This one had been on my TBR for quite a long time. And in order to make it happen, I went ahead and listed in as one of my Beat the Backlist reads for this year. Although the year is quickly drawing to a close (and I’m realizing how far behind I am on that list of books, so I’m jumping full force into getting through as many as possible before we hit 2019), I’m excited to say that I can check this one off the list. And boy am I glad I finally got around to it.
Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel. Originally published in smaller pieces, this is the full, collected, set of stories. The author/illustrator, Marjane Satrapi uses this medium to tell the story of her youth, from growing up in revolutionary 1980s Iran to adolescence spent away from her family in Austria to her return to Iran as a young adult in the early 90s to to her second leaving and long term move to France (ending when she is 24 years old).
This is the first graphic novel I have ever read. It’s taken me 30 years, but I can finally check that accomplishment off my list! For real though, this was such a gorgeous and important piece to start my foray into this genre. It’s such a unique reading journey, different from anything I have ever experienced before. Watching the story play out before your eyes while simultaneously reading it is so fascinating. And it was so cool to see what aspects were most important to the author, how she chose to illustrate each moment and which things she emphasized. That added something extra that I am not really sure how to explain or quantify, but helped provide much more insight into Satrapi’s experiences than just words would have done. In a way that may seem contradictory, and I wish I could articulate this better, the use of illustrations also sort of softened the blow of many of the harsher moments. Perhaps it is because they are cartoon-y, and since the words are minimal, and thus less descriptive than drawn out explanations might have been, it seemed less…explicit…than my imagination would have made it with more words but no pictures already planted in my mind? And that’s not to say the difficulties, frustrations and dangers are not clearly presented, but the accompanying imaginative visuals were just gentler, easier to digest, for me. I may be failing to explain this, but I wanted to try. And really, the bottom line is that I really enjoyed the medium Satrapi chose. It’s evocative and creative and enhances her story in a wonderful way.
As far as the story itself, the insight into a time period and perspective that is so truly unknown is incomparable. It’s fascinating and educating and, in seeing how incredibly difficult some moments were for Satrapi, I truly appreciate her ability to share her story with the world. Some of the topics, related to the progression of the events in Iran, how that directly affected the people, and how the times were resisted and adjusted to, are particular to this time and place. And learning what that was like, at least from Satrapi’s point of view, is so significant. On the other hand, there are emotions and events explored that are more common in scope. For example, after her time in Austria, Satrapi describes having an identity crisis, feeling that she does not really belong anywhere: too conservative for Europe and too progressive for Iran. Then, the open and matter of fact way she discusses depression and self-harm as a response to this loneliness is fantastically done, and so important. In another moment, she talks about how, again in returning to Tehran, she feels as if, even though she suffered quite a bit in Austria in her own, very real, ways, it just didn’t measure up to the “worse” situations faced by those that had remained in Iran. This comparing of trials, but being herself in a situation where no one knew what she had dealt with (and no one could not imagine time in Europe being difficult), left her feeling guilty and alone and contributed to her depression during that period. These are all common themes for people who have lived through crises and away from their homes. This mix of unique and universal struggles perfectly encapsulates the way that trauma can be both individual and shared, isolating and unifying.
Past the news reports and propaganda and political/economic agendas, seeing the way the events of this tumultuous time period actually affected the people of Iran is invaluable. It is a perspective that should open the eyes of the world to the fact that, in all situations, behind the decision-makers, there are regular people, trying to live their lives through losses and deprivations. And everyone deserves the chance to move through their lives in freedom and safety. The gorgeous way Satrapi shows us the truth of the situation in Iran, the truth of the people, and the universal truth that we all try to survive the best we can in the circumstances we are given, is priceless. And the way she does it with such artistry is just an extra treat.
“That day, I learned something essential: we can only feel sorry for ourselves when our misfortunes are still supportable…once this limit is crossed, the only way to bear the unbearable is to laugh at it.”
“When we’re afraid, we lose all sense of analysis and reflection. Our fear paralyzes us. Besides, fear has always been the driving force behind all dictators’ oppression.”
“After our own war, we were happy that Iraq got itself attacked and delighted that it wasn’t happening in our country. We were finally able to sleep peacefully without fear of missiles… We no longer needed to line up with our food ration coupons… And then, there wasn’t any more opposition. The protestors had been executed. Or had fled the country any way possible. The regime has absolute power…and most people, in search of a cloud of happiness, had forgotten their political conscience.”