Akim Aliu: Dreamer is a moving graphic novel memoir by former pro hockey player Akim Aliu, written with Greg Anderson Elysée. After falling in love with skating, Aliu teaches himself how to skate and dreams of one day playing in the NHL, even though his big brother warns him that “Black people don’t play hockey.” Aliu is a mixed-race, Nigerian-born, Black Ukrainian boy who speaks Russian, attends ESL, and is new to Canada – and he dreams of disproving the idea that he can’t play the sport. His immigrant parents work multiple jobs and fundraise to afford Aliu’s hockey registration and second-hand equipment, and finally they are able to send him to house league.
Despite being a top-scoring prodigy, Aliu’s journey to the NHL is anything but smooth. After leaving home at the age of 16 to play for the Windsor Spitfires, Aliu experiences traumatic hazing, racism from coaches, humiliation, and brutal, racially motivated physical violence. He is constantly punished for speaking up for himself, forced to watch his tormentors behave with impunity and succeed in the sport. Touching on the loneliness of his situation, Aliu writes, “you were an outsider with a world or community you loved so dang much.”
Beyond De la Vega and Williams’s dynamic illustrations, the reader viscerally experiences the hostility Aliu suffers through blacked-out swearing and racially insensitive language included in the speech bubbles, emphasizing racism’s violence in both actions and words.
Though the memoir is at times emotionally wrenching, Aliu’s commitment to the game is inspiring, and the book is filled with gratitude toward his family, friends, and the billet families that took him in. Woven into the story of his hockey career are details of his family’s history, including the efforts of his interracial parents to get married in the U.S.S.R., and the initial refusal of Aliu’s grandfather to acknowledge Aliu’s older brother because of his Blackness.
The story is told through flash-forwards and flashbacks recounted by Aliu, who occasionally steps out of the story to break the fourth wall. As narrator, Aliu speaks to his past self at different ages, bears witness to his own story, and offers encouragement. Akim Aliu: Dreamer lays bare the racist and prejudicial systems in sport that could have completely discouraged Aliu (and other players like him), had he not stubbornly persisted in his dream of playing hockey.