Writer: Olivia Burton / Artist: Mahi Grand / Lion Forge
Algeria Is Beautiful Like America was nothing like I expected from the abstract. Honestly, it shook me to the core. Olivia Burton takes readers on her personal journey of self-healing and delves into a serious commentary on race relations and colonization along the way. First, let me say that this book has almost nothing to do with America. But anyone reading this, including Americans, will relate to the beauty and bitterness of Burton’s revelations.
I think that the relatability is part of what made this book so difficult to read. Counterintuitive, I know. But the righteous anger of the oppressed is something we are conditioned to avoid. The guilt of the colonizer, specifically that of the descendants of colonizing forces who are taught the errors of history, is something too difficult for many to wrestle with. Yet Burton does not shy away from these feelings. She shares all the layers of her family, her history, and her experience that have informed her life and identity.
After Olivia’s grandmother passes away, the author begins to closely examine the parts of her family history that don’t always make sense. Using her grandmother’s words and the family’s collected memories of Algeria, Olivia sets out to (re)discover a country that might or might not be truly hers. We see her struggle with labels that her family unwittingly put upon her. There are questions that are hard to ask and answers that are even harder to give. The journey to Algeria gives Olivia a chance to find her own place. Without her family, Burton experiences her own version of Algeria and gains a new perspective on her history.
The artistry is unassuming and stays mostly in a black and white palette. Colors are used only for the ‘pictures’ that the illustrated Olivia takes with her illustrated camera. Mahi Grand shows a deft and subtle hand that depicts depth of character and historical accuracy while not distracting from the intensity of the script. There were many breathtaking panels but the rendering of old family photos were particularly beautiful.
There are things that I feel could have been handled with more depth and care. The insertion of Native Americans seems either unnecessary or underdeveloped. While there is a large lens on the relationship between the French, French Algerians, and Arabs: no consideration is given to Berbers or those of mixed heritage. Yet, this is the story of one person’s unique journey of discovery. Who am I to say what should have been important to her? And, perhaps, the handling of these issues is an extremely accurate representation of the work that is left to be done.
Overall, this book made me highly uncomfortable. But it is an uncomfortableness that I appreciated and will sit with. It is that kind of uncomfortable that is needed for clarity and genuine intentions.
I applaud Olivia Burton for baring herself and her family in this way. In the end of the book, Burton asks herself a question: What difference does it make? Algeria Is Beautiful Like America confronts the necessity of history: what pieces are important, informative, relevant, harmful. What role should we give the objective truth in our subjective lives?
You should read this book. Be prepared to see some darkness reflected in the beautiful art of its pages. Be prepared to run the gamut of your emotions. But also be prepared to be immersed in a new family unit. To love them and question them and, ultimately, to find your Algeria.