Guilty Pleasure #1: Aya of Yop City

How can I rationalize that with 43 advances piled up on my Must Read Soon table, not to mention two big bags of unread advances (19 books in one, 26 in the other) from the fall tradeshow in Portland not even unpacked yet – how can I admit that two new books arrived in the bookstore yesterday and immediately, without a second thought or a twinge of conscience, I propelled them to the very top of the pile?

I could hardly wait to get home last night! How can I rationalize what I’m doing right now, sitting here at home this morning when I should be at the bookstore, enjoying a sick day in my reading armchair with my cat in my lap while my poor fellow bookstore employees are dealing with four hundred identically-dressed, souvenir-purchasing Japanese high school girls on an international fieldtrip to campus?

Aya of Yop City  I should be at my cash register, but I’m not. I’m blissfully enjoying Aya of Yop City, the delightful sequel to Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s gorgeous chunk of Ivory Coast comic reality, Aya.

Aya art 5  I’m so glad to find myself in the company of that same charming cast of characters again, four families of stereotypes that are straight out of classic comedy but given a unique Ivorian twist, with plenty of bright African hues and musical slang. Here again are Aya’s two girlfriends and their harried fathers and exasperated mothers, their boyfriends, some employed, some not, with the entire economic spectrum of Ivory Coast, from the servant girl to the big boss’s son.

Aya art 4  Aya herself never gets involved much in the action. She’s the sensible, caring center of the story, around which her more passionate, flustered and flawed friends and family members battle and swirl in secrets and dramas and plot complications.

Aya art 3  My mouth muscles ache from smiling so much. I’m literally grinning like an idiot while I read through the panels. What is it about this graphic novel that generates such unmitigated pleasure? There’s a joy of life that radiates from this impoverished ghetto that transcends poverty. Abouet’s complex characters all have realistic flaws. Though they may be all stereotypes, the characters are just human enough to ring true.

Aya art 2  The enjoyment became so intense that during the final third I began turning the pages slower and slower, savoring each layout and spread of color and images, one visual feast after another, punctuated by Oubrerie’s periodic, shockingly lovely full-page spreads. With the simplest dots and lines on the faces of the characters he conveys all kinds of subtle innuendoes, as the plot complicates and takes one unexpected turn after another.

Aya cover best  The original Aya ends with a perfectly-planted little plot bomb that immediately sent me scurrying back to the beginning of the book to marvel with newly-opened eyes. This new Aya of Yop City goes for a similar concluding surprise, and it’s a doozy, because it’s not at all what you’re expecting, and very nicely set up while you’re busy watching another plotline heading for disaster. But this second volume is clearly a transitional volume on its way to somewhere else – several different threads are left unresolved (who are those mysterious lovers meeting in the dark? What scheme is the Parisian up to now?) not to mention what feels like a missing grand finale centerpiece, the upcoming beauty pagent of Yogoutou which has yet to occur, in which all the girls in the story will be competing against each other for the cash prize to help their families, all except for sensible, realistic Aya, who would win if she entered but is secretly training her maid, Felicite, to compete.

Aya art 1  Ever tried using a graphic novel for your reading group? Persepolis was such a huge hit for our group that I effortlessly include one each year – Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat, and Rutu Modan’s superb Exit Wounds have been, along with Aya, the standouts in a field of thrilling new growth. The best graphic novels and memoirs are absolutely as discussable as their non-pictorial kin! If you haven’t allowed yourself to discover the unexpected, nonverbal depths of a graphic novel, the subtle pleasures when a plot point is covered by art instead of words, you couldn’t have a better opportunity than the Aya books. They’re comedies with bite about real moral and economic issues, delivered through visual artistry that’s positively exhilarating, composed with balance and wit.

Aya authors  And now, here I am, the day after the book’s release, at the end of the second book and in dreadful suspense for the next installment. Who will win the beauty pageant? How has Albert enraged his sister? Who is Albert meeting in the dark? Will Mamadou finally get a job? Will Ignace’s family be destroyed by the shocking revelation at the end of the book?  And let’s just hope Bintou isn’t pregnant!

I’m starting to feel guilty. At this very moment four hundred identically-dressed Japanese girl tourists are trampling over my fellow book store workers, buying armfuls of college T-shirts and key-chains, presenting their fathers’ Visa cards, and me – I’m here at home in reading heaven.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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