When I heard Barroux, the illustrator of Alpha: Abidjan to Paris, talk at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Annual Conference in July 2018, he explained why he wanted to bring the story of Alpha to life. He’d met a man who emigrated from Africa to France and was stunned by the trials, dangers, and horrors the man faced. He was also shocked by the realization that he, as a white man, had travelled the world all of his life and never once faced such hardships. Written by award-winning author Bessora and translated to English by Sarah Ardizzone, Alpha was supported by Amnesty International and Le Korsa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving lives in Senegal. It is a heartbreaking look into the migrant crisis and an important and relevant graphic novel.
Alpha is a man trying to travel from Cote d’Ivoire to Paris to join his wife and son, who started their journey six months earlier. He believes his family is with his sister-in-law in Paris, but he hasn’t heard from them since they left and it’s a test of faith that he begins the painful processing of selling his cabinetmaking business to leave everything he knows for the unknown. Taking the legal route is not an option; the process of obtaining a visa seems like more of a technique to prevent migration than anything else. The requirements range from proof of employment or sponsorship to proof of accommodation to proof of health insurance, in addition to various administration fees that are impossible for most people, including Alpha, to pay. He comes to the conclusion that “Cote d’Ivoire loves France more than France loves Cote d’Ivoire,” and decides to try his luck through less official, and more dangerous, channels.
Thus begins Alpha’s journey north. He pays drivers to get him past various checkpoints, sometimes waiting hours in the car until bribed guards come on duty. He stays in lice-ridden camps with dirty beds. He meets other travelers along the way who hope to reunite with their families, or gain access to better health care, or turn their lives around in some way. Europe is a promise of a better life, but those who try to get there risk imprisonment, deportation, disease, and death. In a shocking comparison of different worlds, Alpha, desperate for money and stranded in Gao for eight months, becomes a people smuggler. He witnesses the contrast between his own situation and American and French tourists, “happy people touring around Africa on bicycles” who travel the world freely.
Another behind-the-scenes fact that Barroux shared was his choice of color palette. The artwork itself is very simple, with bold, rough lines and a childlike sense of impressionism. There are splashes of color here and there, but most panels are made up of grays and blacks that create a visual atmosphere to match Alpha’s bleak experience. The artist limited himself to a cheap set of markers that he bought specifically for Alpha, wanting to use the tools that a migrant with very little means would have access to.
In the same way that Fun Home, Maus, and Persepolis explore sexual oppression and religious persecution, Alpha is a tale that works to promote awareness and empathy, and to humanize an experience different from our own. While the subject matter (one character survives via prostitution) may be too complex or inappropriate for tweens and younger teens, I recommend this title to anyone wanting to diversify their adult collections or use graphic novels as an educational tool for older teens.
Alpha: Abidjan to Paris
Art by Barroux
Bellevue Literary Press, 2018