Marguerite Abouet’s hugely popular series of books, centred on the life of a young woman in a cheerful Côte d’Ivoire suburb, show an Africa far from stereotypes of war and disease.
The characters in Aya of Yopougon grapple with everyday issues like love, family, growing up, pregnancy, marriage — set mostly in a Abidjan suburb that is colourfully illustrated by Abouet’s partner, Frenchman Clement Oubrerie.
“We call it ‘Yop City’, like in an American film,” says young Aya in one of the five comic-book novels.
“With ‘Aya’ the aim is that after four pages you no longer think you’re in Africa but in a story which could be anywhere in the world,” says 38-year-old Abouet, who lives in Paris but often returns to Côte d’Ivoire.
With more than 300 000 copies sold, translations into 12 languages including English, an array of prizes and a film on the way, the adventures of young Aya and her friends and family have been a hit.
Elegant and talkative, Abouet was born in Abidjan’s Yopougon neighbourhood, where she has set the books that feature brightly dressed characters, dusty roads and community living.
When she was 12, she was sent to live in France with an uncle who was worried she would end up “hanging out in the street barefoot and playing football”, she says.
The colder climes of Paris were a wrench for a young girl from her part of sunny Africa.
“At 12 years old, you’re already grown up, you know plenty of things. I just needed to close my eyes and I’d be back in Yopougon,” she says.
In Europe she discovered, through television, an Africa different to the one of peaceful 1970s childhood.
“It’s always the same subjects — Aids, immigration, war,” she says.
“If there’s a reason why ‘Aya’ is popular, it’s probably because her story is universal, dealing with everyday life in modern Africa, that’s all.”
She does not idealise the continent, though. “In parts of Africa things are all right and in others, they’re not,” she says.
War came to Côte d’Ivoire with a coup in 1999, an armed rebellion splitting the country in two in 2002, and a deadly civil war.
But Abouet has based her stories, which she began writing when she was 17, on a time before the fighting.
Born from these adolescent memories, Aya and her friends Bintou, Adjoua and Moussa tell stories of Ivorian families and culture.
While the heroine aims to become a doctor, Bintou and Adjoua want to be hairdressers, seamstresses or “husband hunters” and daddy’s boy Moussa only want to have fun.
“The bit that’s real is Yopougon, the joie de vivre that is everywhere,” the writer says. “Me, I’m Akissi, Aya’s little sister.”
The first book was published in 2005 to acclaim. The following year it took the prize for best first book at the International Comics Festival in Angouleme in western France.
“My life has changed, I stopped my job as a legal assistant. I’m lucky enough to be chased after by publishers,” Abouet says.
She admits that in her country most children could not afford to buy the novels she has set in their midst.
This led her to create a “Books for All” foundation tasked with opening libraries in Africa and encouraging reading: the first has opened in Adjame, a poor district of Abidjan, and she hopes to open one in her native Yopougon.
“A house, a bar and a church, that’s how things are right now. So adding a library to the mix will make the kids realise there’s more to life than the church or the bar,” Abouet says.
An animated film based on Aya’s adventures is due for release in 2011 and the writer is working on a book called Welcome that will star a Parisian girl. “I can also write stories with white characters,” she smiles. – AFP