Persepolis is the first graphic novel I’ve ever read, and I’m really surprised by how much I like it. I expected reading a book with pictures to be like watching a movie with subtitles: sometimes, it can be hard to decide what to pay attention to (do I look at what’s on the screen or read all the stuff at the bottom?) and when to privilege one thing over the other. I think it speaks to Satrapi’s talent, and the artfulness with which she crafted this book, that neither the words nor the pictures ever distract from the other.
In the article “On Writing Persepolis,” Satrapi discusses why she wrote Persepolis and why she chose to do it in the form of a graphic novel. She says, “[My friends and I] would see pieces about Iran on television, but they didn’t represent my experience at all. I had to keep saying, ‘No, it’s not like that there.’ I’ve been justifying why it isn’t negative to be Iranian for almost twenty years. How strange when it isn’t something I did or chose to be?” I think this speaks to the “othering” of the Middle East that has happened in the US, particularly since the late twentieth century. So many Americans fall victim to the popular media representation of Middle Eastern peoples as tent-dwelling, suicide-bombing, radical Islamists — exactly the sort of thing that Riverbend spoke to in Baghdad Burning as well. Satrapi says that she “wanted people in other countries to read Persepolis to see that [she] grew up just like other children.”
One part of the book that I found particularly interesting was Satrapi’s recollections of her struggles assimilating to European culture. On page 193, she writes, “The harder I tried to assimilate, the more I had the feeling that I was distancing myself from my culture, betraying my parents and my origins, that I was playing a game by somebody else’s rules.” I think its interesting that there seems to be, at least in some cultures, some sort of aversion to cultural pluralism on the individual level — it’s more of a “you’re either with us or you’re not” mentality. Also, I’d venture to guess that the pressure to assimilate is felt even more by someone coming from a culture about which there are so many (unflattering) misconceptions; going from Iran to Austria is probably a very different experience than going from, say, Sweden to the US. I’m not sure where this aversion to pluralism comes from — xenophobia? the French? (kidding. [kind of.]) — but it’s definitely there.
I think part of why Persepolis makes sense as a graphic novel is due to Satrapi’s desire to upset the very “image” of Iran that many people in the West seem to have. As a graphic novel, Persepolis allows little to no room for the reader to incorrectly picture the characters, their situations, the setting, etc. Unlike Riverbend, who could only describe to her readers the ways in which their ideas of Iraq were (probably) wrong, Satrapi uses pictures to force the reader to directly confront his misconceptions.
Also, I couldn’t help but think of this song at least one million times while I was reading this book.
Satrapi, Marjane. “On Writing Persepolis.” Random House, Inc. Academic Resources. randomhouse.com. n.d. Web. 28 March 2012.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York: Pantheon, 2003. Print.