Alpha: Abidjan to Paris


Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Annotated by:
Natter, Michael
  • Date of entry: Jun-04-2018
  • Last revised: Jun-04-2018


Alpha is part graphic novel, part heartbreaking memoir of cabinetmaker Alpha Coulibaly. It chronicles the story of a man on a journey to find his family and a better life, but his story could easily apply to the tens of thousands others who are seeking refuge. This is the painful tale of the refugee journey.

Alpha is from Cote d’Ivoire, Africa. The book is written in first person, in a manner as if the reader and Alpha are sitting together at a coffeeshop, as a family member or dear friend would recant their trials and tribulations to a trusted confidant. The text is blunt, matter of fact, but also painfully deep and poetic.

We learn about Alpha’s desire to reconnect with his family, whom he believes made it to Paris and to his sister-in-laws salon. He explains the futile process of attempting to go through the government sanctioned means of gaining access to other countries, which proves to be impossible. The only remaining option is to attempt to steal away by paying smugglers to help him cross border after border. This means long trips in overcrowded vans, treks by foot, and even precarious watercrafts. The journey is harrowing, and soul crushing. Death is looming around every bend, whether by illness, dehydration during these long, crowded desert drives, or by the hand of crooked armed border guards. Days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and eventually years. Many perish in their journey, but Alpha remains steadfast in his commitment to find his child and wife despite the unfavorable odds. He endures death of fellow refugees, friends, and children. He is forced to live in slums in each new country he enters and work laborious odd jobs to pay off smuggler after shady smuggler at each never ending leg of his journey. This is a tale of the many who are treated like unwanted pieces of trash, balled up and thrown into slums, labeled as “illegal immigrants,” and all so they can have the chance of a better life for them, and for their families.


Perhaps what is most unique about this book are the accompanying illustrations, which effortlessly complement the text. These beautiful watercolor panels are simple in their strokes but deep in their meaning. There is sparing use of color, which is deliberate. Even when the reds and yellows appear, they are a stark juxtaposition to the drab tonality. These limited colors when present read as glimmers of hope, like a flickering bulb about to expire. The darks and greys envelop the reader into the dark truths of what Alpha is enduring. The washes of greys and blacks stain the page much like tears.

This powerful book is an important one. It needs to be in the hands of every citizen of the world, so they can, for a moment, peer into the plight of others and, perhaps, reshape how refugees are viewed. To understand what it is to stare death in the face and push forward because turning back would be far worse. This is a book about humanity.


Illustrations by Barroux
Translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone
Winner of the English PEN Promotes Award
Winner Prix Sans Frontiers 2015
Supported by Amnesty International, Institut Francais and English PEN


Bellevue Literary Press (May 1, 2018)

Place Published

New York

Page Count

128 pages