Drawing on the Universal in Africa:
An Interview with Marguerite Abouet
Too often, it is easier than we realize to forget the intimate details of a childhood, especially one lived thousands of miles away in a different country. As the years pass by, distance and time make fading memories more difficult to recall. Slowly, a new — and hopefully better — life takes over our days, making it even harder to remember little details.
Like Marguerite Abouet, I left West Africa at an early age. And like her, I too, long to remember and write about what it was like then, for in the back of my mind West Africa is always present. It comes as no surprise to me that Abouet’s only comic book in English, Aya, is her very powerful visual and literary expression of this longing, this deep need to hold onto childhood memories filled with “unbelievable” stories about neighbors, families, friends — all in an Ivory Coast that had recently gained independence from France and was enjoying a new middle class society.
Set in a bustling city in Ivory Coast, Aya is a witty, urban story. One, Abouet says, could have taken place anywhere in the world. She is right, in theory, for there is a universalizing force that seems to drive Marguerite Abouet, the writer.
So come along and let her show you why, and literally through pictures, how, just as they might do in Europe or America, young girls sneak out to meet guys at night — or go to a party and flirt with the most attractive guy there. This is no difference worldwide, really.
And yet, Aya is also an urban story that takes place, specifically, in Ivory Coast — a country which now experiences what many other African countries have faced after decades of colonial rule: political corruption, disease, civil strife, and staggering poverty.
Days after I finished this interview with Abouet, I realized that in it I had brought attention to the current harsh realities for Africans in Ivory Coast, and for those who migrated to Europe. Perhaps, as someone who was raised in Africa, I felt I had to… and it was the responsible thing to do. Perhaps it may always remain so; I don’t know. Thankfully, Abouet was generous and warm in her response to my questions, always unapologetically reaching for honesty in her own reflections.
At a panel discussion at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, Abouet spoke of how she often feels a certain responsibility as an African writer because she wrote the book Aya. It was unclear to me whether this feeling of responsibility, like mine, had everything to do with addressing the current crisis in many parts of Africa. But I secretly wished it didn’t, and that part of it also meant continuously drawing attention to the universal and relatable aspects of Africa, which Abouet has indeed successfully done in her engaging work, Aya — and in her interview with me.
WRR: Tell me about moving from Ivory Coast to France at a very young age (seven?) — and how this experience, coupled with living in France from thereon, might have influenced the course of your life and your writing of Aya (if at all).
ABOUET: I came to France at the age of twelve. Because the Ivory Coast is an old French colony, I spoke French very well — obviously with an accent! Culturally speaking, I also did not have great difficulty integrating into the society.
Then, as the years went by, I had the desire to write Aya.
I had always felt the need to recollect my youth down there, the silliness I got into, the unbelievable stories about the quartier, the families, the neighbors. I did not want to forget that part of my life, to hold on to those memories, and the desire to recount them got stronger with age. I felt a little guilty for being content in another country, far away from my family; in addition, I got so annoyed at the way in which the media systematically showed the bad side of the African continent, habitual litanies of wars, famine, of the ‘sida,’ and other disasters, that I wished to show the other side, to tell about daily modern life that also exists in Africa.
Aya is therefore an urban story which could have taken place anywhere in the world.
WRR: Ivory Coast enjoyed what some have called la belle époque in the 1970s when President Houphouet-Boigny’s free land policies enabled economic boom — and thus the emergence of a middle class was possible. This is indeed something that is sorely lacking in many African countries today. In Aya you capture the middle class society so well that I wondered if your family was part of it. If yes, what were some of its societal norms at that time. I ask this because in Aya, there is a focus on societal norms and a testing of them by some of the main characters like Bintou, Adjoua, and even Aya herself. For instance, in the book, Aya tells her father she wants to become a doctor and he discourages her because “university is for men, not girls.”
ABOUET: After gaining independence, a new middle class appeared on the Ivory Cost. Many peasants’ children had the opportunity to study in the city. Thus it was necessary to provide housing for these young people, and new additions and areas began to crowd Abidjan. Helped along by the economy of the time, all these new graduates found jobs. For relaxation, they formed clubs where they met after work or on weekends. That is also where they socialized and married. Their parents no longer had great influence on their life choices; they had been surpassed by the changes in the country and by this new freedom brought about by the “Ivorian miracle.”
Women above all were influenced by the Western media and were emancipated. They no longer yielded to their parents’ authority in choosing a husband. Their level of education made them aware of their rights: the right to divorce, access to the pill, opportunities for professional careers.
It is true that Africans had a strong desire for a male as the eldest child. It is he who would carry on the family name and would contribute to the support of the family by caring for aging parents. As far as a girl was concerned, she was often a responsibility and was married very quickly, mostly to the advantage of the parents.
But here, as in the Ivory miracle, men justifiably chose women from these clubs; they knew that they were very modern and cultivated, and financially independent.
My parents were a part of that middle class. They were well off before they met. When they decided to get married, their parents both approved the match because their children already had a place to live and a job.
It is true that in Aya the father tells his daughter that great accomplishments are made by men.
This comment must be taken in context: this is only fiction, and fortunately not all African fathers are like Ignace. His only goal is to marry his daughter to the son of his patron. He is so intent on this that he urges her not to go too far in her studies.
WRR: In Aya, the modern (telephones, fancy dresses, and cars from Paris, etc.) and the traditional (wearing of traditional waxed cloth-like pagne, etc) seem to coexist well and without much friction (except perhaps when norms are obviously challenged). You seem to be saying something about the impact of modernity on women in African society in the book though, both good and bad. Please elaborate more on this if you can.
ABOUET: It is true: Africa is torn between tradition and modern times. That is the logical result of the meeting between Africa and the West in the media where many European and Brazilian programs are replayed. Actually, the women in Aya avail themselves of certain rights, even though they are subject to numerous patriarchal dictates: the right and choice of working (that is true for all yopoupan mothers), control over household funds, also the choice to have fewer children (true for Bintou’s mother), the right not to accept polygamy, access to a basic level of education (true for Aya’s mother), also the right to divorce.
It is the good side of modern times that can well coexist with tradition. The tradition of Ivorian hospitality that is characteristic to young and old is one of respect for family environment and for the aged. That is why girls adhere to traditional values in Aya, in spite of the freedoms they have.
WRR: You’ve chosen the comic book to convey your story. Is there a specific reason for this or was it coincidental? I read that you are currently working on some novels. Do you find the creative process different from when you wrote a comic book like Aya? Harder? Easier? Not comparable at all?
ABOUET: Novels written for young people are subject to a host of commercial constraints such as age, purpose, themes, and editors who do not shy away from endless correcting and reworking of the text. That is a problem that I did not face in Aya. By addressing myself to adults as well as to the young, I had great freedom to create.
WRR: There is a lot of humor in Aya, even when the characters show questionable moral behavior like promiscuity and infidelity. It seems to me that humor could be the vehicle you’ve used to draw attention to these particular aspects of 1970s urban life in Ivory Coast. Please elaborate on your use of humor in the book.
ABOUET: The people of the Ivory Coast are known for their sense of humor, particularly with regard to things that are not humorous. Their motto is: as long as no one has died, life continues. Whatever the conflicts or the problems, they will be resolved by following the advice of the sages at the foot of the talking tree (tree of advice), and then one can reconcile by celebrating with a feast.
The humor in Aya is not limited to the 70s; it is equally appropriate for today, because there are new things to laugh about (all the coup d’états and their successive presidents, the conditions of emigrants in Europe and in the United States, prostitution, corruption, etc.). Moreover, one need go no further than listening to the songs and reading the humor magazines like ‘GBICH’ to realize that Ivorian humor has grown.
In Aya I only paid homage to the kind of humor that is part of me and with which I grew up.
WRR: What is your life in France like at the moment? And as an African woman who immigrated to France, what do you think of the current socio-political situation in the country in regards to immigrants, especially North Africans?
ABOUET: My life is quite normal. I live with my husband and our son. I stopped working as legal assistant and I am trying to write every day.
From the very beginning, I believed that the socio-political situation in North Africa and that in West Africa are totally different.
As an African from the West, I would like to point out that the French had the black Africans brought over to do the jobs that no one else wanted to do. As long as the Blacks stayed in their assigned place — as supermarket attendants, house maids, street sweepers, in child and geriatric care, or at most, as artists and athletes — all went very well. But now some of the offspring and young children of those first arrivals are doing more than that. At the price of a difficult struggle, they are becoming company owners, cadres, intellectuals, and they are more visible. These Blacks sense more discrimination because they have abandoned their role. This kind of racism is more frequent when the economy is doing poorly.
Today’s real danger is not idiotic racism and the increase in nationalists. We know how to deal with it — it is evident in ordinary attitudes which convey the worst paternalistic and condescending clichés that symbolically destroy Blacks even more surely than the overtly racist insults.
I believe that Blacks have just need for a Republic that is accessible to all and allows each one to find his place in society according to his talents.
WRR: Today, many people in Africa are obviously experiencing serious economic hardship and struggle to survive on a daily basis — and the American media via films such as Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardener continuously portray an Africa that is wrought with violent civil war, corruption, etc. The post-colonial Ivory Coast in Aya is a totally different one — almost unrecognizable, especially given the media’s images. Life was refreshingly simple, peaceful, and people were obviously enjoying themselves. What do you think of how the West (more so America, I think) portrays Africa in general nowadays–and was Aya an attempt to respond to that at all? If not, inadvertently, you have portrayed an Africa that seems almost non-existent now, one that we really don’t see or hear much of anymore. Wonderful, I think.
ABOUET: We are often told that Africans live in famine, illness, tribal wars, poverty, with a hand extended, begging aid from the West.
It is interesting to confirm that the easygoing and careless impression of Africa that is found in Aya fortunately still exists, even today. It would be nice if the African continent were evoked dropping the stereotypes of suffering because Africa is really quite a large and diverse continent, and as everywhere else — particularly in the United States, there are enormous differences in social classes…
Paradoxically, it is a form of well-disposed racism when I hear some people say that they will never go to Africa for fear of seeing this suffering.
One needs to know that Africans are about more than the side of misery that is persistently shown of their continent. Africans have only had their independence for forty years, compared to a century for France; it seems fair to give Africans time to free themselves of old crocodiles in power and to evolve.
I can assure you that the Ivory Coast remains a beautiful country with nice quartiers (living areas), superb beaches, and a magnificent fauna and flora, despite its disasters. African women finally share the same dreams of other women on the planet, and I wish only to show their daily lives filled with hopes and desires to perform as modern women in Africa.
Angela Ajayi spent over ten years in publishing, mainly as a book editor, until she became a freelance writer. She holds a BA from Calvin College and an MA from Columbia University. Her essays and author interviews have appeared in the Star Tribune and Afroeuropa: Journal of Afro-European Studies. She currently writes book reviews for The Common Online. Her first short story, “Galina,” will be published by Fifth Wednesday Journal this fall. She likes to think she defies easy categorization, identifying through birth and citizenship as a Nigerian-Ukrainian-American writer. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter.