When Aya of Yop City was announced as the first film to be screened at the 4th Ake Arts and Book Festival, Abeokuta, I didn’t expect to be as entertained I was that Tuesday. The film is based on Aya de Yopougon, a bestselling graphic novel series by Marguerite Abouet who spent her childhood in Abidjan and currently lives in Paris. With English subtitles and a familiar culture, the audience watched a hilarious, authentic West African story told from the point of view of the main character, young Aya.
It must be quickly pointed out that Aya is neither a cartoon nor comic strip created exclusively for children. The content and quality of the film is reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis while the novel itself calls to mind Abraham Oshoko’s June 12. Still, Aya is the only graphic novel from the continent that has sold over a million copies and has been translated into seventeen languages. During the festival, Marguerite and I chatted in between panel discussions.
You have mentioned on two different occasions here at Ake that you were not sure how Nigerians will receive Aya. Why were you so anxious?
Even though Nigeria and Cote D’Ivoire are not far from each other geographically, the culture may not be familiar. Thus, there is a lot of prejudice. Nigerians think that Ivoirians are people who party all the time and drink a lot. I mean, someone even asked after the movie screened if I was sponsored by a beer company. Often, we have a simplistic vision of other African countries and this is not good. I am African first before being Ivoirian. I do not allow countries in the West speak badly about Africa and we should not do the same among ourselves. When I mentioned I was coming to Nigeria, people said I was crazy and the country is dangerous. As I said, I do not like prejudice. In every country, there are dangerous and good places.
So, all of this was going through my mind before Aya was screened. I was happy that people laughed and had a good time with the film. It is important to respect others. We share almost the same customs. For example, when Adunni and the Nefertiti band performed, I loved it. It reminded me of something similar from an ethnicity in Cote D’Ivoire, which is why we have this profession, to create dialogue and discuss. Even though, I do not like to fly, I make the time to travel and have conversations with people at festivals like this.
Aya has sold over a million copies. How were you able to achieve that?
We sold about 700,000 copies in France initially, before I noticed something. The hardcover copy was too expensive for Africans in Francophone countries to purchase. Once I returned to Paris, I met with my editor, Gallimard and said we must find a solution. This was to make a paperback version of Aya which was three times less expensive than the hardcover. I did not want to write a positive African novel that will not be accessible to Africans. Now, Aya has sold a lot of copies.
What do you think about the reading culture on the continent?
It is a must to form readers from when they are young. Such that when these readers grow up, they can start writing their own stories. Today, Europe is developed because parents buy books for their children who read. This is why I created an association called Des Livres Pour Tous (Books for All). We have two large libraries in Abidjan and Dakar that groom young readers from childhood to adolescence.
Which character do you identify with the most in the series?
I like Akisi, Aya’s littles sister. She does a lot of silly things like I did. Aya is very beautiful, intelligent, and perfect, so, I can’t be Aya. I see Aya in a lot of African women and I am able to tell her story.