ALGERIA IS BEAUTIFUL LIKE AMERICA by Olivia Burton with artwork by Mahi Grand
Olivia Burton's travel comic, ALGERIA IS BEAUTIFUL LIKE AMERICA balances her French family's history with the realities the Algerian War for Independence. The complicated narrative features whimsical art by Mahi Grand that captures Burton's sense of wonder.
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The Algerian War of Independence spanned between 1954 to 1962. Algerians, primarily led by the National Liberation Front (FLN), staged attacks against the French occupying forces after promises for greater freedoms after World War II went unfulfilled. Olivia Burton’s graphic memoir ALGERIA IS BEAUTIFUL LIKE AMERICA, illustrated by Mahi Grand, examines life after Algerian independence. In particular, Burton explores Pied-Noirs, “Black Foots,” Algerian-born French people who opposed Algerian liberation.

Among the ranks of the Pied-Noirs were Burton’s mother and maternal grandparents, and Burton must grapple with her family’s complicated history in Algeria. Indeed, her family’s hatred of French Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle, who liberated the country, indicates the family’s strong emotional connection to French-occupied Algeria. Although the Lion Forge comic at first seems to idealize French occupation, it redeems itself by diving into the ethical problems of colonial action, just as Burton struggles with the role of her own family members.

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Family Stories vs. the Truth

Like many fights for liberty, the Algerian War was brutal. French forces experienced guerrilla tactics from the FLN, while simultaneously resorting to terrorism and torture to crush Algerian efforts. With this in mind, the beginning of ALGERIA IS BEAUTIFUL LIKE AMERICA is nearly off-putting. Burton spends the beginning of the comic describing her grandmother, the daughter of a wealthy French farmer born in Aurès. While her love of her grandmother is endearing, Burton’s initial descriptions set a naïve tone, leading readers to at first think that, like her grandparents, Burton is solely in favor of French occupation of Algeria.

Image courtesy of Lion Forge Comics.

Thankfully, as Burton continues her story, she describes how liberal friends and education made her (and, in turn, the comic’s readers) more aware of the underlying political oppression that sparked the Algerian War. Indeed, the realization that her family was possibly part of the oppression of Algerian freedom fighters is traumatic for Burton. But her honesty, captured in the words and images of ALGERIA IS BEAUTIFUL LIKE AMERICA, makes for a far more nuanced comic than the first few pages let on.

Indeed, Burton’s journey from France to Algiers and then to Merouana and Oued El Ma is complex and beautiful. Accompanied by a jaded Algerian expat, Djaffar, Burton explores the small cities her family abandoned due to the conflict. Many places she visits are also damaged from terror attacks during the 1990s. Nevertheless, somewhat to her surprise, the people she meets are welcoming and willing to share their knowledge of her family. ALGERIA IS BEAUTIFUL LIKE AMERICA emphasizes the human element of history and the strong connections between place and people. In this respect, the comic is equal parts an anthropological documentary, a travel journal, and a family history.

Image courtesy of Lion Forge Comics.

Taking in the Scenes

Despite the strong documentary voice, the comic is not without whimsy. Thanks to Mahi Grand’s skillful artwork, Burton’s emotions and imagination swirl into life with a sometimes topsy-turvy affect. For example, as Burton leans out of Djaffar’s car while they cross into the Aurès, Grand illustrates imaginary cowboys and covered wagons. In other moments, Grand puts Burton’s grandparents on the seat next to her, drawing a connection between her and her past. Although the line art is predominantly in black and white, the comic is full of light and awe. Additionally, Grand highlights images from Burton’s camera with bright colors, giving them a larger-than-life feel that is characteristic of some travel photography.

Another compelling aspect of Grand’s artwork in ALGERIA IS BEAUTIFUL LIKE AMERICA is the structure of the comic, offering a blend of panels and styles. Sometimes, Burton’s text feels intentionally at odds with the layout. Other times, the images flow smoothly. As a result, Mahi captures the ups and downs of Burton’s trip. Landscapes and buildings are pictured in beautiful realist sketches, while faces and gestures are exaggerated. As a result, Grand is able to emphasize the influence of human emotion on history and place.

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ALGERIA IS BEAUTIFUL LIKE AMERICA sends a powerful and emotional message, particularly challenging certain French cultural beliefs about Algeria. For example, Burton’s mother panics over the local population’s response to a woman traveling alone in Algeria. But Burton is unfazed. Outside of Djaffar, who spends most of his life in Paris, Burton is alone. Ultimately, the comic depicts only a few instances of misogyny and Burton navigates the city successfully. Additionally, Burton expresses concern about being the French child of a Pied-Noir family, as she understands that her grandparents may have had a direct role in the oppression of Algerians. However, for the most part, she is welcomed.

Image courtesy of Lion Forge Comics.

Though Burton’s travels are positive, reaffirming her grandparent’s love for Algeria, her childhood vision evolves. Her grandparents’ lives were not quite so grand, and their disdain for Algerian freedom begins to feel misguided. Moreover, despite Djaffar’s jaded attitude, Burton finds the beauty in Algeria’s tumultuous history and welcoming present. The comic ultimately strays from Burton’s family beliefs, clearly supporting Algerian liberation. However, it still leaves room to appreciate her grandparent’s grief for losing their home.

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Like America, Algeria is a vast and diverse place. However, the link between Algeria and America in Burton’s comic is underdeveloped. Burton does include a few references to the American west. For example, she ironically observes that unlike the Native American “Blackfoot” tribe, the Black Foot groups of Algeria were not native. However, otherwise, there is little explanation of the title. Perhaps the choice traces to the fact that, at least in Burton’s experience, Algeria seems to blend fantasy with reality, like America. The diverse country that fought for independence and has beautiful landscapes is like America. Additionally, as Burton points out, the history has its darker sides, including oppression and violence.

What is true is that ALGERIA IS BEAUTIFUL LIKE AMERICA examines conflicting cultural ideologies as well as inherited historical trauma. Burton’s journey in Algeria is deeply personal. She deals with misogynistic pressures to stay home for safety reasons. She confronts her family’s nostalgia for colonial control. And she strives to build a new image of Algeria for herself, one that bridges the gaps in the narratives she has heard. In the end, ALGERIA IS BEAUTIFUL LIKE AMERICA succeeds in capturing an informed but hopeful vision of life in modern Algeria.

Image courtesy of Lion Forge Comics.


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