Law and Conversation

October 22, 2013

Aya is back!

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From checking Amazon and Drawn and Quarterly’s website I knew there were more than the 3 collections of Aya comic strips that were available in my public library and which I read and enjoyed three years ago. But they were available only in French and Spanish, and I wanted English translations. So I was thrilled to find a new omnibus collection, Aya: Love in Yop City, on the shelf of new graphic novels the last time I was at the library, and I promptly checked it out.

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’ve loved comics since I was a child and that I’ve been on a graphic novel jag off and on for several years, ever since reading Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” a few years ago. I’ve also specifically written of how engaging I find the Aya series, written by Ivorian native Marguerite Abouet, who now makes her home in Paris, and gorgeously drawn by French artist Clement Oubrerie. The new collection is as delightful as the other three volumes, and very much worth the wait. To my delight, I also spotted a number of legal issues in the tightly crafted story about a girl growing up in 1980s Abidjan, the largest city in the Ivory Coast.

Aya is now a college student studying medicine, still living at home in the working-class north Abidjan town and commune of Yopougon. At the outset of the story, she receives a rude introduction into the adult world of unfairness when her biology professor turns out to be a bully who subjects her to explicit quid pro quo sexual harassment, telling her she can forget about medical school and that she’s too stupid ever to be a doctor when she spurns his advances.

Abouet is really good at weaving several subplots about Aya’s friends into her main narrative. Her friend Adjoua’s brother’s ex, Innocent, has decamped to Paris to seek his fortune but has a rough go of it; culture shock and immigration issues in early 1980s France make things difficult for him, just as they often do today in France and the U.S. alike, as well as many other countries, for foreign-born individuals seeking to immigrate. Luckily, Innocent makes a friend when he saves another young gay French man, Sebastian, from being beaten by thugs. The horrified reactions of Sebastian’s and, in a later, different subplot development, Adjoua’s parents on their sons’ coming out to them as gay inevitably called to my mind the public debate in this country over bullying and seeking legal means, including tort suits and criminal statutes, to combat it, as well as over the increasing inclusion of sexual preference in anti-discrimination laws and enactment of laws permitting same-sex couples to marry.

I got to attend multiple programs recently at Chicago Ideas Week. Chicago native Dan Savage, a writer now living in Seattle, spoke at one of those programs about the It Gets Better Project that he started with his husband in response to the suicide of a gay teenager after having been bullied.

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Gay kids, of course, aren’t alone in being subject to bullying for being different. Though Savage’s admirable project is directed specifically and primarily toward young LGBT people, the message of the project and the videos applies equally well to all who are feeling as if they don’t and will never fit in in their schools, families, or other communities. I hope the project helps not only LGBT youth but straight kids, too; it seems to me that if people could feel safe being true to who they really are (I’m exempting sociopaths, of course), an enormous amount of unhappiness and conflict in the world would vanish. Remember not only Rudolph, but Hermie in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” who wanted to be a dentist, not a toy maker like the other elves?

And there’s something else that’s really cool: The stories of Aya in 1980s Ivory Coast and Hermie the elf in a 1960s American movie resonate with each other and with the U.S., France, and the rest of the world in 2013. Linking the commonalities of people from vastly different backgrounds, places, and times is one of the great things about stories.

So please go read Aya! Abouet deftly and satisfyingly resolves all of her subplots, and, as I mentioned, Oubrerie’s artwork is just beautiful. And I couldn’t help but be pleased to see that strong, sensible, intelligent young heroine acquire an admirer who seems worthy of her. The book is billed as the conclusion to Aya’s story, but I’m hoping Abouet and Oubrerie will continue their collaboration; I’d happily settle for a new series with different characters, though, if they feel that they’ve taken Aya as far as they can.

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May 4, 2012

New graphic novels

At a recent bar association function I was delighted to meet another lawyer who also loves comics and graphic novels. He was familiar with all of the writer/artists I mentioned, of course, and shares my esteem for Lynda Barry, who, in my view, is absolutely brilliant, and Alan Moore, whose “Watchmen” was my Best Book Read In 2011 (and was recommended to me by yet another lawyer).

Coincidentally, shortly afterwards I learned of two new graphic memoirs that have just come out, each from an artist I think is amazing: “My Friend Dahmer,” by John Backderf, and “Are You My Mother?” by Alison Bechdel. Each author draws or used to draw a weekly comic strip. Backderf’s is “The City,” a hilariously incisive strip that appears in a number of alternative publications; I’ve also seen his art in The Wall Street Journal and other publications. For 25 years, Bechdel drew “Dykes To Watch Out For,” which, I can attest, you didn’t have to be a lesbian to enjoy.

I can’t wait to read both memoirs. The “Dahmer” of Backderf’s title refers to THE Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial murderer/cannibal who himself was killed after he’d been in prison for a few years. Backderf knew him long before then, in high school in Akron, Ohio. They didn’t stay in touch, as he explained in a recent interview with Q’s Jian Ghomeshi, and he was as shocked as anyone when Dahmer’s atrocities hit the news in the 1990s. In Bechdel’s first graphic memoir, “Fun Home,” which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and won several others, she tries to make sense of her father’s concealment of his homosexuality. In her new one, she turns to her relationship with her mother.

In other comic/graphic novel news, from Canadian law professor Kate Sutherland’s Twitter stream comes this account of European legal proceedings with respect to one of Herge’s classic volumes of The Adventures of Tintin: Tintin au Congo. One of the many great comics of the mid-20th century, Tintin reflects the prejudices of his time as well. That particular installment includes matter that is outdated and appalling to our 21st century minds. As I’ve previously noted, so, of course, did many other notable publications of that era, including not only comic books but also, to name just a few examples, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Venus series, Margaret Sidney’s “Five Little Peppers Midway,” and Edward Stratemeyer’s “Tom Swift” series.

As I’ve written, I never lost my childhood love of comic books. A few years ago, I discovered their history and how they’ve grown up into graphic novels. If possible, I love them now even more than when I was seven years old. Some contemporary graphic novels that I’ve found outstanding include Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s Aya series (Yay! Volume 4 is coming out in English in just a couple of months!!), set in the Ivory Coast, David Small’s “Stitches,” Guy DeLisle’s documentary-style books on Pyongyang, Shenzhen, and other places, and Craig Thompson’s “Blankets.”

Comic and graphic novel fans, what are your favorites, and what recently published graphic novels are you recommending? I’m always interested in adding to my TBR list.

December 21, 2011

North Korea in recent literature

Filed under: Books and writing,graphic novels,interviews — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:41 am
Tags: , , ,

With Kim Jong Il’s sudden death a few days ago, it seems like the right time to re-post this link to the North Korean Random Insult Generator, which I originally came across on Zimbabwean lawyer and writer Petina Gappah’s blog.

I wonder what sort of literature is being produced in North Korea these days. Though legal restrictions can,  ironically, actually foster the creativity of artists and writers–see the movies and comics created during the middle part of the 20th century in the US, for example–writers who publish works under totalitarian regimes sometimes of necessity obscure their messages so much that the reader has to work really, really hard. The Man Booker International Prize winner Ismail Kadare is one such writer. That’s certainly a high degree of creativity, and some readers love this challenge. Others can find it so frustrating as to render the works unenjoyable and even inaccessible.

I can’t claim to know much about North Korea, but, then again, I guess I’m in good company: even high-level government intelligence agencies didn’t find out about Kim’s death until the North Korean government chose to announce it. Two books about the country by western writers who visited there are Canadian artist Guy DeLisle’s “Pyongyang,” a graphic novel, and Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” You can listen to an interesting interview with Demick from the Sydney Writers’ Festival on The Book Show’s website.

And speaking of The Book Show, one of my very favorite podcasts for several years, I must say how disappointed I was to read of the departure of its marvelous host, Ramona Koval and of its evident impending demise. Not that the opinion of one US listener will matter to the Australian Powers That Be, but this seems to me a case of fixing something that wasn’t broken.

As the end of 2011 approaches, what are you reading?

July 25, 2011

Read This: Watchmen

I recently mentioned that I’d started three books at once, all of which had a common theme of law and law enforcement, and all of which lawyers recommended to me: John Mortimer’s “Rumpole Omnibus #1,” a collection of short stories; Steve Bogira’s nonfiction “Courtroom 302,” and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s “Watchmen,” a graphic novel. (I should note that John Higgins gets well-deserved high billing as colorist along with Moore, the writer, and Gibbons, the illustrator/letterer, on the hardcover edition’s title page.) I still have the first two going, but I’ve now finished the third.

What I’d most like to tell you about “Watchmen” is this: Change whatever your reading plans are and move it to the top of your list.

It’s an amazing, complex, multilayered work. If you’d like to know a bit about it before you begin, read the Wikipedia entry, which is scholarly and thorough. It also contains spoilers, so you might prefer to stop after the “Background and Development” section. Once you’ve finished it, you may, as I did, want to reread portions to pick up what you missed the first time around or put some pieces together. The Watchmen Wiki, as well as the rest of the Wikipedia entry, can help you to make sense of anything you missed.

Published in 1986 and 1987 as a 12-volume serial comic book, “Watchmen” is mostly a graphic novel, but interspersed are meta-fictional straight narratives as well as a comic book story within this comic book story–meta-metafiction. Its structure puts it ahead of its time, not only in 1988 but still today. It fully deserves the high praise it’s garnered from, among others, Time magazine, which named it one of the hundred best English-language novels published since 1923.

Have you read “Watchmen?” What did you think of it?

June 17, 2011

#FridayReads!

I like to participate in the #FridayReads meme on Twitter. The idea is that every Friday those who like can tweet what they’re reading with the hashtag #FridayReads in the tweet. Putting # without a space immediately before a term transforms it into a hyperlink. You can then click on the hyperlink to see other tweets with that hashtag. So, clicking on #FridayReads in any tweet will take you to a page with an aggregation of the most recent tweets containing that term. The meme seems to get more popular every week and now has its own Facebook page, complete with prizes for those who participate.

This week, I have several books going at once.  Each is from a different genre–one work of fiction, one fictional graphic novel, and one nonfiction–but the three have a common theme: lawyers and law enforcement. My #FridayReads tweet contains all three: John Mortimer’s “Rumpole Omnibus,” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s “Watchmen,” and Steve Bogira’s “Courtroom 302.” I expect it will take me a while to finish all of them, but I often like to be reading several books at a time. I’m enjoying thinking about the different angles and ways that the different writers tell their stories, and I’m thinking that I may be able to see some parallels in these three very different books.

I have an extra incentive to read each book, too:  on different occasions lawyers recently recommended each to me. I’d like to be able to tell those lawyers that I’ve read their recommendations and compare our views the next time I happen to see them! Since I’ve read enough of each to have become quite captivated by their stories, this won’t be a difficult commitment for me to keep.

In the meantime, I’ve been continuing to ponder The Book Show’s list of novels everyone should have read by the age of 21. I have lots of thoughts about that list and about what list I’d create if I were to do so. I hope to post some of those thoughts next week, so please check back with me then.

What’s your #FridayReads?

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