Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
2007 - The Film
She starts with an apology. "I've never learned any English," Marjane Satrapi tells an audience of 200 gathered in the third-floor conference room of Simmons College. "My second language is French." What the 34-year-old author doesn't need to say is that her first language is Farsi and that her home country is Iran. The fans gathered at the school have already read last year's "Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood," her graphic novel-cum-memoir that explores in black-and-white images her life from age 9 to the moment her worried parents sent their teenager to study in Vienna to escape the drama of Iran's revolution. Now the Simmons crowd wants to hear her talk about "Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return," released last month, which offers intimate details about Satrapi's tumultuous experiences in Austria -- drugs, homelessness, a suicide attempt -- and her ultimate return home. No, English is not her first or second language, but she expresses herself well enough to leave the crowd laughing and scrambling to get its books signed.
Satrapi is one of the new stars of the graphic novel genre. Think of her creations as a grown-up version of the comic book. "The readership tends to skew a little older, late 20s," says Jonah Weiland, who operates Comic Book Resources, a website filled with news about the comic world. "It's more female-friendly than the typical monthly comic book. Generally graphic novels have a broader appeal. Their stories aren't crafted for 16-year-old boys."
The genre traces its roots to 1986, the year Art Spiegelman used cartoon images of mice and cats to tell the story of the Holocaust in "Maus." "Ghost World," "From Hell," "The Road to Perdition," and "American Splendor" are some of the titles that made the journey from graphic novel to film. Next up? Director Robert Rodriguez adapts Frank Miller's graphic novel "Sin City" with Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba in starring roles.
Lately an increasing number of ethnic voices are joining the graphic novel fray. Aaron McGruder, creator of the comic strip "The Boondocks," released his socio-political satire "Birth of a Nation" this summer. The new series "Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan" tells the story of Sudan's orphans in comic-book form. Ho Che Anderson's three-volume "King" is an illustrated biography of the slain civil rights leader. "It's become an acceptable medium for discussing serious matters," says Hamid Naficy, a professor of film and media studies at Rice University. In the case of Satrapi's "Persepolis" books, he says, the images "provide kind of a visual supplement to the words that makes it easier for people -- foreigners and whatnot -- to imagine what she's talking about." But Naficy adds, "In some ways ("Persepolis") plays into the stereotype of Iran as a veiled nation."
The glowing words that accompanied Satrapi's first graphic novel outing have turned into mixed reviews for "Persepolis 2." Florida's St. Petersburg Times struck a blow to the book and the genre when it suggested "it might be difficult to tell (internally emotional stories) using pictures and inch-long bits of text." But Satrapi's success can't be denied. The "Persepolis" series has sold almost a half million copies worldwide. It ascended to No. 17 on The New York Times's hardcover nonfiction bestseller list. Today about 160 colleges and high schools in the United States use "Persepolis" for gender or political science classes.
Political is personal
That fame didn't stop Satrapi from experiencing a torturous entrance into this country when she arrived earlier this month from France, where she has lived since leaving Iran in 1994. The author, who still possesses her Iranian passport, was held for questioning for more than two hours at New York's JFK airport. "They were saying I had to have an (exit) stamp in my passport from the last time I was here," she says, recounting the tale in the lobby of her downtown Boston hotel the day after the Simmons College reading.
The official called her a liar, she says. She explained that she was an invited guest. They took her fingerprints. "Apparently my fingerprints are not good enough," she says, rubbing the tips of her offending appendages. "They accused me of having put something on my fingers." The badgering escalated until it reached a point where Satrapi thought, "Either I'd have to slap him or do something." She started crying. The official told her, "Oh lady, you don't need to cry." Satrapi replied: "I know I don't need to cry -- you pushed me to cry. Two different things."
The experience and how she handled it say a lot about the author. She's uncompromising and blunt, but there's something charming and humble about her that takes the edge off her words. She arrives in the hotel lobby funkily dressed in a brown jacket, orange T-shirt, jeans skirt, and towering black suede platform shoes. Just like in her graphic novels, you see the black dot of a birthmark on the right side of her nose. She uses Jackie-O-style sunglasses as a headband to keep her lush, dark hair out of her face.
Satrapi doesn't invite the reporter up to the hotel room where she and her husband are staying. His name? "I wouldn't say," she says. So much of her private life is poured into her graphic novels that she wants to keep something for herself. Anyway, the 32-year-old Swede is publicity-shy. "He's always hidden in back," says Satrapi. "He doesn't want to be in the photos."
Upon finding a quiet spot in the hotel lobby, Satrapi immediately launches into a riff about how difficult the hotel makes it for smokers.
Reporter: "It's for your health."
Satrapi: "If they had to forbid everything that's bad for the health they shouldn't permit lots of things."
The pain of this country's no-smoking laws is a recurring subject for her. She also devotes a lot of time to criticizing President Bush. During the reading she talks about some panels in "Persepolis 2" that take place after she returns to Iran and becomes accustomed to its strict laws. One day, in a panic during a street raid by officials, she accuses an innocent man of saying something indecent to her. Those words forced officials to focus on the alleged offender rather than the illegal lipstick Satrapi had slathered on her lips to please her boyfriend.
"When you are scared you don't think anymore," she told the Simmons audience, explaining her actions. Then she relates the experience to present-day America, where, she says, the current Bush administration has "scared people so much that they've lost any sense of criticism."
Those are dangerous words in a time when Whoopi Goldberg loses a Slim-Fast spokesperson job for criticizing Bush. Leave it to Anjali Singh, the Vintage Books editor who translated Satrapi's graphic novels from French to English for Pantheon Books, to act as explicator and peacemaker for Satrapi. "She has very strong politics," Singh says, "but her message is about the universality of cultures. . . . The message she wants to get across is, `We're all human beings, and we all have choices to make.' " In this way, Satrapi makes the political personal.
That is why Satrapi seems slightly confused when she's asked about the limits of the graphic-novel form and whether the medium can adequately capture the homesickness, displacement, and isolation that she experiences in the first half of "Persepolis 2." First she brushes away the criticism, because she thinks that comes with the release of any second book. "They discovered the first one," says Satrapi, "and then the second one they don't have anything anymore to discover."
Then she suggests that the problems in "Persepolis 2" reflect her own faults as an artist and writer. "Maybe I haven't been successful," Satrapi says. "That is one thing. But saying that the graphic novel is not able to do that is absolutely false because . . . there are so many graphic novels that talk about internal feeling."
Preserving the past
Satrapi is one of a growing number of first- and second-generation Iranian women using the memoir form to tell stories about their experiences growing up in Iran, says Naficy. Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran," currently resides at No. 2 on The New York Times's paperback nonfiction bestseller list. It's no coincidence that these exiled women chose this form of storytelling. They write memoirs, says Naficy, because they "couldn't go back, so they imagined what it was like in Iran. . . . By writing they wanted to preserve something of what had been destroyed -- and also understand history."
Even the name Satrapi chose for her graphic novels offers an insight into history. "Persepolis" is the ancient Greek name for Iran that literally means "city of Persians." In Satrapi's mind, most people's perceptions of Iran start the year of its revolution -- 1979, when radical students took 52 members of the US embassy in Iran hostage. She chose the title to let readers know that thousands of years of experiences inform the present-day situation. But the word "Persepolis" also alludes to a calmer time in Iranian history, says Naficy. "It's before the destruction and invasion of Iran in the 7th century. So a lot of Iranians have harked back on the history of Iran before Arabs and Muslims invaded the area."
Articles that accompanied Satrapi's first visit to the States last year never failed to mention that she comes from a family that descends from Iranian kings. Satrapi, who describes her parents in the first volume of "Persepolis" as "caviar leftists," eagerly sets the record straight.
"Listen, my family is not the elite," she says. "No, no, no, no, no." A better description is middle class or perhaps upper middle class, she says. Then she concedes that since the middle class has disappeared in today's Iran, her parents probably do reside in the elite section of the class map.
As for her mother being the great-granddaughter of King Nasseredin Shah, a member of Iran's Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1779 until 1925? Yes, it's true, says Satrapi. "But you have to know the kings of the Qajar dynasty, they had hundreds of wives. They made thousands of kids. If you multiply these kids by generation you have, I don't know, 10-15,000 princes [and princesses]. There's nothing extremely special about that."
Growing up, Satrapi always drew. In "Persepolis 2," she remembers making caricatures of her teachers as a child in Iran. When she attended school in Vienna one of her first assignments was to write a book report. Problem was, she hadn't studied French in three years since the Iranian school where she studied the language shut down after the revolution. Satrapi decided to draw her report. "She gave me the best grade," she says of her teacher. "She made me become a writer because what she told me was, `You have understood everything; now you have to learn how to write it.' "
Still Satrapi initially resisted the call of graphic novels. She didn't believe she had the "obsessiveness" needed to create the perfect pairing of images and words that makes this work effective. It took her four years, for example, to finish the "Persepolis" titles. Instead, she tried to become a children's book writer. At the reading she says she received 180 rejections. It sounds like a joke.
"That was not a joke," she says. "Nobody wanted my projects." At least not until "Persepolis" became a success. Now she's the proud author and illustrator of two children's books.
Prepare for many more years of adult output as well. This time Satrapi will look beyond her own story to find inspiration in the experiences of family and friends.
"You will see when I have died," says Satrapi, "that this will be a very big story that will start, I don't know, in 1900 and will finish up, I don't know, in the year 2030 or 2040, when I die, that will cover all these stories of people I have heard [about] and people I will hear about."
Up next is "Embroideries," a graphic novel featuring hilarious stories about Iranian women and their sexuality, set for release next summer. It takes Satrapi back to a time when she would listen in as her grandmother gathered with girlfriends to chat about adult matters in the living room.
"Of course," says Satrapi, "you put three women in the same place, and what do they talk about?"
Weed, sex, paranoia -- Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi lets it all out in 'Persepolis' sequel
Saturday, October 2, 2004
When Marjane Satrapi was 14, her parents decided to spare her the tension of living in war-ravaged Iran. Off she went to Vienna, there to spend her teen years in secular schools, getting a dose of Western-style sex, drugs and political freedom -- plus depression, a suicide attempt and two months of homelessness.
It was a turbulent time, but in her brilliant graphic novel, "Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return," Satrapi redeems the darkness and uncertainty through art. A sequel to last year's "Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood," which covered Satrapi's Iranian childhood from ages 9 to 14, the new volume recalls the highs and lows of a European exile and also serves as a lively primer on Iran, Islamic fundamentalism and the Middle East.
"I wanted to tell the story from the inside, not to be analytical," said Satrapi, 34, during her recent U.S. book tour. Instead of "reducing (Iran) to an abstract notion," she brings it to life through the specifics of her life and a tart, rebellious point of view.
Satrapi illustrated "Persepolis 2" in simple black-and-white drawings that recall Little Lulu comic books. Critics poured praise on both books, sales are brisk for the second one, and Satrapi, who lives in the Marais district of Paris with her Swedish husband of eight years, plans to direct an animated-film version of the two volumes. Initially, there were proposals to turn "Persepolis" into a live-action comedy. But when Satrapi considered the possibility of watered-down, trivialized Hollywood schlock -- and started to visualize Jennifer Lopez playing her in a maghneah (head scarf) -- she insisted on taking the reins herself.
"I cannot just give it away," Satrapi says in a voice charged with energy. "Also, I am a little bit of a dictator myself, you know. I have never directed a film, but I didn't know how to make comics before doing it, either. So you learn."
Inspiration came from Art Spiegelman's "Maus," the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel of the Holocaust. Satrapi also admires Daniel Clowes, who draws the "Ghost World" series, and says she's in awe of former San Franciscan Robert Crumb. "Oh, my God. He's just too much of a genius."
Satrapi says she wanted to find a simple illustrative style that wouldn't crowd the narrative. "I always thought the story is complicated enough that if the drawings are also very complicated, then it will actually cut the rhythm of the reading."
Unlike the first "Persepolis," which dealt largely with political events and the bloody Islamic revolution of 1979, "Persepolis 2" is more revealing of Satrapi's inner life. And more critical. "In the first book, I am the cutest little girl, and I'm intelligent and all of that. I'm just considering the world around me, and I'm not really active."
In "Persepolis 2," "Not only am I not cute, but then I become the main person. It is very difficult ... because then you have to remember how bad you were sometimes and how meaningless your life was and how mean you were."
Case in point: When Satrapi returns to Iran at 18 and is dating Reza, the young man who will become her first husband, she does something unforgivable. Standing in front of a bazaar waiting for Reza one day, she notices a car full of military police and panics because she is wearing lipstick. To deflect arrest, Satrapi summons the police and points to an innocent man sitting near her. She accuses him of saying "something indecent" to her. The man is arrested and Satrapi walks away. She even laughs about it afterward.
Of all the anecdotes in the book, that one is the least flattering to Satrapi. It was important to include it, she says, to illustrate the repression and paranoia in Iran. "Fear pushed me to do that; I was so scared of being caught by these people. By creating an atmosphere of complete paranoia, they are able to manipulate so easily a whole population."
While writing the book, Satrapi refused to censor anything. Not the times she smoked weed with her rebel friends. Not the time her Iranian girlfriends called her a whore because she'd had sex out of marriage. "This whole culture of being a Superman and a role model and never doing anything bad, I don't like that. There is no one who is born as a Superman."
The "Persepolis" series is now finished, but Satrapi has two more graphic novels in the offing: "Embroidery," based on a long afternoon in her late grandmother's home, in which a group of ladies sit and talk about sex, and "The Chicken and the Plum," which spins off the tale of her great-uncle, a musician in the 1950s who, during his last eight days alive, recounts his long life.
Satrapi says she never suspected that "Persepolis" would be greeted so warmly in the United States. Even with critical praise and the sponsorship of her U.S. publisher, Pantheon, however, she says she was detained and humiliated when she arrived in New York early in September.
"When you are Iranian, it is not an easy nationality to have. I know that everybody is scared of terrorists and all of that. But when (customs agents at John F. Kennedy International Airport) sent me to a room where all the bad people go -- the worst of the worst -- they asked questions and called me 'liar' and pushed me to cry. I would say, 'I am the guest of this country. But you don't want me, I will take the next airplane back to Paris.' " In the spring of last year, when she came here to promote the first "Persepolis,'' it was even worse: Satrapi fainted during her interrogation, fell on her knee and ripped the jeans she was wearing. That was her welcome to America.
Harsh lessons. And reminders to Satrapi, on top of countless others, that Americans are largely ill informed about the Middle East. Instead of learning more about Iran and Iraq through the conflicts of recent years, Satrapi says, Americans "are more scared, but they don't know more. They mix up everything that's the worst and equate our culture with fundamentalism."
When Serbs killed Bosnians, she adds, "nobody said that is the fault of Christianity." And yet, the work of "a few fanatics" in the Sept.11, 2001, attacks is misinterpreted as an essential aspect of Muslim culture. "Everybody wants this black-and-white idea of how things are. But the world is much more complicated, and one has to have a little bit more patience to understand it."
Less of your
Marjane Satrapi's drawings paint a bleak picture of modern Iran in Persepolis 2
Sunday November 7, 2004
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
by Marjane Satrapi
Jonathan Cape £12.99, pp192
Marjane Satrapi's comic-strip autobiographies are in black and white, but the stories she tells are ambiguous and grey.
Her first volume ended with her parents sending her away at 14, fearing that her outspokenness would get her into trouble. This sequel starts in Vienna in 1984, in a hostel run by nuns. Her stark, faux-naïf drawing points up the irony; she has left one group of black-clad religious women for another. The nuns eventually throw her out for being, yes, outspoken.
She drifts from one temporary home to another, worrying that smoking joints with her existentialist friends will turn her into a vegetable (specifically, a fat, lolling aubergine).
Racked with guilt, she stops watching the news about the Iran-Iraq war and even pretends to be French until xenophobes goad her into national pride. It is not cultural dislocation that drives her into homelessness and illness, but, as she says, 'a banal story of love'.
When all else fails, she puts her veil back on to return. 'So much for my individual and social liberties,' she writes, as she struggles to recognise the black-framed face in the mirror.
Tehran, too, is unrecognisable; all the streets have new names to honour the war dead and the city feels like a cemetery. Values are warped; her friends wear lipgloss as an act of resistance, as if the Seventies feminists had never burned their bras. Compared to these sleek women, Satrapi feels as unalluring as a nun.
She tries to fit in, but eventually gives up. 'This time, you're leaving for good,' says her mother at the airport. 'You are a free woman. The Iran of today is not for you.'
While this sequel lacks the narrative punch of the first book, it enables Satrapi to reflect on the consequences of revolution. She is heartrending in her description of the ravages of fundamentalism, penetrating in her criticisms of Western policy in Iran, and unsparing when it comes to her own political and moral education; we never find out what happens to the man she falsely accuses of insulting her in an attempt to stop the morality police pouncing on her flashy lipstick.
Satrapi has a disarming voice and her drawings are as packed as Persian
miniatures, but it is her uncensorable honesty that makes her work so
challenging and so pleasurable to read.
A life in pictures
Oct 28th 2004
How to say a lot without a lot of words
In the Shadow of No Towers.
By Art Spiegelman.
Pantheon; 48 pages; $19.95.
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
By Marjane Satrapi.
Pantheon; 192 pages; $17.95. Jonathan Cape; £12.99
IT HAS been 26 years since Will Eisner published “A Contract with God”, the first serious, book-length comic to describe itself as a graphic novel. But the medium is only now starting to earn respect in literary circles. The last few years have ushered several talented graphic novelists into the mainstream, such as Daniel Clowes and Joe Sacco. Charles McGrath,a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, described the genre as “what novels used to be: an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal.” Loyal readers sniff that graphic novels—sometimes described as sequential art or comix—are hailed as the next big thing every five years or so, but never quite catch on, and are often banished to areas of bookshops reserved for humour or science fiction.
Art Spiegelman's “Maus”, which was published in two volumes in 1986 and 1991, is a genre-defining work. In scratchy black-and-white drawings with text, Mr Spiegelman tells the story of his father's survival of the Holocaust. The artwork is evocative, with Jews portrayed as mice and Germans as cats, and the narrative is gripping, capturing Mr Spiegelman's own fraught relationship with his father. The images have a visceral power: it is gut-wrenching to see his starving mice crying out in a mass grave. Critics came to appreciate the narrative potential of graphic books, and Mr Spiegelman even won the Pulitzer prize in 1992. But he said that the 295 pages of “Maus” had consumed 13 years of his life, and after the second volume he abandoned the genre, for a time.
In his introduction to “In the Shadow of No Towers”, Mr Spiegelman writes that on the morning of September 11th 2001, after seeing the twin towers fall from his Lower Manhattan neighbourhood, he decided “to return to making comix full-time despite the fact that comix can be so damn labour-intensive that one has to assume that one will live forever to make them.” During 2002 and 2003 he created ten large-scale, politically loaded pages about the tragedy and its aftermath, each originally published in Die Zeit, a German broadsheet, and other “old Europe” papers.
They now make up an oversized compendium, puffed with super-thick pages and some old newspaper comics. It is a work of self-therapy, filled with the recurring nightmare of the skeletal towers lit with fire against a blue sky. The immediacy of his horror makes these colourful pages a smorgasbord of trauma, paranoia and fear, unlike the emotional distance and slow burn of “Maus”. As a snapshot of a New Yorker's state after September 11th, it is perhaps reassuring to find it so dated.
Marjane Satrapi has also made a name with her irreverent visual memoirs. “Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return” is her follow-up to “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” about growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. The first volume ends with her liberal parents sending her to Europe, in order to escape Iran's increasingly oppressive regime. The final panel shows a 14-year-old Marjane boarding a plane, looking back to see her mother fainted in her father's arms.
“Persepolis 2” begins in Vienna, with Marjane wading through an awkward adolescence, confronting the typical trials of a thoughtful outsider. The country she's left behind is at war with Iraq, women must cover themselves up, and the state is calling for martyrs. Still she returns home, unsatisfied with the punk disaffection of her western lifestyle, only to feel the same dislocation in a more repressive place. In the first volume, the chronology caught a child's perspective; as Marjane grows older on the page, one begins to hanker for a more sophisticated storyteller.
Yet there is a deceptive simplicity to Ms Satrapi's drawings, which capture a range of emotions with an economy of line. With a notch of a pen above or below an eye, she can render compassion or fatigue. In this way, she teases out universal feelings to draw attention to her country's troubled politics. The effect is powerful.
An Iranian Girlhood
TIME.comix on Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis"
Andrew D. Arnold
Friday, May. 16, 2003
The thing that will astonish you most about Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" is not that it is a graphic work published by a major trade house (Pantheon, an imprint of Random House). Nor will it be the luxurious quality of the production — a hardcover with a die-cut dust-jacket that lets a character peek through from the cover. Instead, "Persepolis" (153 pp.; $17.95) will zap you with its story. A memoir of growing up as a girl in revolutionary Iran, "Persepolis" provides a unique glimpse into a nearly unknown and unreachable way of life. It has the strange quality of a note in a bottle written by a shipwrecked islander. That Satrapi chose to tell her remarkable story as a gorgeous comicbook makes "Persepolis" totally unique and indispensable.
Marjane Satrapi spent the first fourteen years of her life in Tehran, as the daughter of well-educated, middle-class, left-wing parents. At the beginning of "Persepolis," she recalls her early obsession with becoming God's new Prophet. Practically personifying her country's sacred-secular struggle, she would decree that their maid could eat at the table with them and that her father's Cadillac would be banned. While her parents demonstrated against the Shah, Satrapi would march around the backyard with her friends, pretending to be Che Guevara. Like Satrapi, I was nine when the Shah fell in 1979. That the so-called "Islamic Revolution" began as a populist revolt that included secular, left-wing socialists is just one of this book's many surprises for someone like myself . The celebrations of the revolution take on a bittersweetness when imprisoned members of Satrapi's family are freed and return with tales of torture and murder.
Then things start to go badly. Click to enlarge
The co-educational French school Marjane attends is shut down and she is sent to an Islamic girls' school. Both she and her mother are required to wear scarves over their hair. They publicly protest, along with many other women, until they are attacked by fundamentalist thugs. Roving "Guardians" make sure citizens (mostly women) follow the rules. Meanwhile the universities are closed, a beloved uncle is executed as a Soviet spy, and the borders are sealed. Typical of the surprises this book has for American readers, the occupation of the U.S. embassy, an act that demonized the Iranians for an entire generation of Americans, gets little attention. "I couldn't care less," says Satrapi's weary mother.
Then the war with Iraq starts, and the last third of "Persepolis" tells of its domestic ramifications. Tehran, where Satrapi lived, soon became a target for bombing and eventually for scud missiles. One day the maid arrives with a plastic, gold-painted key given to her son in school. "They told the boys that if they went to war and were lucky enough to die, this key would get them into heaven." A cousin from the front lines confirms the use of underclass children as mine fodder. One chilling page depicts the silhouettes of exploding bodies with keys around their necks contrasted with the panel below, of Satrapi and friends jumping around at a party.
The artwork in "Persepolis" has a simplicity that resonates with having a child as its main character. Unlike the complex nuances of the story, the artistic details are minimal and shading is non-existent. Instead the artwork of "Persepolis" takes on a wood-cut look. Satrapi makes wonderful use of solid, high-contrast black shapes. Veteran readers of quality comix will immediately think of David B.'s masterful "Epileptic I" (see TIME.comix review) of last year. Both books are childhood memoirs done in similar styles, though David B. has the greater graphic skill. In fact both authors are part of the same French cartoonist collective, L'association. "Persepolis" first appeared in France in 2000.
While the artistry and revelations of "Persepolis" already make it a required read, it has taken on even more importance in the current geopolitical climate. Written with astonishing detail and from the point of view of a child, "Persepolis" domesticates world events and makes them relatable and real. It pulls back the veil on a culture that utterly preoccupies us, but about which we know little. Its complicated personal portrait makes it impossible to think of Iran as the monolithic fundamentalist terror state of our fears.
Thanks to its timeliness and its subject, Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" makes for one of the most vital and surprising reads of the season. That she did it as a graphic memoir says a lot about the growth of this art-form. You could, and should, easily get a younger teenager to read it. Sometimes funny and sometimes sad but always sincere and revealing, "Persepolis" will be one of the best graphic books of the year.
Andrew Arnold has been writing about comix since 1995. His column appears on TIME.com every other weekend.
— 11 November 2003
PERSEPOLIS: THE STORY OF A CHILDHOOD
by Marjane Satrapi
April 2003, 160 pages, $17.95
by Sarah Tan
The Last Prophet
"I really didn't know what to think about the veil. Deep down I was very
religious but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde. I was born with
religion. At the age of six I was already sure I was the last prophet. This was
few years before the revolution."
— Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: The story of a childhood
Growing up is an adventure. Age strengthens the need for personal opinions and values, and the desire to distinguish one's self becomes greater. There are those who understand us, and those who exclude us. Many will choose to abide at a comfortable distance –- not close enough for confrontation and yet succeeding in meeting the demands of objectivity. Usually, the stances remain subtle, but when driven by significant political, religious and intellectual movements, the lines become stronger and the reactions, harsher.
Based on her own personal experience of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Marjane Satrapi introduces us to the effects of cultural change through the eyes of a child. The graphic novel entitled, Persepolis, is a political, historical, and extremely personal account of a girl's growth into maturity. There are a great range of emotions disseminated in this novel. The reader is sidelined by murky melancholic feelings of familiarity and disdain. Such is a tale of life. What period in one's life is filled with more wonder than that of childhood? Born in Iran and educated at the Lycee Francais, Satrapi is the granddaughter of one of Iran's last emperors. She depicts herself in the book as an extremely precocious child of Marxist parents, who educate her on the evils of the regime and stage their own rebellion at home by drinking wine and supplying their daughter with posters of Kim Wilde and Iron Maiden. It is this Western culture at home that brings our character to question the happenings around her. Why is the veil compulsory? Why are our neighbours missing? Why is it wrong to wear a denim jacket and Nikes?
Persepolis is an account of demands made without understanding of repercussions. A child can only see so far into the future, and even then, the tendency is for years to be skipped and hardships, overlooked. Even when a child knows facts about Palestine and Fidel Castro, and reads comics entitled 'dialectic materialism', intellectualism does not succeed to quell the experience of life itself - you have to suffer to understand, but you have to learn the hard way to understand how it feels. Satrapi, herself, learns this lesson in her adolescence.
In life, you'll meet a lot of jerks. If they hurt you, tell yourself that it's because they're stupid. That will help keep you from reacting to their cruelty. Because there is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance . . . always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.
Satrapi does an excellent job of defining various types of rebellion in our society. She explores the probable reasons, may they be fear or knowledge, and quite literally, illustrates the consequences. A teenager enacts rebellion by separating himself or herself from the general, and dives deeper into another extreme. Adults enact rebellion, by separating others from themselves.
One of Satrapi's many strengths is how she shows us the prevalence of social censorship during unrest. It comes to a point where everyone is out there to protect themselves. To point the finger at others, and say, "No I am not like you, you are not like me." How is a child supposed to understand the reasons and meaning of particular cultural symbols that define us? How does he or she deal with it when the clash that occurs when understanding sets in?
Persepolis is a very timely novel for today. As our society is continuingly putting up boundaries and constructing ideas of "ingroups and outgroups", it is important to realize and understand the effects on the present. We may be fighting for the future, but are we looking ahead before looking to those beside us. Her book excludes no one and doesn't place strong judgments on any particular group, though opinions are voiced. This is not a story of who was right, and who gained the most, or who suffered tragically. On the contrary, Persepolis is a novel of the importance of being aware of ourselves and understanding the consequences of change.
Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi
reviewed by PETER MILLAR
PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN
By Marjane Satrapi
Jonathan Cape, £12.99; 187pp
ISBN 0 224 07440 7
5 IS THE PERFECT NUMBER
Jonathan Cape, £12.99; 176pp
ISBN 1 896 59768 8
We call them “comics”. But, with the current crop in particular, it is hard to imagine a more inappropriate term.
Jonathan Cape, publisher of Posy Simmonds, The Guardian contributor whose wry domestic sagas expose the soft underbellies of London’s chattering classes, has produced several graphic novels that vividly delve into the darker side of the genre.
Superficially, Marjane Satrapi belongs to the same genre as Simmonds, with similar, simply drawn, wonderfully expressive characters. The difference is that her work is autobiographical and the background unimaginably darker.
Her first volume, Persepolis, described her upbringing in Iran from the secular despotic regime of the Shah to the religious totalitarianism of the mullah. Her drawings of little girls in the playground throwing their veils at each other tell more in a single frame about the Islamic revolution than many a wordy chapter.
Persepolis 2 recounts Satrapi’s teenage exile in Vienna, where she had been sent by her parents to escape the Iran-Iraq war, depicting in stark yet often genuinely “comic” detail the relatively trivial concerns of Western society, and its casual cruelty. On her return to Tehran she and her father watch reports of Westerners panicking during the first Gulf War and collapse into hysterical laughter that even Western readers will share.
The frame-by-frame technique attacks a story line in a different way to a chain of sentences. It is, to borrow again a term from the comic world, all about timing. Instant impact! This is not a funny book, nor is it meant to be — there are too many tales of execution and repression — but nor is it depressing. Like Simmonds’s tales of Hampstead literati, the medium lets Satrapi tackle darkness head-on and obliquely all at once.
Black humour captures not just the atrocities but also the absurdity of dogma applied to everyday life. Satrapi’s “life drawing” class at Tehran university is faced with a woman in a head-to-foot chador. Drawing of minimal face and swirling black robes, caption: “We learned how to draw drapes.”
Persepolis 2 is an object lesson in how to write powerfully about history and current affairs in a medium as immediate as — and more powerful than — TV news bulletins.
In contrast, 5 is the Perfect Number by Igort (pen name of the Italian Igor Tuveri) owes its influence to the movies — although since the success of Road to Perdition, a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins translated to the big screen, that now works both ways.
This is a stark, almost surreal Neapolitan gangster tale — dedicated to Simenon — told in dramatic, stylised blue-black images: whole pages with no words that sweep you along in an ink-blob swirl of sinister suspense. The sense of light and release when the scene switches to Latin America is wonderfully captured by the black ink’s disappearance.
There are little in-jokes: the murderer’s mother sitting in profile (like Whistler’s) watching Steamboat Willie (the original Mickey Mouse) on television, the Tweedledum-Tweedledee appearance of assassins blown away by the pug-nosed anti-hero, an ageing mafioso hitman.
This is a taut tale of violence and vendetta painted rather than drawn and with all the skill of a consummate cinematographer: owning it is like having a DVD you can enjoy in the bath. Both will change your concept of comics for life.
An Interview with Marjane Satrapi
read Marjane Satrapi’s simple and evocative graphic novel, Persepolis,
felt the sting of its final page. In Satrapi’s first installment of her memoir
of Iranian life before, during and after the 1979 revolution, she chose to end
with the image of our fourteen-year-old heroine -- the cartoon Marjane -- with
her hands pressed against airport glass as her father carried away her fainting
mother. Marjane was being sent by her parents to Vienna to get an education, and
to go through those best of times -- the teen years -- free from a totalitarian
regime. We meet Marjane again in Persepolis 2, laying face down on a made
bed. It’s a pose typical to teenage angst. Only this time the kid has something
to complain about.
In an interview in her hotel lounge, Satrapi talks with a rapid, thick accent and cigarette in hand about teenage rebellion, identity crises, and such important things as peeing in pools and how Jennifer Lopez will never play her dad in the movie. But mostly the conversation leads back to politics, and it’s obvious why she’s so thrilled about a pin that reads “Japanese Americans for John Kerry.”
The first Persepolis is told from the viewpoint of a young girl taking in a difficult world around her, whereas this second book, facing young adulthood, you make an obvious decision to focus inward more. Instead of the story of a young girl trying to make sense of her country, it’s more about a young woman trying to make sense of herself. Was it more difficult to write the second one?
In the first book I had the advantage of being cute, because I am just a small girl, it’s not me who makes any decisions, it’s not me who does anything. So the world around me changed, I am a witness of this big change around me. The war starts, and after a while it becomes completely normal, the situation of the war. That is the capacity of the human being, that everything suddenly becomes absolutely normal. The feeling that I am evoking in the second book is more a problem of when you are going to a new culture and you absolutely want to adapt yourself, and you absolutely want to be integrated. You have to forget about your own culture first. You know, because culture takes all of the space inside you. If you want to have another culture come into you, it’s like you have to take out the first one, and then choose what you want from the two and swallow them again. But it’s the moment you look at everything that it’s this lack of identity. You don’t know anymore who you are. You want so badly to be integrated, but at the same time you have a whole thing that is inside you. It’s the problem that when you leave and then come back, you are a foreigner anywhere. I am a foreigner in Iran. I don’t take the risk to go back to my country anymore, but at the same time, it’s a good feeling not to belong to any place anymore, at the same time it’s a hard feeling. So if I wrote a book and said I was worrying about the situation in Iran the whole time, that would be so untrue. Any of us who have moved from Iran -- and there were many of us who left like this without parents -- all of us have gone through this desire to be part of a new society, that we had to abandon everything. And the funny thing is, all the Iranian friends I have now, who left the country alone at 12, 13, 14, we have become extremely Iranian after all these years.
Because when you are young you mix the fanaticism of the government of Iran with the culture of your country, and it’s all one thing. When you are also very young, it’s so difficult all the time justifying yourself because of your nationality. A simple question that for everyone is a one-word answer to “Where do you come from?” -- “I am French.” For an Iranian, it’s a one-hour explanation: “I am Iranian but, I am Iranian but…”
How do you answer that question now, as opposed to when you were young?
When you are young you hate to answer that question. Well, today I just say “I am Iranian,” and they say “You are Iranian?” and I say “Yes, it is a fact, I am Iranian. I was born there, I have black hair. Yes, I am an Iranian person, what can I do?” Since writing the book, nobody can tell me “Give me some explanation.” I think now my explanation is just “Read the book and you’ll see.” This book has permitted me not to talk so much anymore. People have read the book so they see what my situation is.
So you’ve been in France for a long time now. Do you feel you can call it home in any way?
I can live fifty years in France and my affection will always be with Iran. I always say that if I were a man I might say that Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother, whether she’s crazy or not, I would die for her, no matter what she is my mother. She is me and I am her. My wife I can cheat on with another woman, I can leave her, I can also love her and make her children, I can do all of that but it’s not like with my mother. But nowhere is my home any more. I will never have any home any more. Having lived what I have lived, I can never see the future. It’s a big difference when someone has to leave their country.
At the end of this book, you leave to go to France to have the freedom to work. As a woman and as an artist, do you feel like you’ve gotten that freedom in France?
Oh yes. You see, the basic problem of a country like mine, apart from the regime, apart from the government, is the patriarchal culture that is leading my country. That is the worst. That is why the government is still there. Whatever it touches, it gives its interpretation of the thing. When it touches psychology it says that the woman is more sensitive than the man. When it touches the medicine it says that our brain is a little less weight than the man’s. When it touches anything it gives its own interpretation, and the interpretation goes towards politics, towards religion, towards everything. So that is the situation. You know, the feminists become very angry when I say I am not a feminist. I am a humanist. I believe in human beings. After what I have seen in the world, I don’t think women are better than the men. See what the women soldiers did in Iraq, that was not better than the men. Margaret Thatcher was a woman, look what she did to Great Britain. Or Madeleine Albright? So the women are not better than the men.
So do you think the definition of feminism is to define that women are better than men?
That is what I feel. When they talk about “The men ruined this, the men did that,” it is a person, and their sex comes after what they’ve done. I believe that we say too much “We the women” and “We the men,” but should say “We the human beings.” There are really two types of human being -- the ones who care about environment, who want a more just society; and the other ones who care about greed and war. So it’s not a question of East and West, and American and Iranian, and women and men.
You are very determined in both books to show both sides of a situation, and often two sides of individuals. Whether it’s you, your grandmother, or even more minor characters in the books.
The world is complex. Even in my book I show a mullah who is good, the one who accepted me at the ideological test. He accepted me. So I can never say “All the mullahs are bad.” There was a man who believed in honesty. It would be so much easier to say they are all shit. My life would be easier. But everything is so much more complex. There is so much good in bad, and so much bad in good.
Are you so determined to foster understanding between people because you see -- particularly in the last three years -- that we’re getting further away from that?
I don’t think the question is between the people. The politics of the world has created that. When I come to the United States, I’m supposed to be the axis of evil. They are supposed to be the Nest of Satan. That is the way the two countries call each other. Which is really bad, when George Bush uses the same kind of words. To use the same words as a completely fanatic, theological regime. When I come and see people here, everything is fine.
Since the kidnapping of the two French journalists, with the demand of the kidnappers being that the ban on headscarves in schools is lifted, we’ve been reading a lot here that there’s a solidarity in the French Muslim community against this. Have you witnessed that?
Absolutely. It is the truth. When they banned the veil in schools, I was against that. It became complete nonsense, because instead of understanding why the girls were putting the veil on their heads, they just made a law. And if by just making a law you could stop things, it would be so easy. Forbid persecution, and it doesn’t exist anymore? Of course it will exist, it will just become hidden. Just get rid of the veil and it will come out in another way. So the law is not a good idea for me. Then they cannot go to school to get an education, and the one way they have to become emancipated is then lost. At the same time, when the two journalists were taken in the name of Islam, no religion in the whole world allows this kind of thing. So of course there was very quickly solidarity. Even those for the veil, even the more fanatic ones, they just said “No.” Which is a very great thing. We cannot agree on some stuff, but the life of a human being, everybody agrees. All my life I have been against the veil, and now I am the one defending the veil. I hate the veil and what it means, I would never put that thing on my head, but I put myself in their place. It’s a question of these girls’ identity. Their mothers never wore the veil, and so they want to. Why? They have come to France, 30-40 years. For French they are not French, and for Arabs they are not Arabs. So the height of irony is that the veil has become a symbol of rebellion. When you are fourteen and they tell you not to do something, of course you want to do it.
That brings me back to the question about the search for an identity that you write about in this book. You get very personal by showing how you try on so many identities and are never quite comfortable. That had to have been difficult to look back on, and write about.
It was more difficult than the first one because I have lost my innocence in the second book and I don’t have anything to justify myself. Things happen, and I grow up, and I am the actor of my decision, I am the actor of my life. It is more difficult but you have to try to be as honest as possible. I wrote the thing in the book that is not so cool for myself. When I turned over that guy to the Guardians of the Revolution [to save them from arresting me] it was not so great to show about myself. But it is also to show that when you are scared, you behave badly.
I read once that you once apologized to Art Spiegelman for the fact that every graphic novel is now compared to Maus.
Yes, if I were him, I would have hated me.
Well, why is that? Do you think that constant comparison is more of a problem for Art Speigelman, or for other graphic novelists like yourself who might be a little bored of the comparison?
No, it’s not a problem for me. Maus is a masterpiece. To be compared to Maus is nothing but a compliment. But for him that should be extremely tiring. If I was him I would have hated all these younger graphic novelists being compared to myself. So that is why I called him once, to tell him that none of this propaganda is being made by me, that it is other people who say this. He thought it was very charming. He invited me to his studio, and I met his wife and children, and we are friends.
Who are some of the French graphic novelists that you admire?
Joann Sfar’s book comes out in 2005 called The Rabbi Cat. This is a Jewish guy, and in the book the whole question of Judaism is evoked by his cat. He has a very ugly cat, the most ugly animal you can imagine. He can draw with ease, as fast as I’m talking. I am always interested in him. He makes stories like fairy tales, with questions like religion, and at the same time making this great drawing. (Satrapi lights another cigarette.) You know Art Spiegelman so you know how much he smokes.
Did you get a smoking room here?
No, I don’t think they have them. But I smoke in the room, and I have this spray that’s supposed to stop the alarm. But I don’t think those work anyway. It’s like years ago, when you were a kid, they said there was this thing they put in the swimming pools so if you peed it was going to turn red around you. That doesn’t exist, because I have peed since then in the swimming pool and it didn’t work. So the same thing in the nonsmoking room, it’s a lie. You just need to get the spray.
You end this book just as abruptly as the last, with the last line telling us that this was the last time you would see your grandmother. And once again, things end in the airport.
I hate airports. Goodbye is the worst word for me. Goodbye means they could die and I never see them again. Anyone, even you who I meet for an hour, it is a difficult thing to say. I like the word forever. Forever -- we will be friends forever, I will see you forever.
You grandmother is a sort of moral center of both books. Are you writing more about her?
The day I die, you will look at all my books together and see a big family saga. The book Embroidery, my grandmother is the main person. Everything revolves around her. I have another book coming in France in October called Chicken With Plums, about the uncle of my mother. I appear on two pages and disappear. Like Hitchcock did in his movies, I am playing a little bit like him.
When will Embroidery be out in the States?
In America in 2005. It is in her living room with nine or ten women. What do nine or ten women do in an afternoon, especially when they are old? They talk about sex. And one thing leads to another and they laugh and they cry. To some people my grandmother could seem a little bit cynical. But she was not cynical. She had a great sense of morality. She wasn’t a moral person -- she didn’t say “Do this, it is good, Don’t do this, it is bad,” but she always told me “Marjane, if you go to a party and you don’t talk to anyone, they will say “Who does she think she is,” but if you go to a party and start laughing with everyone they will say “Oh, look at this bitch.” So, no matter what you do, if people want to talk about you they will talk about you, so do what you think is right. If you don’t feel like talking, don’t. If you feel like laughing, laugh. Because she had a great sense of justice. And she was not an educated woman. She hardly knew hard to read and write, but at the same time, what was the most important to her was justice. I remember during the war, we had this coupon for some oil and some sugar and things. We went into a shop, and there was a lady begging the guy to give her credit for a little bit of chocolate and the guy didn’t want to. And my grandmother became completely mad. For two years, every time we went into the shop, she would make something fall down in the guy’s shop, joking, and would say “You know, I am old.” Just to make this guy pay.
Is the most difficult part of a translation the humor?
Absolutely. The words are not the same and the feeling is not the same. You know, they say in France that translation is like a woman. She is either beautiful or faithful. So it’s better when she’s beautiful because when she’s too faithful it might be very ugly. This is French people. This translation, though, is very well made. This is my American editor, who knows me very well who has made the translation. But in any translation you lose a little bit.
Have you written very much in Persian?
Not really, because, well, the book Persepolis, I wrote for the other ones, not for Iranians. For Iranians I wouldn’t give so much explanation. And I speak in French, so it is now more obvious for me to write in French, and not in Persian. In a way, when I write in Persian, I think others can do it much better than me.
Did you, however, feel a sense of responsibility to the Iranian people in telling this stories?
Yes. You know, last year, someone from LA proposed to make a series, like Beverly Hills 90210, but happening in Iran. Based on my book. With lots of young people, and then there are some bombs. I don’t know what the basic idea was. So I imagined that they would put Jennifer Lopez in the role of my father, and it would be a whole mess. And even if they gave me two million dollars for this I wouldn’t have accepted. When you make a book like that, you have a responsibility, you cannot give it to anyone who will turn it another way. So I thought I should work with French people, and now I’m working with them, and Americans are also interested, so maybe it will be a co-production.
Speaking of Art Spiegelman, have you seen In the Shadow of No Towers yet?
Yes, thank god people like him exist! I have made a bet with him. I think that Kerry will win, and he thinks that George Bush will win. So if I lose the bet I must take him to a very nice restaurant in Paris. And we both hope he will lose.
So, last question. I assume you know that Kim Wilde writes gardening articles and books now?
Yes, but I am much more into Iggy Pop, you know. When I was in Barnes and Noble in Chelsea in New York, they had this music that I hate, this R&B that makes we want to throw up when I hear that. So the guy asked me what music I would like and when I said Iggy Pop he laughed and that was the end of it. But then, he was expecting, like, 70 people to come, and instead more than 360 came and the whole place was full. So he was so happy about that, he said next time I am there he will have Iggy Pop playing for me, live. So some day I will have Iggy Pop play for me in Barnes and Noble.
PERSEPOLIS: The Story of a
--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
what has come to be known as a "graphic novel." In its purist form, a graphic
novel is a story told through sequential art. A friend of mine, upon receiving a
copy of THE ROAD TO PERDITION that I sent to him, called me and exclaimed in
delight, "I didn't know they had these things! It's like a comic book!" And yes,
it is. When it's well done, it's not as easy as it looks and not simply
something for lazy readers. You must have an excellent writer, a sensitive
illustrator, and empathy between them to make it work.
Marjane Satrapi demonstrates her writing and artistic skills in PERSEPOLIS, which tells the story of Satrapi's early childhood, with the main focus being on her life from age ten through fourteen, from 1980 through 1984. Those were particularly turbulent years for Satrapi's native country of Iran, encompassing the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran), the installation of the Islamic Republic, and the war with Iraq. The story is told entirely through the eyes of Satrapi, the child, and how these events affected her parents, her relatives, her friends, and herself. In her introduction to PERSEPOLIS, Satrapi notes that writing this book was so important to her since her native country is associated with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism; she does not want the entire nation judged, in her words, upon the actions of a few extremists. She additionally does not want the victims of these actions to be forgotten. In this, she succeeds: Satrapi's stark black and white images cast an appropriate and memorable gloom over her story.
PERSEPOLIS has been compared to MAUS, and certainly Satrapi's topic is somewhat similar, but her artistic style is closer to that of Los Bros Hernandez, whose brilliant LOVE AND ROCKETS is sadly missed. While Satrapi's artistic technique tends toward the spare, she wrings every possible emotion out of each drawing, communicating with a few strokes and shades what might otherwise take paragraphs, or even pages of words. When, for instance, she learns of the execution of her favorite uncle at the hands of the Islamic Republic, her reaction, her emotional devastation, is communicated ever so eloquently in a single, stark panel. It is almost anti-climactic when she rejects the personification of God afterward. Even the images of playtime and recreation --- those things that we here in the United States take for granted --- are subtlety infused with somber overtones.
PERSEPOLIS ends with Satrapi's parents sending her to Austria to avoid the repercussions of the Islamic government. One is left wondering what became of Satrapi and her parents. Satrapi is reportedly working on a sequel to PERSEPOLIS, which undoubtedly will be most welcomed by readers of this volume.
writer's life: Marjane Satrapi
The Iranian graphic novelist tells Sam Leith her anger sometimes gets in the way of her work
Trying to arrange an interview in Paris with the Iranian-born writer Marjane Satrapi is tricky. For several days, I called both of the two numbers I had been given and was greeted by gruff Frenchmen. "N'est pas la." "Quand est-ce-qu'elle reviendra?" "Ch'pas." Click, burr. Charmant.
Her publishers weren't able to help much, either. She had never been known to reply to an e-mail, apparently, and they didn't have her mobile number. But on the Monday of the week we were due to meet, I got hold of her finally. She was living – while work was being done on a new house – in the smart Plaza Athénée hotel under her married name, Ripa.
Later, when a colleague called about photographs, she refused to have a new one taken and offered an alternative. "People ask, 'Is it a recent photograph?' Yes! It's three months old. Do they think I am going to go blonde and get blue eyes?"
Marjane – it's pronounced with a soft J and an open second vowel – can generally make do without a photograph, after all. Persepolis, the acclaimed two-volume memoir that is the reason I'm here, is a comic book. The author image on the flyleaf is a cartoon self-portrait: a hunched-up, gothy-looking girl in black, frowning out at you with smoke rising from a cigarette. Is she, I wonder before I arrive, going to be difficult?
As it turns out, mercifully, she's not. She appears at the door smiling, in a faded denim skirt, thick black hair all over her shoulders, and two-inch black platform shoes. She drinks Earl Grey without milk and talks without cease. English is her fourth language, after Persian, French and German, and she is quite at home in it.
Her mode of delivery is the torrential monologue. Almost the first thing she says – and it's a theme to which she returns more than once – is: "I hate Tony Blair", and when she talks about the rhetoric of "human rights" being used to justify invasion, her voice trembles with upset. But she turns, too, on a pin. Her political riffs are punctuated with despairing expletives. Catching herself, at one point, she digresses to explain: "I have this language because I am spending too much time drinking with Irish and Scottish friends." At another point she tells a venomously funny anecdote about an elderly former landlady: "She kept asking me to put this medicine in her dog's ass. Why did I not want to? This lady. These people. They are not crappy because they are old. They are crappy all the time."
"I don't go myself towards aggression," she says early on. "But if I feel offended I can become very wild, you know." It is fair to say that Satrapi has a temper. When she was 14 – in an incident that she shows in the first volume of Persepolis – Satrapi was kicked out of school for punching the headmistress.
The two volumes of Persepolis take Satrapi from childhood to young womanhood, and from the Teheran of the revolution, via a turbulent adolescence in Austria, to the Teheran of 1994. When she was 14, her parents sent her to Vienna – freeing her from the repressions of the regime, but exposing her to the loneliness of exile. At her lowest point, she found herself living on Vienna's streets for two months in midwinter – something she didn't confess to her parents ("it would have destroyed them") until a decade afterwards.
As the second volume ends she is preparing again to leave Iran for France, her future home. The arc of its story is shaped by rebellion – first against the religious intolerance at home, and then against the prejudice and ignorance of abroad. It is grounded in her anger at constantly correcting prejudices about Iran – a struggle that continues.
She has just spent a month touring America. In Salt Lake City – a place she describes, perhaps not altogether tolerantly, as being like the Island of Dr Moreau after generations of inbreeding – a woman asked her: "Can you see the moon from France?" People lecture her about the geography of her own country, she says, refusing to believe that it snows in Teheran. A radio DJ in Seattle introduced her as Mar-Jayne, and told the listeners she was "from Iraq". "Iran," said Satrapi. "Aren't they the same?" asked the DJ.
But Persepolis is far from a humourless tract. It dramatises Iran's national story by telling Satrapi's personal one – and she is a shrewd and candid observer of her teenage behaviour: spats with her grandmother; tiffs with boyfriends; the illicit pleasure of having a Kim Wilde poster on the wall. "I think there is nothing worse than writing with the acid of your stomach," she says. "There is nothing worse than writing from anger. That's why I didn't write this book when I was 25 either... I started when I was 29."
The point, she says, was to write about Iran, not about herself. There will be no third volume. "I just took my own story – at least that is something that I know – to tell a story about my country. I was born in a country in a certain time, and I was witness to many things. I was witness to a revolution. I was witness to the war. I was witness to a huge emigration. I was a witness when I came back.
"The reason the book stops in 1994 is that I don't live there any more. I read an Iranian newspaper every day on the internet and my parents still live there, but that is second-hand information, you know?"
Satrapi now lives in Paris and hasn't been back to Iran since 2000, when the first volume of Persepolis was published. She says that "not one" of her childhood friends still lives in Iran. "If I was a man I would say Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother is my mother. I will love her to the last day of my life. I will die for my mother. France is my wife. I have chosen her myself. Now, I am very much in love with my wife, but once in a while I can cheat on her."
Since its translation into English, Persepolis has acquired a readership in Iran. Satrapi is satisfied her parents are in no danger, but she says that because Iran is "not a state of law", her own treatment on return would be subject to the caprices of the officials she came across.
Its reporting premise, and its comic format, caused Persepolis to be compared to Art Spiegelman's Maus, but its main influences are elsewhere. Satrapi trained as an illustrator, but neither read nor drew comics extensively until she embarked on Persepolis, encouraged by five comic artists with whom she shared a studio. It was the Italian film The Bicycle Thief that made her realise she could use personal anecdote as a way into a larger social picture.
The first volume shows its author honing her art: learning to pace comics' frames and pages. "You can't show static images one after the other – which is what I did in the first part of the first book, because I was not a cartoonist." Her black-and-white drawings, two-dimensional and with the schematic simplicity of woodcuts, are essential to the effect. Their virtues came from necessity. "I had gaps," she says. "I never learned how to draw a body, for example, because in that art school in Iran, we couldn't learn it. I didn't have any notion of perspective. So there were many things I didn't do because I couldn't do them. But I was clever enough to take my lack and make a style out of it."
The two volumes took four years to complete, with Satrapi working "like a Nazi soldier… I get up and work until my arm doesn't work any more. Even if I work very little, I work every day. It's not work: it's a style of life." She is working with a friend on turning Persepolis into an animated feature film. And though she has no children herself, she has written several children's books and picked up "a couple of prizes" for them.
"I don't know if I am going to do children's books any more," she says. "I did six or seven of them. Maybe later on I could feel like doing some more. But not right now. I am too angry for that."
'Persepolis 2' is published by Jonathan Cape at £12.99
Le monde diplomatique - Luglio 2002
Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi
Lizard, 2002, 6.80 euro
Il bianco e il nero. La luce e l'ombra. La felicità e il terrore.
È giocando costantemente su coppie di opposti complementari che Marjane Satrapi - nata a Tehran nel 1969 e dopo alcune peregrinazioni stabilitasi definitivamente a Parigi - costruisce la poetica di questo suo fumetto autobiografico. Un'opera che, insieme alla sua vita, ripercorre gli ultimi vent'anni (e passa) di storia del suo paese di origine. Primo fumetto di provenienza iraniana, Persepolis ci racconta infatti, attraverso gli occhi curiosi ma per nulla disincantati di una bambina, la saga di un paese che in pochi anni si è trovato a vivere incredibili rivolgimenti. La narrazione parte quindi dalla descrizione delle repressioni all'epoca dello scià, per poi soffermarsi sulla Rivoluzione del 1979, la fuga dell'autocrate e la deriva oscurantista del potere quando viene preso in mano dagli ayatollah. Il tutto in un bianco e nero asciutto ed essenziale, a tratti naif, che l'autrice sembra prendere direttamente a prestito dal suo mentore David B., specialista d'Oltralpe dell'arte sequenziale di carattere autobiografico, che le ha senz'altro dato l'impulso e l'ispirazione per cimentarsi in questa avventura. Primo di una serie di sette (in Francia il secondo episodio è già uscito riscuotendo un successo enorme), il libro di Satrapi colpisce proprio per la sua essenzialità. È l'occhio di una ragazza che ripercorre la sua infanzia. E che, attraverso la testimonianza del suo quotidiano passato, ci riesce a trasmettere molto più di quanto facciano interi manuali di storia.
In Brief: Persepolis
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page BW04
Marjane Satrapi, the author of the graphic memoir-novels Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Pantheon, $17.95) and the recently released Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (Pantheon, $17.95), bears a striking resemblance to her cartoon alter ego. Like her comic heroine, Satrapi in person is charming, fiercely opinionated and often imprudently outspoken -- which got her into scrapes as a child in the early, most repressive years of Iran's Islamic Republic.
Her portrait of Iranian society is similarly bold. Rendered in stark, woodcut-like panels, the books captured attention in the United States and Europe partly because they shed light on an era when Iran was too closed to outsiders and too dangerous for Iranians to be depicted with any real depth. Through personal, often painful anecdotes, Satrapi explains how the Westernized country of the shah was transformed so quickly into a surreal world of doublespeak and double lives. When Satrapi's secular mother is "persuaded" by militant thugs to adopt Islamic garb, we see the bones of this transformation; when Satrapi's uncle, a leftist dissident, is released from the shah's prison only to later be executed by the Islamist regime, we see the corruption of a revolution that was graced with more passion than foresight.
"In a country where half the population is illiterate you cannot unite the people around Marx," declares Satrapi's doomed uncle as the Islamists consolidate power. Last year, as the United States went to war in Iraq and Satrapi went on her American book tour, she argued that it would be no easier to unite Iraqis around Jefferson, warning against trying to impose democracy where there is no democratic tradition. Since then, her comic strips in the New Yorker and elsewhere have bluntly compared the Bush administration's methods to those of Iran's fundamentalist rulers. Satrapi is not the first to suggest such a comparison, or to denounce Iran's Islamist regime, but she has discovered that strong and sometimes uncomfortable political convictions delivered in word bubbles by round-eyed cartoon characters can be easier to swallow than words alone.
Tara Bahrampour is a Washington Post reporter and the author of "To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America."
Saturday, Nov 27, 2004
The Globe 100
Of all the year's writings, few meet the test. Here are the books our reviewers liked best.
Compiled by MARTIN LEVIN and H. J. KIRCHHOFF
The Story of a Return
By Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon, 187 pages, $25.95
Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi, author/illustrator of the internationally acclaimed Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, has produced an equally marvellous sequel in Persepolis 2, joining the list of those who can both write and draw beautifully, a list that includes Art Spiegelman, Chester Brown, Chris Ware and Seth. Satrapi's autobiographies are illustrated with stark, lean drawings, married to funny, smart words. "Satrapi's book is powerful, not just because it's about the inability to go home again, but because she shows just how criminal it is to be forced to leave home to begin with."
Reviewed by Lisa Gabriele