I’ve been putting off this post for a few days now, unsure of what to write about Marjane Satrapi’s bestselling graphic novel, Persepolis. That’s not because I didn’t like the book; in fact, I liked it so much that I had to check out Persepolis 2 from the library before I had even finished the first book. I literally closed the first book’s back cover and opened the next book’s front cover within minutes, too entranced to stop reading.
I guess I’ve been stalling because I feel like I should know more about Iran’s history, that I should be able to write an intelligent, insightful response that sets Satrapi’s work into a literary, historical, and cultural context. After all, this is what I’ve been teaching my students to do: research!
I’ll get there eventually. Recently, though, my class had a powerful discussion about the nature of stories. We talked about how some stories are best digested slowly, over time, and without too much poking and prodding. I think about my favorite Billy Collins poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” in which the author asks students to experience the poem in various ways, from different angles.
“But all they want to do,” the poem continues, “is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.”
Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy gave me another frank view at what over-analyzing a story can do. John and I have been reading her travelogue, Full Tilt, out loud to one another. She bicycled alone from Dunkirk to Delhi, passing right through Tehran, in 1963. Full Tilt is primarily made up of journal entries:
Apart from burnishing the spelling and syntax, which are apt to suffer when one makes nightly entries whether half asleep or not, I have left the diary virtually unchanged. A few very personal or very topical comments or allusions have be excised, but the temptation to make myself sound more learned than I am, by gleaning facts and figures from an encyclopaedia and inserting them in appropriate places, has been resisted. For this reason the narrative which follows will be seen to suffer from statistic-deficiency; it only contains such information as any traveller might happen to pick up from day to day along my route. (Full Tilt, 3-4)
In the spirit of Murphy’s unabashed travelogue, I will write of my reader’s experience with Satrapi’s book. It is not my intent to support ignorance regarding other cultures, but instead to suggest that reading personal stories such as Satrapi’s (and especially such wonderfully illustrated stories) is a fine way to encounter the Other. And in many ways, I encountered myself in this book: a strong, intelligent, and hopelessly stubborn little girl.
I’ve never been an enthusiastic student of history. The way Persepolis combines personal and national history, however, enthralled me. Satrapi’s books are reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in that they use the platform of graphic novel to make war personal. Where Spiegelman makes personal a topic familiar to most westerners, however, Satrapi opens a door to the east.
This open door is increasingly valuable as conflict ravages the Middle East and the western world makes a mindless connection between groups like IS and the entire population of a country (or religion). Instead of diving into my own analysis, I’ll give you Satrapi’s:
Since then , this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. (Introduction)
I want to return to the little girl, though. Satrapi invites readers into the mind of a little girl who distinguishes between human dignity and injustice at an incredibly early age. In Persepolis 2, this girl becomes an adult away from home – in Austria – and grapples with maintaining her dignity in a place where no one else values her culture.
When she returns to Iran, Satrapi encounters a regime more oppressive than when she left, and she struggles to fit in. Ultimately, though Satrapi settles in France, she maintains close emotional ties with the country of her childhood.
It’s no surprise to me that such a successful culture-straddler as Satrapi has become a writer. Her story was a joy to read, one that will stay with me for a long time.
As for me, the reader, I’m looking for recommendations on graphic novels. I’m hooked. Add Satrapi to the work of Alison Bechdel (I devoured Fun Home and Are You My Mother? last year) and Spiegelman, and this genre obviously has something powerful going for it. If only I could draw!