I recently read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel memoir Persepolis, and it still has my head spinning. In a good way and in several different veins. First, there’s the spin of confusion brought about by the differences between author and reader. I’m a Westerner picking up a book written by an Easterner. While I do my best to avoid subscribing to Western values, I’m obviously still an inevitable product of my culture. My ability to enter Satrapi’s world—even as universally as she paints it—hits a wall at times because of our geographical and social differences. This confusion, though, brings about a lot of good because of the memoir’s function as revelatory literature.
This graphic novel is a must-read for the Westerner because of how little we know about the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Often, the uneducated American will write off all things Iranian as bad because somewhere there must be connections to terrorism or nuclear weapons. But rarely in today’s political discourse is the issue of suffering brought forward, and sadly the entire Western world received a much-needed reminder of it with their last election (and we’ve also since stopped talking about that; Iran is back to its silent self again). Persepolis mentions at one point the number of those slaughtered in the resistance reaching upwards of a million. These are Holocaust-esque numbers, yet very few of us consider such annihilation exists outside of the 1940s or Rwanda.
Another needed perspective offered by Persepolis is the challenge thrown to the face of the Western concept of Communists as always bad. This is typically accepted without question in our hemisphere, and we have plenty of examples in our heads of when the religious struggled to survive against dictators’ oppression, and so we construct our own disdain and mental vendetta against Communism. And yet with Iran, you have an inversion: the religiously fanatical fundamentalists were wiping out resistors, many of whom were Communists. These were men and women just like you and me fighting for freedom and equality, only to be met by a cavalcade of bullets, the likes of which came from guns supplied by the West. You can try to make a claim that we didn’t know what those guns would be used for, but I have serious doubts about our intentions’ nobility when you consider the wealth of oil in this tumultuous area of the world upon which Persepolis focuses. It’s a needed reminder that no one political system is truly and wholly good.
As a former (and hopefully continuing) student of literature, I was delighted to find plenty of literary bones thrown to the bookish dogs. Postcolonial issues of identity abound, not only for the people of Iran thrown into religious suppression of individualistic expression (Iran used to be one of the most progressive nations around), but also for Satrapi herself, a young girl struggling to determine who she is as an Iranian fleeing to Vienna and then returning only to find herself lacking a land to claim her own. As Americans who can so easily sing, “This land is my land,” with a sense of pride and security, it rips your heart out.
From the outset with its premise, Persepolis also guarantees a fair share of feminist themes, and Satrapi does not disappoint (thank you, Marjane). The conundrum of postcolonial identity spills over into gender roles as the author struggles to find out what it truly means to be a woman, what with her ping-pong lifestyle of going from traditionalistic mores (war-torn Iran) to modernistic liberality (Vienna) and back to a fundamentalist stronghold (post-war Iran). A woman lacking the ability to fully express who she is as a woman in the phallocentric culture because she’s told by men who she should be is mind-numbing, and it causes significant frustration and challenges for the author. Through it all, Satrapi finds herself at odds with bearded men, politicians, God, fanatics, the open-minded, and even her parents.
I won’t spoil the end and say whether or not she sticks it out in Iran or leaves her homeland for good because you should read this yourself. Think of it as a more present-day Maus. While one of Art Spiegelman’s aims with his Holocaust tale was to display the ever-present reach of the past on the present, Satrapi only has to showcase a country still locked in turmoil as it was three decades ago to emphasize such a message. Both leave a similarly unsettling question: are these types of atrocities doomed to continue forever?
And perhaps more importantly for us: what do we as the West do now when we consider our past involvement of supplying weapons to this war-torn sector of the world? Reparation needs to transpire, and if we helped them get into this mess, how do we do our part to get them out (all, of course, without trying to further promulgate Western ideals in Iran)? There are no easy answers.