Halfway through Hermione Granger’s Feminist Book Club 2016, and the books are only getting even more varied! This month: a graphic memoir, Marjane Satrapi’s celebrated PERSEPOLIS.
Initially published in France, the U.S. collection is divided into two parts. “The Story of a Childhood” covers Satrapi’s early years in Iran. The rebellious daughter of educated Marxist parents, young Marjane’s family initially support the overthrow of the monarchy until it becomes clear the new fundamentalist government is even more repressive. After the Iraqi invasion, 14-year-old Marjane is expelled from school for her outspokenness, prompting her fearful parents to send her to Austria. “The Story of a Return” follows her exploits in Europe, as she falls in with punks, struggles to assimilate to Western culture, experiences first love and loss, and eventually becomes homeless. At 18, she finally returns to her homeland to discover a changed Tehran.
Satrapi’s foreword notes that she wrote this memoir in part to combat prevailing Western assumptions about Iran and Iranians. There’s often a knee-jerk reaction when discussing the Middle East to focus on the harrowing descriptions of its most fundamentalist regimes and oppressive practices; indeed, it’s hard not to get fixated on something like female political prisoners being forcibly married and raped to circumvent laws prohibiting the execution of virgins. (Or the fact that feisty Marjane is only 14 when she learns this with us, or the “dowry”–about five dollars–sent to the victim’s family afterwards.) But while Persepolis is very much harrowing and unabashedly political, it’s also humanizing. It’s very much an anti-totalitarian statement against fundamentalist Iranian government, but it’s also the story of real, human, loving, and rebellious ordinary Iranians.
And it’s also funny. This is largely because this is very much Marjane’s story, above all, and from the start she’s a funny girl. And the transition from girlhood to womanhood is in itself comic, just as it is often brutal. Marjane’s idolization of Western “punk” counterculture as a rebellious young girl in post-Revolution Iran, only to become disillusioned with ‘punks’ when she starts hanging with them as a teenager in Europe, has special significance given the repressive political climate she came from, but it’s also a familiar story for a lot of young college liberals in general. But the coming-of-age story cannot be separated from the story of a repressive regime: in fact, the humor and the horror often intersect. When Marjane’s art school’s “figure drawing” class has its female students draw completely veiled women, as women are not allowed to draw men or pose nude, it’s hard not to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all while simultaneously realizing how completely fucked up the whole thing is.
I’ve seen this compared to Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece Maus–another graphic novel you absolutely must read, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read–but I think that’s pretty reductive. Even if you were going to concede that one being a memoir in comic strips about the Holocaust and another about post-Revolution Iran makes them inherently comparable by way of subject matter (I personally don’t think they are), the tone and focus of the two are pretty different. Like Banu Goshasp–the ancient Persian mythological heroine who “would not be Banu Goshasp veiled”–PERSEPOLIS is a force of its own. It’s not a fairy tale, it’s not romantic, and it’s arguably not even heroic in the way that we like to think of heroism as good overcoming evil. But it’s triumphant.