Genre: Memoir, graphic novel
Medium: French paperback
Synopsis: As a child, Riad was born with a charming smile and beautiful gold locks of hair. But, when his father moves his family to Syria, little Riad goes through a tidal wave of culture shock. His parents met in France, the mother being British, and the father being Syrian. Riad’s father is excited to go back to a place he recognizes, and his mother is willing to discover and learn about this new place. But, quite obviously, Syria is a place vastly different than what Riad and his mother are used to, and he sticks out like a sore thumb. How will little Riad ever adjust?
Review: Because French is my second language, I thought that I’d finish this in a couple days. However, I’m happy to say that I read it all in one day, and I only had to use the dictionary twice! What this means, for a graphic novel, is that Sattouf’s pictures go wonderfully with his words, and that they likely add meaning for the native French speaker, and provide meaning for French language learners. And, speaking about pictures, I have to say that this Charlie Hebdo artist certainly knows what he’s doing! While his art style may be simplistic (minimalistic–not dull!), he utilizes symbols, repeated actions, and motifs to get his point across.
In terms of the story–wow! I’m definitely queuing up some Wikipedia posts about Syrian and Libyan history so I can better understand the setting in the second and third books. His story telling was absolutely phenomenal, and I’m thankful to my multicultural literature teacher in college, as well as the professor who taught a class in analyzing graphic novels and comics.
Sattouf uses sentimental contrast to show how each character feels about their situation. Most obviously, I feel, is Riad’s contrast, where he is a beautiful, blond child who goes to a country where folks have much darker skin and hair than he does. Now, being used to his Syrian father and who is now experiencing friendship with Syrian children, Riad is comfortable around those who don’t look like him. But, some playground bullies have a harder time with Riad: he’s the only one they’ve seen that looks so utterly different from them. Riad struggles with this for a lot of the book, especially since the playground bulliest are his cousins.
His father goes through similar sentimental contrasts–however his is much more complicated, comparing the setting from the present to the past. In short, nostalgia is a liar, and things aren’t as good as he thought. In all honesty, I could write an entire essay about Riad’s father and his experiences, but I won’t! Yet.
Ultimately, this book is a beautiful depiction of what it means to be uprooted, but to have your family fall so into place at the same time. This is an incredible metaphor for la mestiza, a term coined by Gloria Anzaldua, where one exists between two spaces, constantly being influenced by the other. Riad cannot be fully Syrian in public life, thanks to his French upbringing, but he cannot be fully French at home, thanks to the influence he has in his Syrian public life. It’s a complicated story full of complicated feelings, and Sattouf pulls it off flawlessly.