remains upbeat and bright.
Parallels can be drawn with Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Ladies Detective Agency series where life in an African nation is presented to the western reader as normal, and the exotic nature of the location is unwrapped subtly and slowly. Like McCall Smith’s books, the language is a delight to read and once immersed the reader can lose themselves in Yop City and environs.
An additional aid to this immersion comes from a fascinating set of appendices. There is an informative glossary, where readers can learn exactly what a Tantie is, a description of how to secure a baby to the back with simple cloth, and a traditional Ivorian chicken recipe. These touches add to the feel of the book, which is a recommendation to those seeking something different yet, light.