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Trapped between worlds in Ivory Coast

Clément Oubrerie's artwork contributes to Marguerite Abouet's intimate portrait of the African world that exists outside the glare of the media spotlight.

By Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie
Translated, from the French, by Helge Dascher
Drawn & Quarterly, 96 pp., $19.95

"You can really talk white," a friend tells the narrator of Marguerite Abouet's debut graphic novel, and he doesn't mean it as a compliment. At 19, Aya has already outgrown the intellectual confines of Yopougon , the working-class Ivory Coast neighborhood where she was raised. To her peers, Aya's careful diction is apostasy, or at least impudence; Clément Oubrerie, the book's illustrator, often draws her with her head tipped backward , her nostrils flared.

But why shouldn't she hope for more? In 1960 , a charismatic former union leader named Félix Houphouët-Boigny had pushed Ivory Coast to independence, and by 1978, the year in which Abouet stages "Aya," the Ivorian economy is thriving. Even Yopougon is affected, its narrow streets and cluttered plazas suddenly flush with all-night dance parties, entangled lovers, and souped-up sports cars.

One evening, buoyed by the "holiday feeling" in the air, Aya blurts to her father, Ignace: "I want to be a doctor."

"A doc-what?" he replies. "What for?"

Like most of Abouet's characters, Ignace is trapped between two worlds. On a business trip in Abidjan, the economic hub and main port , he catches a glimpse of the other, rich side of Ivory Coast, with its noisy metropolises -- those Westernized paradises of hulking buildings and wide boulevards. Yes, Aya could be a doctor, but why would she want to be a doctor when she could wed a city man and make her entire family happy?

"Finish high school first," he decides, finally, between mouthfuls of food. "Then we'll see."

Abouet, who was raised in Ivory Coast, has attempted to create something very brave in "Aya" -- an intimate portrait of the African world that exists outside the glare of the media spotlight. Occasionally it works. Oubrerie's artwork is exacting; he sends the characters dancing and flirting and sweating through a backdrop of ochre and violet, and allows them little pause. Limbs shake. Sweat collects on necks, on foreheads. The afternoon sinks into red, and the next day arrives in gold.

In the most haunting scene in the book, Adjoua and Bintou , two of Aya's friends, weave their way through a party outside of Yopougon, intent on catching the attention of the men lined up against the bar. When her rich escort, Moussa, tries to apologize for a faux pas, Bintou demurs.

"Not now!" she says, her index finger extended to the sky. "They're playing the new François Louga ."

Oubrerie fills the next frame with a dozen bodies clustered on the dance floor, while Louga's lyrics float above Bintou's head: "I sailed off by day under a burning sun, leaving my father and country."

Ivorians in 2007, their homeland desiccated by government infighting and split apart by poverty, know much about the burning sun and self-made exile. Adjoua, Bintou, and Moussa don't, yet. This is Abouet's big tell: The truest history is the history of community, and it moves very slowly.

Fine. As Alisia Grace Chase suggests in the preface, there is certainly something to be said for an African story about "amorous hi jinks" and not "swollen bellied children." But if a novel is to break what is often described as our "Africa fatigue," it must first fully reconcile the reality of the newspaper headlines with the more intimate reality of the individual.

And Abouet is far too subtle in her approach for this, far too tentative. By the end of "Aya," she has only stirred up a handful of promising plot strands -- unintended pregnancy, Ignace's promotion at a local beer company, Aya's struggle to make it out of Yo pougon -- and dropped them, slack, over a rainbow-colored stage.

Matthew Shaer is an arts editor at the Christian Science Monitor.