One of the most successful African comics has no super heroes, and certainly no supernatural powers.
Instead, “Aya,” a graphic novel series, is full of everyday heroes, and topping the list is Aya herself, a young woman navigating the delights and obstacles of early adulthood in the West African nation of Ivory Coast.
Inspired by the childhood years that its author, Marguerite Abouet, spent in Ivory Coast and focused on daily life in a working-class suburb of Abidjan, the country’s largest city, the series mixes humor and biting takes on society, with a feminist twist — all vividly captured by Clément Oubrerie, the illustrator.
In the books, Aya and her friends go on awkward first dates, hook up and share countless shenanigans that celebrate Ivory Coast’s favorite sport after soccer — “palabrer,” or talking endlessly.
The relatable characters help explain the instant acclaim “Aya” won from readers and critics when it was first released in France in 2005; the following year, it won the award for best debut at the Angouleme International Comics Festival, one of the world’s leading comic gatherings. The books have since been translated into 15 languages and attracted more than a million readers worldwide.
In recent years, “Aya” has enjoyed a revival among a new generation of readers, many from the French-speaking African diaspora. “For teenagers in France, Aya is so in,” Abouet said in a telephone interview from Paris, where she now lives. “They discover an African character who doesn’t see being Black, or a woman, as a hurdle, who has her friends and her convictions.”
In the United States, sales of the books went up during the George Floyd protests as American readers looked for fresh takes on racial issues and stories from Africa, said Peggy Burns, the publisher of Drawn & Quarterly, which publishes “Aya” in North America.
The most recent volume that’s English, “Aya: Claws Come Out,” was released this week — another sign that the series resonates well beyond its setting, the neighborhood of Yopougon in the 1970s and 1980s.
Beyond the apparently light tone is a multilayered tale in which Aya and her friends struggle with unemployment and police violence, and fight for students’ rights and against sexual violence on campus.
In college, Aya wants to become a doctor then turns to law, but her father doesn’t really support her ambitions. Adjoua, one of her best friends, ends up raising a baby on her own; her other friend, Bintou, a rising actress, fights the sexism pervading the Ivorian television industry.
Their parents navigate the corruption plaguing the country as much as the issues roiling their households, like heavy drinking and adultery.
When Aya shares with Adjoua and Bintou that her father has been cheating on her mother for years and has had two children with his mistress, Bintou dismisses Aya’s despair with a devastating joke: “Sorry to tell you, but men are like hospital beds; they’ll take anyone under their sheets.”
Adjoua doubles down: “That’s how it’s always been, you know it!”
Abouet, 52, moved to France at age 12 and began writing about growing up in Ivory Coast after the parents of three children she was babysitting encouraged her to share stories from home with a broader public.
She did, and “Aya” is an ode to Abidjan’s most vibrant borough, Yopougon, the birthplace of zouglou, a dance style, and a wellspring of artistic creation.
Many of the landmarks that make up Aya’s Yopougon — the open-air playgrounds, the church Abouet would go to, the “1,000-star hotel,” an outdoor market turned meeting place for lovers at night — are gone. Middle-class families have moved to more affluent neighborhoods, and some areas are becoming gentrified, with gated communities sitting next to slums.
But the soul of the borough that Aya and her friends call Yop City, “like something out of an American movie,” lives on. The din of street vendors selling fried plantain or charcoal, groups of bickering children in school uniforms or harried workers running after public vans during rush hour give it a dizzying atmosphere.
Its unpaved alleys and broad avenues are still filled with the drone of sewing machines, the smell of grilled fish in open-air restaurants known as “maquis,” and the haze of exhaust fumes spewing out of brightly colored motorized tricycles.
Finding the Aya series in Yopougon is no easy task, as most book stalls in the street focus on self-help, school texts or old classics from France. Nearly half of Ivory Coast’s 30 million people are illiterate, and “Aya” sales in West African countries represent less than 10 percent of the total, according to Gallimard, its publisher in French.
But Edwige-Renée Dro displays the books prominently in her library and bookstore in the heart of Yopougon, where she also organizes writing residences for women.
Dro, a writer herself, translated the most recent volume of “Aya” to be published in English. (There have been eight volumes in French, and three in English; the first two English-language volumes each collected three of the French originals into one. The most recent volume translated into English, “Aya: Claws Come Out,” is the seventh one in France.)
She called the series a classic of Ivorian literature.
“Ivorian writers don’t write in the language we speak on the streets,” Dro said on a recent morning on the rooftop of her library, where she was smoking a cigarette and combing through the book she translated. “Marguerite does, and people in Ivory Coast see themselves in Aya.”
But she noted that “Aya” was still published in France, Ivory Coast’s former colonial power. “In order to have a vibrant Ivorian literary scene, we need the infrastructure here,” she added.
After the fifth French issue, Abouet and Oubrerie took a 12-year break from the series. During that time, they adapted “Aya” into a movie, and Abouet wrote “That’s Life!” a television series popular across West Africa in which she explores themes developed in “Aya,” like women’s well-being, gender issues and public health. She has also been writing “Akissi: Tales of Mischief,” a tale for younger readers published in a youth magazine sold across West Africa and collected in an English-language book.
Last year, as Abouet was promoting the most recent volume of the book to be released in France — the eighth, not available in English yet — she said that she met many mixed-race teenagers and young adults who felt a real connection to her characters.
“There are not so many heroes like them,” Abouet said. “Black Panther is nice, but for many it is too much, too futuristic. They want a middle ground.”
Abouet said that she remains fascinated with perceptions of “Aya” across the world. In northern European countries, she said parents have asked if children in West Africa go to therapy after discovering that their father has a second family, or that he has cheated on their mother.
In Ethiopia she was once booed by university students who accused her of promoting homosexuality through the character of Innocent, a gay friend of Aya’s who moves to France and faces the hurdles of living as an undocumented migrant.
“Life in Africa is made of problems we all have, on all continents,” Abouet said. “But I still wonder, how come daily life in a working-class neighborhood of an African city is something of interest to you?”
From her library of in Yopougon, Dro, the translator, said the reason was clear to her.
“In ‘Aya,’ we see Africans loving each other,” she said. “Like everyone else.”