A month or so ago, Teresa wrote a great review of Marjane Satrapi’s Complete Persepolis. Now that I’ve read the first of the two volumes, I can say that I completely agree with her observations, so go read her review. Go on. Shoo. You can come right back.
Done? Okay. So I won’t waste time summarizing what this amazing novel is about; I’ll just add a few of my own observations to Teresa’s.
I read Persepolis with an eye to teaching it in class. I’m a French professor, and Persepolis is, of course, originally in French (and so is the film), because Satrapi went to French-speaking schools both in Iran and in Vienna. I wondered whether there was enough French culture, or Francophone culture, to warrant using it in an upper-division course. The answer was no, but I still found it fascinating that French would be the language of choice for her parents to teach her. Why not English? Maybe it wasn’t available to be taught. When I was in high school, I knew a girl from Iran (she called it Persia) whose family had fled after the Islamic Revolution. She spoke excellent French. I suppose her family found some way to pay the cost that Satrapi’s family decided not to pay: “I’ll be a taxi driver and you a cleaning lady?” her father says to her mother.
Another thing that this book said very powerfully was that children believe whatever they’re told. Satrapi was told not to believe what she was told, so that’s what she did: she questioned, she searched, she made fun of authority. But there were thousands of children just like her in Tehran who were told the opposite, and lived for the revolution, no matter how brutal and contradictory it might be. Satrapi’s parents loved her enough to teach her to think, but they must have been terrified at the danger that would put her in. No wonder they sent her to Vienna. What do we teach our children?
When I first saw the artwork — black and white, simple, stark, almost childish — I didn’t know what to expect. I’d heard that this work was feminist (it is, in the sense that it’s a woman’s voice that might have been silenced), that it was unusual (yes) that it was powerful (yes.) No one told me that it was funny, or that it would resonate with my own high school experience, which was not in Tehran or anywhere like it. This was a startling, powerful piece of work. If you haven’t read a graphic novel before, don’t let the form make you nervous. It’s not a comic book (though would that be so bad?) Pick it up and read the story of this childhood.