In 1984, fearing what trouble an outspoken, rebellious girl might get herself into in fundamentalist Tehran, Marjane Satrapi's parents sent their fourteen-year-old daughter to live in Vienna. Persepolis concludes there, on the eve of Marjane's exile, having tracked the family's passage through the overthrow of the Shah's regime, the Islamic Revolution, and the start of Iran's devastating eight-years war with Iraq.
Satrapi's debut, both a touching coming-of-age story and an oblique history of Iran in the early eighties, expressed in deceptively simple black-and-white drawings the broken heart and crushed hope of a people. The Los Angeles Times called it "one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day."
Salon raved, "Striking a perfect balance between the fantasies and neighborhood conspiracies of childhood and the mounting lunacy of Khomeini's reign, [Satrapi is] like the Persian love child of [Art] Spiegelman and Lynda Barry."
Persepolis 2 begins upon Marjane's arrival in Austria. Alone among her peers, yearning for acceptance and struggling to fit in, she confronts sex, drugs, and prejudice in short order. Within just four years, the teenager's life has unraveled; homeless now, she wakes up hospitalized after two winter months on the streets. When a timely phone call brings her home, the repression of Iran's totalitarian regime and the horrors wrought by a long war—over one million dead—appear in broad relief.
"If part two covers less traumatic events, it's also more subtle and, in some ways, more moving," applauds Publishers Weekly. In Persepolis 2, Satrapi tells the story of her return, facing the realities of her ravaged homeland head-on.
Dave: What do pictures allow you to express that words alone could not?
Marjane Satrapi: 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. You cannot draw someone crying, and in one culture they think that he is happy. He would have the same expression. There's something direct about the image.
Also, it is 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.
Dave: I was captivated by the political story that shapes Persepolis. Persepolis 2 engages readers on somewhat different terms. The focus shifts to your personal odyssey, while politics fall into the background.
Satrapi: In the first book, I lived the revolution and the war. My whole life and the life of a whole nation was upside-down because of what was happening.
In the second book, when I go into exile, my will and wish of being integrated into a new culture is so big that I have to forget about who I am and where I come from. I'm just being honest. If I pretend that I was sitting in a house worrying day and night about my country, that would be a big lie. Plus, when you are a child, you are very much concerned with the same things that your parents are. When you are an adolescent and you have to manage in a new country, you only wish to be integrated and to have friends and to be loved.
Also, every time I thought about my country, I thought, If I think about my country, it will be so hard to integrate. Because of course the more I thought about it, the angrier I was about other people and their lack of knowledge, not knowing anything and all their judgments. I had to forget about it.
Then I came back, and everything was settled down. The revolution was far behind, ten years before. The war was finished. So the second book is political, still—I talk a lot about the political prisoners—but Iran wasn't as political right after the war. We were so fed up with this eight years war; it was so good that the war was finished. People just wanted to live, just to continue being alive. People were just so happy that there were not any more bombs on their heads. That's also why the student movements didn't happen right after the war; six or seven years ago that happened.
You need many years to recover. In the years that I was in Iran, Iran was not political. The young were not political. We were the generation that knew about political prisoners; we knew about the revolution; we knew about the war. We knew that if we'd opened our mouths we could have paid with our lives. We didn't talk about politics because we were so scared. This new generation is different. They haven't lived what we have gone through. They don't have the same fears.
Dave: When you returned to Iran, you didn't want to tell your parents about some of the things that had happened to you in Europe. They learned about many of your experiences from the book, is that right?
Satrapi: The book was actually published many years ago in France, but yes.
Dave: So you withheld these stories for a long time, then you let them out for the whole world to hear.
Satrapi: In my country, lots of subjects are taboo. People would never talk about drugs or sex. Everybody pretends that their children are just like Jesus Christ coming down from the sky; their children have never done something wrong, and they, themselves, have never done anything wrong.
There are lots of taboo subjects, and not only in Iranian culture. Even today, you talk about a joint and everybody is like, "Oh, a joint!" Please! It's a joint of marijuana. It's not heroin. There are so many countries in Europe where it's completely legal. You can go out and buy it in a shop and smoke it. These countries, they are making progress. Their people work; they are not junkies.
This part of the story is not only mine. So many other people were desperate in the way that I was desperate. And so my parents, yes, I talked about it just before the book came out, but I had to wait until I arrived at a point when they wouldn't worry about me anymore.
I'm not, Whatever happens to you, you have to be truthful with everyone. Maturity is knowing to say what to whom and when. Sometimes saying stuff is not a very good idea. You want to make yourself feel a little bit lighter, so you take your shit and you put it on somebody else's back. Well, that's extremely egoistic. One should know also how to hold things back and assume his or her own responsibility.
I was sixteen or seventeen when these things happened. I'm thirty-four now. It's such a long time ago. And again, today, I'm not the example of morality and a role model, either. Some Iranian parents might say, "Why isn't she that way?" But I don't believe in these things. I wouldn't pretend that I'm completely clean and proper. What is it to be clean and proper, anyway?
Dave: At one point, you admit to sending an innocent stranger to jail to distract police from your own indiscretions. Do people confront you about that?
Satrapi: People were like, "Why did you say that about yourself?!" And I said, "Because each thing I say has its purpose."
I consider myself a very nice person, really. I don't do any harm to people. I'm not jealous or envious of anyone. If I can help people, I do. I consider myself a nice person, but even I could do that out of fear.
I was trying to say that what you have to be scared of is the fear, itself. Nothing but that. When you are scared, it's not only your muscles that get completely stuck, but also your brain. You don't think properly. That's exactly what is happening in this country. People are so scared that they are willing to vote for Bush.
Dave: In Persepolis 2, you talk about the Iranian government filling up citizens' brains with worries about Is my veil in place? or Are my trousers long enough?? In the United States right now, we're witnessing a political campaign where the actual issues are hardly discussed at all. Instead, we hear about decades-old military records and we're handed toothless generalizations that entirely gloss over policy distinctions and their consequences. It's the same distractions.
Satrapi: Absolutely. It's brainwashing and distraction. The only difference is that we knew we were living under a dictatorship so we never believed in what they said. We knew that our leaders were dictators. Here, people believe that they live in a democracy, which is an illusion.
It's manipulation. Last week, I read in the news that people who vote for the Democrats will make America insecure, and if there is an attack it will be the fault of the people who voted for the Democrat. Why isn't a journalist writing, "Hey, Mr. Cheney, 9/11 happened when you were in the government. You were even aware that something could happen, and you were powerless to stop it. Why are you spitting on the Democrats? Why are you giving bad conscience to the people?"
What's happening—and it has a lot to do with this chapter in the book —really has a lot to do with this notion of fear. It's very like the time when McCarthy was around, creating a paranoia of these mad communists. People said, "Never will we let this happen again." Well, it's happening again. People are paranoid.
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. There is much more common ground between me and normal people here in America who don't want that. As an Iranian, I feel much closer to an American who thinks like me than to the bearded guy of my country.
Dave: You were still young when your government was overthrown, but your family was very active politically. What was it like to have your country's representation change so suddenly?
Satrapi: You feel terrible. You are the same person, but you see people changing around you.
In 1978, I traveled with my parents to Europe, and everything was great. As soon as they saw our passport, we got the red carpet welcome. Our country was very rich and Iranians were considered rich, educated people. You had a real intellectual elite in Iran then. Just two years after that, in 1980, just before the war, we went to Italy, and I remember the waiter, literally, he threw the plates in front of my parents and me as soon as he understood that we were Iranian. We were the same people. Before that they were serving us the special wine of the house gratis, welcoming us. Two years after, the same people were throwing plates in front of us.
What has changed? It's the representation of a country that has changed. That's why I don't make the mistake to talk about American people. I like American people very much—really, there is some kind of enthusiastic, candid way of being American that I really, really love—but the American government is just shit.
Dave: For everything that's occured in the last few years, one positive development has been the success of books like Persepolis and Reading Lolita in Tehran. People want to know more. They want more information than they're getting in sound bites and news clips. With all that's happened, this at least must be satisfying, to find people anxious to be educated.
Satrapi: Absolutely. It means that people don't believe the bullshit they are hearing. But I wish there was enough information that I wouldn't need to write things like this. It's because of the bad situation of the war that I have to defend my country, because the world is not going well. Otherwise, I could just sit and talk about art and comics, and I would be delighted, but I have to defend my country, too, at the same time. I would have wished that I couldn't sell any books because everybody already knew about it.
Dave: Are you working on another book now?
Satrapi: I have made other books. I write my books in French. They're published in France first, and it's a whole procedure from that point to sell it internationally, translate it, and publish it. The next book will come out here in April 2005.
Dave: What is it about?
Satrapi: It's one of those long afternoons in my grandmother's living room with ten or eleven women of a different generation having tea, the whole afternoon. When you put ten or eleven women of the older generation together, the biggest subject is sex. And I wrote another book that will come out in France in October. The main person is a man this time, a musician.
Dave: Your visual style is so distinctive. How do you create the images?
Satrapi: I have one page, and I decide how many frames I want to put on it, six or eight or nine [she sketches a pattern of empty frames on scrap paper], and what I want to say in each frame. Then I sketch what I want [she draws a stick figure], a person here or a scene. After that, I take a pencil and draw them. Once that is finished, I put my paper over the light box and ink it. It's a long process.
Dave: When we reach the climax of Persepolis 2, you give us three consecutive pages without words.
Satrapi: Sometimes talking is just too much. Sometimes just showing is enough. I think when people look at this, they understand perfectly what is happening, so I don't need to add.
Dave: You didn't grow up with comic books, though, right? You mention the one your parents gave you on dialectic materialism.
Satrapi: That was the only comic book that I read. My cousins were reading Tintin and these kinds of things, but in Tintin you don't have any female persons, so I couldn't identify with any of it.
I have read some comics, a little bit, but I don't come from a culture of comics. When I see my other colleagues, all of them from the age of five wanted to become cartoonists. I had so many professions before. I didn't want to do this particularly. It just happened.
All my life it has been like that. I'm a very hard working person if I have to be, but I won't kill myself to achieve a goal. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen.
Dave: Tell me about the most rewarding experience you've had with a reader?
Satrapi: There have been so many of them. I think the best one was last year in Austin, Texas. I didn't want to go there. The whole thing went wrong, and I was on FOX News....The guy was an idiot, the journalist on FOX. I was disgusted.
In the afternoon, I had a book signing, and there was this guy really looking like a cowboy. You know, with the thing [forming the shape of a string-like tie with her hands]?
Dave: A bolo tie?
Satrapi: Yes. And the boots, and the mullet, the whole guy. He was talking about liberating Iraq, and I said, "Wait a little bit and you'll see. It's not really liberating. There's going to be big trouble there, blah blah blah."
I was really wondering if finally he would take out a gun and shoot me. We are in Texas. I think, "This guy is going to kill me and suddenly I will become the martyr of Islam. This will be the height of irony."
So the discussion is finished and the guy didn't kill me. And then comes the signing. The guy bought seven books. Seven books! I looked at him, and I said, "You bought all these books?" And he told me, "It was very interesting. It opened my eyes. I am going to buy these and give them to all my friends."
Then I say to myself, Still there is a little hope for human beings. It's possible. By dialoguing, by talking, you can actually between all the people change one of them. Still, that's one. That was my most delightful experience.
Dave: What do you like about Paris? What keeps you there?
Satrapi: I can smoke everywhere I want. And I like the way Parisians react to everything. In France, if the government does one thing wrong, you have ten thousand people in the street, and I like that. Once in a while you cannot take the subway, once in a while the whole public transportation is stopped, once in a while you don't have electricity, but still, it's a kind of syndicate life that is very important. And I like that.
Marjane Satrapi visited Powell's City of Books on September 17, 2004.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State