“You, who are so-called illegal aliens, must know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”
(Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor)
This quotation is the epigram to Illegal, a 2018 graphic novel that documents the journey of a Ghanaian boy, Ebo, to Europe.
The story is told in alternating chapters: “Now,” which depicts the terrible present, as Ebo, his older brother, and assorted other refugees struggle for survival on a leaky dinghy lost at sea; and “Then,” which relates how they ended up in this predicament.
It’s a familiar and tragic tale. The boys are left in the care of an alcoholic uncle after their mother dies. They see no future and so escape via the Sahara and Tripoli, heading for Europe. The story is leavened by the love the siblings share and by Ebo’s gift as a singer. The latter lifts spirits, allows Ebo to earn enough money to secure his passage to Europe, and serves as a plot device to find his lost brother.
The artwork, by Giovanni Rigano, is wonderful. The hues perfectly symbolize each stage of Ebo’s journey: golden yellow and amber for the desert sections, midnight blue and azure for the boat journey. Part of the terror of being lost at sea is shown in the darkness that falls at night. In the panels depicting this, we can barely make out shapes in the moonlight. Huge waves swell up, dolphins make arcs in the water, and the refugees burn and shiver. Sometimes we turn a page and are met with a magnificent double-page panorama of a vast city or the boundless ocean.
Humans are presented in their true variety. Merciless traffickers leave the dinghy with too little fuel for the crossing, and a truck driver refuses to stop when one of his “cargo” – a man being smuggled – falls off. But acts of charity do occur: Ebo and his group stranded on the dinghy are rescued by a kindly ship captain, and a bus driver gives penniless Ebo free passage when the boy quiets a screaming baby.
Ebo is a worthy hero. He is courageous, honest to a fault, and determined. He weathers all manner of suffering and never loses his purity.
I read this book in one sitting and would recommend it to anyone interested in the plight of refugees or in social justice. It’s suitable for children and adults and could not be more timely in this savage age.