In the 1970s, Iran’s government fell in a communist revolution, and shortly after, was overtaken by an Islamic theocracy. For the so-called “Western world,” it is sometimes easy to divide such a nation into backward fundamentalists and helpless victims.
Enter Marjane Satrapi, a smart and free-spirited little girl who talks to God and uses her imposed veil to play dress-up games with her friends. Introduced on the first page of “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood,” a candidly autobiographical graphic novel, Satrapi’s cartoon narrator might be the most personal, human face the non-Iranian world has seen since the revolution.
Born in 1970, Satrapi witnessed Iran’s cultural revolution and devastating war with Iraq in her childhood.
Before the revolution, her family was part of the upper-middle class and well-educated. She grew up in a liberal household in the middle of a mixed-ethnicity district in Tehran.
As “Persepolis” and her other books reveal, Satrapi left Iran alone at the age of 14 in 1984. After living abroad and studying in Austria, she returned and departed again by the time she was 24. She has not gone back since the publication of her book, which is banned in Iran.
Satrapi’s books are a mixture of major historical events seen through Satrapi’s eyes as a child, and the more universal story of a rebellious young girl discovering boys, cigarettes and punk rock.
The revolution and war’s aftermath hit Satrapi tragically close to home – the bombing of her neighbor’s house and the execution of her uncle – but she still maintains humor and a believable, childlike tone.
Satrapi has lived and worked in Italy, Germany and Austria, and is a citizen of France, where her books were originally published.
This international lifestyle has made Satrapi sensitive to the idea of communication across cultures. Her stark black-and-white artwork is an attempt to find a universal, visual language.
Though critics have called her work wise, funny and poignant, Satrapi is accustomed to people not taking it seriously at first glance. She says that a graphic novel is as much a book as any genre – “pages put together, it has a cover, you can read it,” – she said.
While Satrapi remains tight-lipped about her upcoming book, “Chicken and Plums,” she will talk about her current project – an animated movie adaptation of “Persepolis” due in 2007, which she is writing and directing.
Eden Casalino, freshman music major, said she and her classmates were surprised at first by the summer reading choice. “When we first looked at the book, we said, ‘What the heck? This is a cartoon,'” she said. “But as we read it, we realized it was more complex. The pictures just added images to the story.”
Maya Eilam, senior English major, also said she is a fan of Satrapi’s work. “I liked ‘Persepolis’ because it’s such a personal story, but she writes and draws in a way that everyone can understand and relate to.”
This is, in fact, Satrapi’s motivation for writing. Her goal, she said, was to make her characters “human, not Iranian,” and her childlike artwork completed this effect.
Images of a character smiling or crying are more effective than words alone in conveying human emotion that transcends language, Satrapi said.