Aya: The Secrets Come Out – Marguerite Abouet and Clement Ouberie (2009)

In this, the third volume of an ongoing series about Aya, the story continues with this young woman (now in her early 20s?) in Yop City on the Ivory Coast in the 1970s. 

If you’re a regular reader of JOMP, you may recall that I’ve been an ongoing fan of Abouet and Oubrerie’s graphic series: for reference, have a look at reviews of Volume 1 (Aya) and Volume II (Aya of Yop City).

This volume continues Aya’s (auto-?) biography of life in Yop City, a middle-sized community where the protagonist and her friends all live, and this edition resumes the ongoing pattern of showing how perhaps “more typical” African middle-class families may live. 

What I really appreciate about this graphic novel series is that it shows how very “normal” (in Western eyes) life can be for folks who live in this part of Africa: how they are not dealing with what is shown on TV as typical (starving children and armed rebels impacting the stability of the country, as examples). 

Aya and her community face similar problems as comparable American women (for example, there are worries about her future career, she’s concerned with fashion and beauty, self-esteem troubles etc. and her friends go about their lives with patterns similar to those of American women of the same age). 

Marguerite Abouet
Marguerite Abouet

Interestingly, at the same time as showing these cultural overlaps, Abouet and Oubrerie also include situations that are more specific to this region of the world: one of their fathers wants to have a second bride while a male relative of Aya’s is facing issues related to being gay in a historically homophobic environment. 

So, as with the previous volumes, it’s a great mix of issues, each of which adds further to the overall narrative of helping western readers see that African nations (and their peoples) are more similar to these readers than they are different.

The art is effective and adds to the story, the actual narrative keeps you interested and although you’d would need to read the previous volumes to keep up with all the characters, it’s a good read. I really appreciated the extras that the authors had included as well, especially the family trees for Aya and her friends. (I was constantly going back and forth to remind myself who was who and how they fit in to her community – it did get a little confusing in places, but that might have been my monkey mind at the time.) 

I recommend this series if you’re interested in learning about other people, if you’re interested in intersectionality, if you’re interested in the world in general… I think I was most appreciative of the counter-narrative of the more-publicized message of African countries being full of unrest and “third-world problems”. There’s no denying that some do, but there are also those whose citizens have more overlap with their readers than they may realize. 

This would be a great series to have in a HS library to show younger readers how people may live in a world that is getting smaller and yet bigger at the same time. 

The Tortilla Curtain – T. C. Boyle (1995)

book377A reread from a few years back, this was actually just as good a read (if not better) the second time around. Boyle is an American writer who takes contemporary news issues (in this case, the issue of immigration) and then writes a narrative around that issue, usually raising a dilemma where there is no clear right and wrong. His plot lines are also unpredictable so I can never really guess the endings and that I love. That, combined with excellent writing skills and a large vocabulary, make Boyle a joy to read most of the time, so if you haven’t picked up one of his many novels or short stories, I highly recommend them. They’re almost a guaranteed good read.

This novel, The Tortilla Curtain, tells the story of two couples whose lives accidentally overlap with each other leading to a long chain of events which completely disrupt their lives. A young liberal California couple live in a mostly white community up in the hills just outside LA. Their lives are mostly smoothly run without any major hiccups until one day, the husband is driving his car and accidentally smashes into a Mexican immigrant who is here (along with his wife) as an undocumented citizen and who has no choice but to live in a rudimentary campsite down in the canyon that butts up against the backyard of the white couple. Such a collision leads to serious ramifications for both families, but Boyle writes the story in such a way that there is no obvious right or wrong. No one really does anything morally wrong, and both the couples just want similar goals: to live in a nice home and go to work.

It’s an intriguing premise that compares the Haves and the Have-Nots in today’s world. Through no fault of their own, the Mexican undocumented couple are striving for the same things that the privileged white couple are looking for, but when you are at rock bottom with few resources, how can you ever get out of your circumstances (especially if you can only live in the shadows)?

I could say more, but to tell you would be to ruin the plot and I don’t want to do that for you. Just know that this contemporary novel is a riveting read wherever you may stand on the touchy issue of immigration. It’s especially poignant when you realize how closely the two couples live, geographically speaking, and yet they are in worlds far away from each other. Boyle’s characters represent both sides of the immigration issue, and they are both written with equal parts compassion and criticism, both complicated with no clear solutions. It’s a fascinating read, especially in the light of the political chatter of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. (ridiculous).

By showing the reader the rationale behind the actions of the characters, you can see the slippery slope that people may be on with regard to how they feel about things, especially when events are not theoretical but happen in your own backyard. Does that change how you view things?

An excellent read from T. C. Boyle and highly recommended.

The Clothesline Muse

clotheslineWe were culture vultures the other day when Texas Tech brought “The Clothesline Muse” to a local stage and it was really a great experience. I’m not really a huge fan of modern dance having got nightmares from my early teenaged years of doing it at school during PE. (“Look – Be a leaf in the wind!!”) But this performance was not at all what I was expecting and I loved it.

It’s a multidisciplinary performance piece (and I say “performance piece” to sound arty, but another way to describe it could be a musical/dance/play/poetry mix which would still be accurate) – anyway, it’s an extremely polished well produced play (of sorts) which focuses on the relationship between a grandmother who is moving into an assisted living place and is being helped with the packing by her young granddaughter. As the boxes are packed, the granddaughter is struggling to meet her work deadlines at the same time (via phone/email), but as they eventually slow down the pace of packing, the elder woman starts to tell the younger stories of her long-ago youth. These stories cover the personal but also the political: emerging labor movement rights, African-American history, civil rights issues, women’s rights… All seen through the lens of the grandmother who was a washerwoman, a laundress, and as the play continues, it shows that there can be pride in the most menial of jobs.

This was a fantastic mélange of music and memory, of lithe young dancers doing impossible moves with their bodies and of the slow stiff body of the aged, of songs giving voice to those who had none… I think I may sound a bit gushy here, but this play is good enough to be gushy about. The singers were fantastic – jazzy (without being annoyingly improvisational) and extremely good. Nnenna Freelong plays the lead role and she is an award-winning Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and wrote the play. What was a great extra touch was that once the performance was over, the cast came out to the front of the stage and took questions and answers from the audience (who included high school as well as univ students). For such a great cast to take the time to add this educational component that was very well received by the younger audience members.

The Clothesline Muse is touring the US right now, so you might want to check the listings to see if it’s coming close to where you are. I highly recommend it if you like music, plays, dance, issues-focused culture, or extremely good anything.

Loved it!

(Just made it at the end of February as part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

black-history-month_2