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.

October 8, 2010

Everyone needs stories

The sad tale of the teenage Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, who killed himself last week by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student posted a video they’d clandestinely shot of him in an intimate encounter with another male, together with the attempted banning of Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel, “Speak,” in Missouri a couple of weeks ago, has me thinking about how everyone needs stories. 

Author Cheryl Rainfield wrote of her own childhood abuse and in support of Halse Anderson’s book:

“[A]llowing children and teens to find reflections for their own experiences; being able to read about those experiences in safety while gaining knowledge to arm themselves; or encouraging readers to speak out and find healing themselves because of what they’ve read is SO important.”

The suicide of another young gay person, reportedly after intense bullying based on his sexual orientation, inspired Chicago native and writer Dan Savage to start a story video project to let young gay people know that It Gets BetterIn Savage’s words, “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”   He’s asking other gay adults to make videos of aspects of their life stories, hoping that young people who watch them will realize that tough times don’t last forever.  As Chicagoist reports, only 11 states, including Illinois, currently specify LGBT students as a protected class in anti-bullying and harassment legislation.

Bullying for any reason, of course, is shameful, as is discrimination on grounds unrelated to people’s ability to do their jobs, or afford housing, or other matters.  But drafting a law that prohibits bullying without being overbroad is not an easy task.  Though many look to the law above all for power, story can sometimes be an even more powerful and enduring bulwark against evil, as the responses to “Speak” and the “It Gets Better” project show.

Difficult real-world subjects that many young people have to deal with include not only sexual abuse and coming to terms with sexuality but also poverty, parents’ unemployment, war, racial prejudice, divorce, substance abuse, and eating disorders.  Here are some books with great stories that portray young people coming to terms with some of those issues:

“Ramona And Her Mother,” by Beverly Cleary (parents’ job difficulties, family tensions)

“Houseboat Girl” and “Cotton In My Sack,” as well as others in the American regional series by Lois Lenski (poverty)

“Wintergirls,” by Laurie Halse Anderson and “Perfect,” by Natasha Friend (eating disorders)

“Lush,” by Natasha Friend (parent’s alcoholism)

“Where The Lilies Bloom,” by Vera and Bill Cleaver (poverty, loss of parents)

“Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry,” “The Gold Cadillac,” and many other books and stories by Mildred Taylor (racial prejudice)

“The Ark,” by Margot Benary-Isbert (war)

“A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” Betty Smith (poverty, parent’s alcoholism)

“Veronica Ganz,” by Marilyn Sachs (divorce, family tensions, bullying)

“Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” by John Green and David Levithan (sexual identity)

“Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank (ethnic prejudice, war)

Traditional folk and fairy tales, “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott, and the “Little House” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, may not readily come to mind when thinking about children’s or YA books with edgy subjects.  But fairy tales often include poverty and wicked stepmothers, Marmee and her brood are struggling with the absence of the girls’ father due to war, and the “Little House” books depict a family living hand to mouth and clawing themselves up through a series of unremitting disasters that weren’t unusual for their time.

Are there any books or stories that have helped you through a difficult time in your life?

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