Alpha : Bessora, Barroux, (Sarah Ardizzone (trans.))

Alpha. Abidjan to Gare du NordAlpha. Abidjan to Gare du Nord by Bessora

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to know how to classify this raw and brilliant book, so perhaps I shall classify it as a story about people and leave it at that. I was lucky enough to interview Bessora, and her translator Sarah Ardizzone here and I’d urge you to check out their thoughts about Alpha. There is a lot of depth here and care, and it shines through to the final product; a graphic novel of unsparing, simple truth.

Alpha is trying to get from the Ivory Coast to the Gare Du Nord in Paris. His wife and child have made the journey before him, though he does not know whether they were successful. He does not know if they are even alive. Life isn’t easy like that. This book doesn’t give you the simple Hollywood narrative, it gives you something rawer than that. It gives you a burnt, bitter truth and makes the faceless known.

I heard Bessora speak about this book (a quote I include here in this article about children’s books featuring refugees) and her comment that “We are all somebodies, not nobodies” has stuck with me for months now. She is a precise and beautiful writer, and when her language works with Barroux’s simple and blunt artwork, Alpha comes to possess a fierce and unflinching beauty of its own. This is a powerful book. It might be too true for some.

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An interview with Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone : two-thirds of the creative team behind Alpha

One of the highlights of Pop Up Lab this year was hearing Bessora the author, and Sarah Ardizzone, the translator, deliver a key note about their graphic novel Alpha. Alpha is a fascinating project; originally published in French and republished in English by the team at Barrington Stoke. At a conference that discussed the importance of visual literacies, the book had a deeply relevant part to play – and I’m grateful to both Bessora and Sarah for answering my further questions about it.

If you’d like to read more about the conference itself, here’s an interview with the founder and I also wrote up some notes about the day here – these will be of particular interest if you’re looking at visual literacy in your work (I hope!).

And of course, it’s important to emphasis that Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone are only two-thirds of the team behind Alpha. The third, Barroux, worked on the art and did so quite stunningly. You can view his website here and I’d urge you to do so. Alpha is a remarkable book. 

Bessora and Sarah talking about Alpha

Why do you think it’s important to visually represent the story of Alpha? Do you think the story would have changed if you’d have told it in a mainly prose format?

Bessora: I usually write novels, in which I take all the space:  in novels, images are either described and/or suggested so that the readers can build them through their own imagination. Alpha is graphic: I had to leave room for the imagination of Barroux, who introduced his drawing as a second language. The result is an immediacy – images are an intimate language and the first element one reads as a child.

What sort of opportunities for conversation do you think Alpha prompts?

​Bessora: Alpha is an opportunity to talk about an incarnated man, who could be our brother, our cousin, our friend, our neighbour’s husband, or ourselves.

It is about an intimate who experiences an unbelievable adventure, an intimate that the media makes a foreigner, while the story concerns us intimately.

With Alpha being written originally in French, and translated into English, do you think it reads differently? How has the translation – or has the translation – affected its message?

Sarah: The message remains the same. With the subtle difference that Alpha is an undocumented economic migrant travelling from Ivory Coast in francophone West Africa to Gare du Nord, Paris, France – so Anglophone readers are removed from this story in comparison with French readers. This, in turn, may spark a more empathetic (but also more romanticised?) response to the personal tragedy and human crisis depicted. Otherwise, I would hope that the ‘everyman’ quality of Bessora’s writing – the diary jottings of a person with a simple education, a man who is occasionally naïve, but whose insights affect us all – communicates just as powerfully in English. It’s also worth pointing out that the text looks different. The UK edition is published by the independent Edinburgh-based publisher, Barrington Stoke, whose priority is making stories accessible to every kind of young reader. This means that Barroux’s handwritten text (French handwriting can be difficult for UK readers to decipher at the best of times) has been replaced by a serif font.

Alpha was subject to some very specific creative constraints, such as the diary format and within the artwork. Can you talk a little bit more about these and the impact they have on the story?

​Sarah: As the translator of a graphic diary, my job is to translate the words and the pictures. Bessora wrote the original text before the artwork had been created by Barroux. But now that both exist, I have to marry them in my word choices – capturing Bessora’s tone and Barroux’s palette. Barroux’s creative constraint this time around was the idea of a cheap notebook (perhaps bought in a corner shop in Abidjan) and a kids’ pack of felt-tip pens: my words needed to communicate that non-precious approach to “getting it down” or putting the words on the page, while at the same time conveying the poetic, resonant touch with which Bessora infuses her writing.

Alpha’s a story about people, and I’m interested in how this was reflected in its collaborative production. Do you think this has impacted upon the story itself?

Bessora: First there was the meeting with Barroux, who desired a book on this very large subject “‘immigration”. My role was then to refine the subject, and to embody it. I constructed the story by myself, with the leitmotif of making Alpha, a person (a somebody), and not a thing (a nobody) as migrants sometimes appear. Barroux grafted on the text, which he enriched and nurtured with his images. Then the process was extended through Sarah’s translation. It is a collaboration … not simultaneous, which is reflected in the way the collaboration is established between the protagonists of the story: to survive, Alpha and his pals must be in solidarity.

Sarah: I couldn’t agree more with Bessora – particularly when it comes to the sense of solidarity this book sparked.

One of the many things I love about Alpha is that this story doesn’t ‘belong’ to any single person.

It was inspired by an undocumented economic migrant who frequented the artists’ squat where Barroux had his studio: and Togola’s story is the greatest human story of our times, that of a desperate exodus and a thin welcome. The story was researched by Bessora – but in a sense we have all “translated” it, and the wider public continues to do so. The book was acquired by Barrington Stoke, when they spotted it at the Spectacular Translation Machine (STM) that we staged at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015. An STM is live, collaborative translation at its most exciting. It involves displaying all the images (but not the text) from the book, as if at an art gallery, and then encouraging the general public to choose an image that speaks to them, collect the text that goes with it from the volunteers manning our “reception” and set about translating the words – with help and support from on-tap expert translators. Together we translated most of the book in a single day, but what was most inspiring about this process were the conversations that were struck up between participants, as they talked about what it is that we think we’re doing when we translate.

Alpha is a story that deals with challenging topics. Do you have any tips on how to approach or manage such topics when reading books of this nature with children?

Sarah: Two words come to my mind: simplicity and truth (even if it’s a truth from a fiction).

Children must be protected, but it is useless to lie to them about the state of the world.

And finally, what’s your favourite book?

Bessora: It depends on the day … At this moment, it’s Zoonomia, because it’s the only one I can read since I’m trying to correct it. It’s being published in February!

Sarah: Texaco by the Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau – who writes about the fallout of slavery and makeshift housing on his volcanic island. His style makes for a Creole epic that is fabulous (in the literal sense of the word) and searing, and it is exquisitely translated by Val Vinokurov and Rose-Myriam Rejouis. It is also one of the only novels I know dedicated to an urban planner.

Thank you Bessora and Sarah! 

Five Fall Into Adventure : Enid Blyton

Five Fall into Adventure (Famous Five, #9)Five Fall into Adventure by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a little part in this where Julian, after detailing the current predicament that the Famous Five have gotten themselves into, remarks, “…This is all very stupid and melodramatic” and it’s kind of the highlight of the entire book for me. It’s a breaking of the fourth wall, a moment where Blyton throws all of her stubborn fire at the critics and goes ‘well, yes, it is kind of melodramatic but it’s what happened and besides I’m writing this and not you’ and I love it. The Famous Five are such iconic figures, even to those who maybe have never read any of the original books, that Julian’s wry little comment sings of wall-breaking and authorial intervention, and it’s great. Give me more of this Blyton, more of this author and her stubbornly determined narratives that barely pause for breath.

The ninth of her Famous Five adventures, this is a fairly standard sort of affair. Something happens, something else happens, somebody pops up, shenanigans, shenanigans, everything’s fine and we’re back at home in time for tea. And oh the food in this book! It’s great, and a reminder of Blyton’s childish eye for detail. Note that I don’t use childish in the pejorative manner, but rather as a recognition of Blyton’s eye for perspective. She got children. She understood them. And, for a book first published in the 1950s, she knew what made them tick. Food. Fun. Friends.

This isn’t high literature, and that’s a debate that, in a way, I’m bored of when it comes to Blyton. What I find interesting and exciting about her work is how it is so fiercely determined to make sure the reader has a good time. These are books that will be read even when the reader isn’t sure that they want to do such a thing and they’re still remarkably accessible even to present-day readers, what with her use of syntax and bluntly direct prose. It’s not pretty, but it is remarkable and so very, very, brilliantly readable. I suspect that it’s long past time to bring Blyton in out of the cold, and let her be remarked upon as one of the canonical lights of children’s literature.

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The Arrival : Shaun Tan

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It hit me recently that I’d never reviewed this, this story of eloquence and love and shadows, and that was something I had to make right. The Arrival holds a difficult place in my heart in that, I think, I read it too soon. Too blindly. Too hungry for words and language and precision. Reading can be selfish, sometimes. You can ache to remake the text in your vision, to dominate it with your perspective and views, and thus deny the value of the read itself. We read for others. We read for otherness, for voice, and for echoes to map our lives against, and sometimes I don’t do that. Sometimes I can get a little lost, and need to step back, and remind myself that this is not my story. I do not own this text. I am a reader. I own my reading of that, but I do not own the other.

And so I came back to Shaun Tan, drawn in part by a political and pervasive rhetoric that seems to seek division where there is none to be found, but also because of the stillness of that front cover. It made me understand what I had done to this book before, and it make me realise how I needed to approach it now. I look at a lot of books as part of my job, and stillness is not something you see that often on a front cover. Yet, as I look at it now, I can see that it’s not still. That it’s a moment, an encounter, and this is a split second point between it. Stillness in movement; being able to capture that precise, delicate, beauty where the two of them meet eyes and properly see each other? Beautiful. Perhaps, too, the essence of this book. The encounter where things become Things, and Known, and Named.

So, the book itself. It is wordless, split into six “chapters”. I say “chapters”, because honestly, imposing an idea of sequence on this poetic narrative seems difficult. It is linear, but it’s also not; the story of people coming to a new land, forming connections, but also what came before and after, the stories that thread through us on a daily basis, the web of connection that is life, I suppose, just living and being and loving. Moments. Beats. The dance of your heart and the stillness that comes when you find home.

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A Change Is Gonna Come

A Change Is Gonna ComeA Change Is Gonna Come

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Change Is Gonna Come is a compilation of short stories and poems from 12 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers, ranging freely over a series of topics and themes, and pretty much all of them are rather wonderful, powerful contributions. What really struck me about this collection is the care that’s been taken over every element in it; from the striking and wonderful cover design (for more on that, have a look at this, to the note in the introduction from the editorial mentee (a good thing, publishing world), and the inclusion of debut writers, A Change Is Gonna Come feels like it’s been loved. And that sensation of love is powerful when it slides into the hand of the reader, so very powerful.

A frank highlight for me was Tanya Byrne’s lyrical and incandescent love story ‘Hackney Moon’. Byrne is a writer whose debut Heart-Shaped Bruise was something I called kind of spectacular, and Hackney Moon is right up there. An aching, tender, and fiercely told love story, it’s honestly, one of the best things I’ve read for a long time. I finished reading it and did one of those little ‘oh that was good’ pauses. (Don’t you love them?)

Another highlight for me was Aisha Bushby’s ‘Marionette Girl’, a distinctive, eccentric and powerful story of growth. Bushby’s writing is sympathetic and kind, but also full of a very subtle sense of drive. The sense of a character pushing up against barriers all around her mixed with the knowledge that she’s going to break through. Does that make sense? I hope it does. This is a story full of drive and determination and power, and it’s kind of heartbreaking and beautiful, all at once.

What a way to start the year this is!

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Seven Scamps : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

This is my last read of 2017! I wish you a lovely new year, and if festivities aren’t your thing, I also wish you the chance to spend the evening with a Very Good Book….

Seven Scamps (La Rochelle)Seven Scamps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a delightfully weird book. I’m aware that’s a label that can be applied to much of Brent-Dyer’s work for me, but here it feels particularly pertinent. The Seven Scamps are actually a bunch of brats, abandoned by their restless father who goes off abroad, picks himself up a new wife with a daughter of her own, and then pops back. There’s some mad oddness here, with the father being attracted to his new wife and her daughter because of the daughter’s blonde plaits, a theme that carries on with the father being proud of his own children’s hair. It made me think of how long hair, and the ‘inappropriate cutting there of’ is actually quite a strong theme throughout Brent-Dyer’s work (see Janeways, Lavender, etc…). There’s a thesis in that. Could somebody write it for me?

Every now and then though this book steps away from weirdness, and hits raw and ferocious heights. Brent-Dyer still can’t handle a proposal without getting lost in a knot of euphemisms and Meaningful Looks, but she can handle a sickbed scene. The one in Seven Scamps is something else and for me, made the book what it is. She might not be able to cope with the new style she was attempting to adopt here (“episodic lolz”) but when she writes about people, the fragility of them, and the strength of love, she is remarkable.

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