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!