English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

Satrapi “Unveiled”

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Born in 1969 in Iran, to Westernized, left-leaning middle-class parents, Marjane Satrapi (pronounced MAHR-john sah-TROP-ee) was a first-hand witness to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and subsequent war with Iraq. An only child, she was educated at a French academy and encouraged to speak her mind, a trait which eventually caused her parents enough concern that she was sent to Vienna at fourteen to finish school.

Her father, an engineer, and her mother, a clothing designer, had initially supported the Revolution, demonstrating against the Shah along with many other liberals. However, the takeover of the government by the fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini was a shock to them and to their daughter, who listened to the horror stories of family and friends imprisoned and tortured, some executed, others exiled.

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Marjane struggled with the tension between opposing ideologies

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Little Marjane bewildered by wearing the veil for the first time

As a child, Satrapi was befuddled by the sudden shift in the world she knew from a cosmopolitan, politically open, highly Westernized nation to one in which women were second-class citizens and anti-government sentiments were cause for imprisonment and worse. She watched her mother escape arrest for demonstrating for womens’ rights, and witnessed ties between friends and family strain to the breaking point over political viewpoints.

As she entered her teens, Satrapi began to push the limits of government constraints on dress and entertainment, sneaking out to buy forbidden music, wearing American pop artist t-shirts under her veil, and openly congregating with friends in the one Western-style fast-food restaurant in her neighborhood. She lied her way out of legal detainment by the women’s branch of the Guardians of the Revolution, who pounced on her for wearing sneakers and tight jeans.

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Teenage Marjane is confronted by the dress police

Frightened, her parents sent her to friends in Europe – a common measure of protection for young Iranians at the time. There, Marjane encountered a lover’s betrayal, sex, drugs, and homelessness, all the while feeling she belonged nowhere-neither Europe nor Iran.

At nineteen, after a serious illness, she returned to Iran, attended art school, married and quickly divorced, and decided to move to France, where she received a second degree in art and began her career as an illustrator.

Inspired by Art Speigelman’s Maus and the work of cartoonist David B., who strongly influenced her style, she created her breakthrough work, Persepolis, which was published in French in 2000 and in English in 2003. Persepolis 2 soon followed, and in 2007, an animated film based on both books, which she co-produced and co-directed. The Persepolis works are her memoirs, telling the story of her childhood after the Revolution and her subsequent search for self in Europe during her teens and early twenties.

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Cartoonist David B., a friend and creative influence on Satrapi's work

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A page of David B.'s work - the similarity between his and Satrapi's cartoons is evident

Living in France since the early 1990’s, Satrapi has created two more well-recieved works, Embroideries and Chicken with Plums. Embroideries captures the conversations she overheard between her grandmother, mother and other women during afternoon tea, and Chicken with Plums is the story of her musician uncle who chooses death over life without his beloved instrument the tar.

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Still outspoken and contentious, Satrapi is not shy with her opinions. She insists that she is a cartoonist, not an “artist,” and decries the term “graphic novel” as a name used by adults who are ashamed to admit they write or read comic books. In a 2007 interview with Robert Root for Fourth Genre, she jokes: “When you say ‘graphic novel’ I think you mean Lady Chatterley’s Lover or something like that.”

She also rejects the narrow use of autobiography as a category for her work, claiming the Persepolis books are more story than memoir, even though they are her own personal history. She tells Root: “The thing is, if I give a historical event – of course I will check out the date, and of course I will say exactly what happened, but how do you want me exactly to remember all the dialogues?” She goes on to expound: “The search for truth in a novel is a very sick thing…it is not an academic work…A novel stays a novel.”

WHY SHE WRITES HER PERSONAL AND FAMILY HISTORY

Satrapi chose to tell her story through her art as a way to set straight the illusions she feels Westerners harbor about her homeland. In an article she authored for Writing! (November/December 2003), Satrapi discusses her reasons for telling her story. She begins: “From the time I came to France in 1994, I was always telling stories about life in Iran to my friends. We’d see pieces about Iran on television, but they didn’t represent my experience at all.” (10). Later in the piece, she explains further: “If people are given the chance to experience life in more than one country, they will hate a little less…That is why I wanted people in other countries to read Persepolis, to see that I grew up just as other children do.” (11)

In a September 2004 interview with Dave Welch, which takes place at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, she says about her decision to leave Iran: “So many other people were desperate in the way that I was desperate.” She goes on: “The real war is not between the West and the East. The real war is between intelligent and stupid people. There is much more in common between George Bush and the fanatics in my country than between me and the fanatics of my country. As an Iranian, I feel much closer to an American who thinks like me than to the bearded guy of my country.” In the same interview, she responds to Welch’s comment on the seeming thirst for knowledge about the people of the Middle East: “It’s because of the bad situation of the war that I have to defend my country…Otherwise, I could just sit and talk about art and comics, and I would be delighted.”

HOW TEXT AND IMAGE WORK TOGETHER IN HER ART

As for her choice to tell her stories in comic book form, Satrapi claims: “To me, a book is pages within a cover that are related to the same thing. Graphic novels are not traditional literature, but that does not mean they are second-rate. Images are a way of writing.”(Writing! 11).

In a November 2006 interview with John Zuarino for Bookslut, Satrapi says about her choice of form: “I didn’t have any other way. My brain functions with images. Just the words is not enough.” Unlike many cartoonists, she creates both the images and text herself. She describes the text and images as being created in her mind at the same time as she works: “I think it’s just more of a simultaneous experience…The best example of that is like a baby growing up in a belly. They don’t have first the nose that grows and one leg and then the other leg and one eye and then the head. All of it grows at the same time.”

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A page from "Embroideries" - Satrapi dispensed with borders to evoke the sense of a conversation which can be moved into and out of

In the earlier interview mentioned above, with Dave Welch at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, Satrapi addresses image as language: “Image is an international language. The first writing of the human being was drawing, not writing. That appeared much before the alphabet. And when you draw a situation- someone is scared or angry or happy- it means the same thing in all cultures…There’s something direct about the image. Also, it’s more accessible. People don’t take it so seriously. And when you want to use a little bit of humor, it’s much easier to use pictures.”

Satrapi first encountered comics as an art form in 1995, when she was given a copy of Art Speigelman’s Maus as a gift. Unaware until then of using the comic art form as a way to capture narrative, she made a purposeful decision to pursue the form herself. Satrapi’s distinctive style is the subject of much commentary. Her panels are in stark black and white, with no shading, cross-hatching or other techniques to create depth or perspective. She often uses dense black as a background, and her human figures are simplistic and can seem somewhat rudimentary, particularly in Persepolis and Persepolis 2. She tells Root: “When the book (Persepolis) came out, everybody was talking about my false naïve style. I assure you, there was nothing false about the naivete of my style – I was naïve because one of the things that makes the images, the drawings in a comic different from illustration is the notion of movement.” She goes on to explain that in her drawing classes in a Tehran university, the models were covered, so she did not learn anatomy, and the resulting natural movement, very well.

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This page from "Chicken With Plums" demonstrates the evolution of Satrapi's style - the body is more naturalistic, and there is more fluid sense of movement

Her style works perfectly in Persepolis; as she remarks to Root: “By coincidence the first book is about my childhood, so I draw like a child. In the second book I draw…like a grown up. And then in Chicken with Plums even more, because the more you draw, the better you draw.”

IMPACT OF HER WORK

Persepolis has received numerous awards in France, and the animated version received the Jury Award when it premiered at Cannes in May 2007. In the United States, the novel was included in TIME magazine’s “Best Comix of 2003” list, and the film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008.

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Catherine Deneuve voiced Satrapi's mother in the film version of "Persepolis"

This link will allow you to view a trailer for the United States release of Persepolis:http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi280101145/

Her home country, on the other hand, has officially claimed that Satrapi’s work is not accurate and undermines the government politically. Her books can be obtained, but only in samizat form on the black market or as contraband. For these reasons, she has not returned to Iran for over eight years, fearing she would be jailed.

Persepolis is commonly read in gender and feminist studies departments at numerous universities, as well as studied as graphic literature in art and English departments. It is often included in reading lists for high school students.

Academically, Satrapi is included in the newly-minted “Iranian female diaspora,” -displaced Iranian women who, through their writing, grapple with their past, their identity, and their new-found freedom of voice. In their essay “Estranging the Familiar: ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Satrapi’s Persepolis”, authors Naghibi and O’Malley of Ryerson University state: “These women are using the autobiographical form, one virtually unheard of for Iranian women authors until recently, to help them come to terms with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and their new lives in the diaspora. As a means of mapping out the complexities and contingencies of identity, autobiography has been accorded a privileged status in postcolonial and diasporic contexts, and these texts can be viewed as part of this recent trend” (ESC 31.2-3 June/September 2005, 223).

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This image from "Embroideries" depicts the overdone bridal style of the character's Muslim wedding

As a graphic novel, her work is also studied as an example of visual narrative, and the interpretive framework that form provides for both reader and writer. Hillary Chute’s seminal essay “The Texture of Retracing in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,” published in 2008 in Women’s Studies Quarterly, contends that “The medium of comics can perform the enabling political and aesthetic work of bearing witness powerfully because of its rich narrative texture; its flexible page architecture; its sometimes consonant, sometimes dissonant visual and verbal narratives; and its structural threading of absence and presence” (WSQ 36: 1 &2 Spring/Summer 2008, 93-94).

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Two frames from "Persepolis 2" depicting Marjane defying the dictates of dress for women

Not surprisingly, Persepolis has been embraced by feminists for what is termed the “lifting of the veil” on the plight of Muslim women. Gloria Steinem has praised Satrapi’s work for having “the intimacy of a memoir, the irresistibility of a comic book, and the political depth of the conflict between fundamentalism and democracy.”

Typically, Satrapi does not place herself in an academic or feminist category, but considers herself as simply a cartoonist/writer, and her work as representative only of her own experience. In an interview in October 2004 for Bookslut, she tells Annie Tully: “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.”

Despite her years in Europe, Satrapi identifies herself as Iranian. In her Bookslut interview with Annie Tully (2004), she says: “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.” Subsequently, she feels strongly that she has a responsibility to tell her story to the West, to foster understanding and tolerance, particularly in light of the last few years of the War on Terrorism perpetuated by the United States. She tells Tully: “The world is complex…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.”

Satrapi now travels the world as a guest lecturer, but that does not mean she has shelved her cartooning talents.

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She tells Robert Root of Fourth Genre (2007) that she has an idea for another graphic novel, and perhaps another film, but done differently than her past work: “Now I am thinking about another story that moves not only in lots of directions…(but)once in a while you have different points of view about the story so you have different ways of saying it.” She relishes the challenge of making multiple versions of the same story work together: “You have to find this common point among all these dilemmas. In a graphic way it is really hard for me, but I have a slight idea of how I can do it. But the whole challenge of finding a way to do it is much more interesting than anything else.”

She goes on to tell Root “I didn’t know anything about comics. I just started coming from nowhere and I had to figure out how it works…All the things that I don’t know how to do, that is why I do them. As soon as I know how it works, it doesn’t interest me anymore.”

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SOURCES:

http://www.powells.com/authors/satrapi.html

http://www.bookslut.com/features/2004_10_003261.php

http://www.bookslut.com/features/2006_11_010204.php

Root, Robert. “Interview with Marjane Satrapi.” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 9.2 (2007) 147-157. Project MUSE. California State University, Northridge. Web. 22 April 2009

Chute, Hillary. “The Texture of Retracing in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” WSQ: Women’sStudies Quarterly 36.1-2 (2008): 92-110. Project MUSE. California State University, Northridge. Web. 16 Apr. 2009

Naghibi, Nima and Andrew O’Malley. “Estranging the Familiar: ‘East’ and ‘West’ inSatrapi’s Persepolis.” English Studies in Canada. June-September. 31. 2-3 (2005). 223-247. Literature Resource Center. California State University, Northridge. Web. 17 April 2009.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon. (2003). Print.

Written by: Elizabeth Jurgensen, October 28, 2009

2 Comments »

  1. Well done Elizabeth, although I almost know everything about her, but I enjoyed reading your report, which covered everything in details and the best way. Thanks
    I come with the same background, this is totally true that: “Her home country, on the other hand, has officially claimed that Satrapi’s work is not accurate and undermines the government politically”. Just as a witness I should let everyone know, every single moment of what she says is 100% accurate and we all experienced it. Of course she would be put in jail if she enters the country, they could even imprison me if they find out I approve of the truth in her work, our government don’t like truth, they just lie. I was in Iran this summer and everyone probably have heard the news about the election, I was seeing something with my own eyes and then TV and Radio and papers were reporting it in a total opposite way and making a different scenario for their own good and against protesters.

    Anyways, I just wanted to add something here, her story is not a story only about women, men had the same situation in Iran also. I’m a woman myself, I know women don’t have equal right,and perhaps many problems, and I appreciate Marjane as a brave woman who created such a great work of art/literature/politics/…, but honestly I do not look at her and her works in a feminist way, and I’m surprised why it should be taught in feminism studies! and I didn’t notice in your research that she ever says that she thinks as a feminist, I don’t think if she does. It’s just that people tend to look at the works of a woman this way no matter what, but her story, is the story of every Iranian who lived at that time. Tahmineh Milani is one the great movie writer/directors in Iran. Anytime she makes a movie that a woman is the main character or the story is around a woman’s story the reviews call her work a “feminist work”, but she has claimed several times that she is not a feminist and never thinks that way and she just tells the truth in her stories, and I believe that’s the same case with Marjane’s work.

    Comment by mojde — November 5, 2009 @ 1:42 am | Reply

    • You are right, it is odd that Satrapi is so prevalent in women’s studies departments when her story is the same for both genders. I don’t go into it in detail in this report, but I do say she does not consider herself a feminist; she considers herself a humanist. I think she has been studied because there are very few Middle Eastern female writers whose works make it to the West, so her voice is considered important. I think it also has to do with the fact that, at least to Western eyes, women are more oppressed in Iran than men, because the media always focuses on images of women veiled and wearing burkas. These images imply that women are constrained and controlled more than men. Literature that “unveils” women by telling their stories is seen by Westerners, particularly feminists, as a way to triumph over oppression. It is interesting how whenever a woman makes a movie or writes a book it is called a “feminist” work, whereas art created by men is just art. We still have a long way to go, even in America, regarding our views on gender.

      Thanks for your comments. It means a lot to me that you thought I did a good job, since you have lived her story. Satrapi has become one of my favorite artists/writers.

      Comment by elizjurgen — November 11, 2009 @ 4:18 pm | Reply


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