Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pride and Prejudice: Aya--The Secrets Come Out

Rob reviews the latest volume of AYA, subtitled THE SECRETS COME OUT, by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (Drawn and Quarterly).

Some have compared the interactions of the cast in the AYA books to soap opera, and there are certainly some of those elements in the story. A better comparison might be an extended comedy of manners, much like a Jane Austen book. Indeed, the action in the AYA books, set circa 1980 in the Ivory Coast, depends mostly on the clash between new and old sets of cultural & gender expectations. Men behave badly and vainly try to relive their youths by taking lovers and trying to take on additional wives, but the women in their lives flex their own power. The younger women try to negotiate the lies that young men tell them while dreaming of a way out of small-town life. The gulf between children and adults is sometimes bridged in surprising ways while being broken irreparably in others. Pride becomes an impediment to intimacy, while prejudice emerges with regard to the very surprising reveal of one particular romantic entanglement. Through it all, the character of Aya is a level-headed heroine who navigates the craziness of her family, friends and village while always looking to her own figure.

What's fascinating about this book is the way it fully embraces the cultural specificity of the Ivory Coast during this period (years before civil war and deprivation struck the country) while making the characters and their situations relatable to anyone. There's almost a visceral quality to Aya's Yop City environment that Abouet relates in terms of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and temperatures. Oubrerie channels a bit of Joann Sfar in his work, both in terms of the expressiveness of his figures and the vivid use of color. Color is a crucial storytelling element in this book, especially with regard to the brightness of the characters' clothes and how that figures into identity.

The Aya books have character threads that cohere into a story, but not much of a master plot. In this volume, for example, the book revolves around a "Miss Yop City" beauty pageant that concludes about halfway through the book. The story's really about the desires of every character and how that leads to conflict when the secrets concealing their desires emerge. A young, single mother dreams of having her own restaurant. A hapless young man wishing to please his overly demanding father overhears him speaking ill of him and is crushed. A young woman dreaming of life in France puts perhaps a bit too much of her trust in a scheming lothario. A young man desperately wants to be able to love openly and will even leave the country to do so, hoping his lover will come with him. The lover of Aya's father gets fed up with a lack of attention for herself and the children she had with him, and exposes their affair to his wife.

Abouet tells these stories with a remarkably light touch, one that's matched by Oubrerie's cartoony style. No matter the difficulty or conflict, there's a way to deal with it. Aya really is an Austen-style heroine in that she takes it upon herself to inject herself into all sorts of problems of others--when they're not directly barking up her tree to do so. She's come to terms with that role, even as it interferes with her desire to be an intellectual. Indeed, her affection is boundless for those characters with the least means--both intellectually and financially. That's especially true of the family maid (one of the most vivid characters in the book) and a badly uneducated and gentle mechanic. She doesn't seek to dominate their lives, but rather gives them an opportunity to develop their own sense of agency and express their voices.

Aya has a bit of pride and stubbornness herself, but Abouet generally writes her as having the fewest foibles of any of the Ivorians we meet. I think this is partly because she's a gateway character to everyone else we are introduced to and partly because she's acting as a stand-in for the author. Abouet can't help but throw in a childhood recollection of seeing a child psychologist in France and then turning it around to how insanity is seen in Africa. She also has a couple of character relate recipes in an appendix, further adding a sense of longing for tastes and smells of a particular region.

While the AYA books are a celebration of a particular culture at a particular time, they are also a gift to non-African audiences. The delicate web of family and city is one that's more tightly woven than in most english-speaking cultures, for example. The small-town nature of Yop City is both a comfort and an occasional sense of frustration, especially for the young. Everyone is aware of everyone else's business, and there are societal obligations that can be as annoying as they are important. Abouet doesn't overly romanticize tradition and in fact takes the more sexist aspects of customs to task in this book. At the same time, Abouet is forgiving of even the most ridiculous of her characters and portrays them all as people simply trying to find a way to be happy. They may well get roundly chastised and publicly exposed, but it's more a matter of family squabbling than unforgivable offense. The pleasures are small in this slice-of-life series and not surprising, but it's the way they're woven together that makes each volume so satisfying.

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