May 2007

John Zuarino

features

An Interview with Marguerite Abouet

Marguerite Abouet was raised in the Ivory Coast until she and her brother moved at the age of twelve to France with a great uncle. Over the years, she has been working as a legal assistant in Romainville, a suburb of Paris, where she has been writing books for young adults as well as the acclaimed graphic novel series Aya de Yopougon. With the first volume’s recent translation into English, Abouet gives American readers insight into the Ivory Coast of her childhood. This is an Ivory Coast which stands in stark opposition to the images of civil wars and AIDS dominating the African continent. The book’s preface quotes Myriam Montrat’s 1988 essay From the Heart of an African:

“The vision of Africa in the American mind is shaped by films, music, art, entertainment and the news media… (but) only the news media have the mission to inform. With regard to Africa, the media fail in this mission.” 

Abouet’s book attempts to rectify this failure. It is a glimpse into an adolescent girl’s life in Abdijan circa 1978 under Ivorian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, an Abdijan known as the “Paris of West Africa.”    

On April 26, 2007, Abouet sat down with Neil Gaiman for an event assembled for the PEN World Voices festival of international literature in New York. The two discussed the idea of being an expatriate, noting that Abouet moved from her home to the colonizing nation. After the event, I sat down with Marguerite for a short interview. Keeping with the themes presented throughout the week-long PEN festival, the interview was conducted in translation between English and French. 

The Ivory Coast as presented in Aya is a much different picture than what we are shown every day through the Western media.

Yes, I have relatives living there, and I’m visiting often. There are even people living there now just like Aya, even though the story is set in 1978. They want to advance their lives, they have good relationships with people and their relatives, and everything’s going fine, even though there are problems with AIDS. It’s everywhere. It doesn’t only happen in the Ivory Coast, it’s in every country. But people are still living normally. 

As an African person living in France, I don’t want to see how badly the media represents the Ivory Coast. The African people have enough of these very bad, miserable images of Africa that the media will show. Even now people will still say to me, “I’m not going to Africa because I’m really afraid to see all these miserable people.” It’s almost as easy as saying you don’t want to go to the United States because you’re afraid to get a bullet in the head. 

Your bio mentions that you write novels that you have yet to show to your publishers. How does writing prose differ from writing comics, and what are these novels like?

It’s easier to do a graphic novel. Even if I don’t know how to draw -- I’m not an illustrator -- I have more liberty in the graphic novel. Also, the audience is broader. 

Before, I wrote novels for young adults. There are a lot of rules and codes for writing young adult novels, and you have fewer liberties. You’re not allowed to talk about sex; there are many taboos. In the publishing house, after you write your novel for young adults, there are people going after you and getting rid of everything that can be shocking. After that, you are not the writer anymore. I stopped writing novels for a moment because I didn’t have time anymore. But now I want to do a comics thriller and another story about AIDS. 

Where did Aya come from, and is it autobiographical?

It’s autobiographical in the way that it’s the Ivory Coast that I know. The characters are based on my neighbors. They had complicated stories and affairs with men. So the characters and places are things I know in real life. The story itself is fiction. 

What made you start writing for comics?

Marjane Satrapi is really the one who gave me the idea to write comics -- at first I was absolutely not a comics writer. And Joann Sfar is my editor in Paris. I like what he has been doing and what he is doing now. For a long time in France there were only comics with superheroes. But with Joann Sfar there appeared what we call the graphic novel, le roman graphique, and that is more what interests me. 

I feel like girls were not really involved in comics, and comics were not really for girls. I hated when I was young to read superheroes. Except for Spider-Man. He was a normal guy -- he was having affairs with girls. He had complicated stories with girls and his aunt and everything, so I felt he was closer to me. And he was beautiful also. I was in love with Spider-Man. But otherwise I didn’t feel close to the superheroes. I wasn’t concerned with them. 

And now with Satrapi and Sfar, who are telling real stories about real life, there are more and more women doing comics and graphic novels. So now it’s really open to a broader audience, including girls. Really it’s Marjane Satrapi who influenced me to start doing graphic novels.

You’ve published two volumes of Aya de Yopougon in France, and a third is on its way. Will those also be translated in the future?

I hope so. Then Americans can buy it.