Thursday, March 14, 2019

Who You Are and Where You Come From: Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis

Review and analysis of Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir Persepolis...
as part of my graduate coursework in Young Adult Literature. 


Marjane Satrapi, the author and heroine of Persepolis, a memoir "graphic" in both form and content, is alive to tell of her journey from child to teen in war-torn Iran circa the late '70s and early '80s for one reason: parents. They are her Iran, fully behind her, as their country devolves from somewhat stable, though corrupt, monarchy into a police state of murderous religious fundamentalism and repression. With this transition comes confusion, both hers and ours, as much of the early parts of the story focus on varied attempts at faith (in ascending importance): faith in famed Communist revolutionaries, faith in God, faith in education, and faith in family.

Persepolis is a shocking sort of read. Early on, it confuses us in a whirlwind of shifting ideologies, offering history lessons on the state of Iran's politics and religions as befuddling as they must have been to any young person growing up in that place at that time. As childhood illusions are dismantled, so is the revelation of truths about the toxic relationship between religion and government. I am reminded of an early scene of dialogue between Marjane, or Marji, and her father, a sort of conversation that is repeated throughout the novel. Marji comes home from school expressing her love of the Shah. Her teachers at school teach her that he was chosen by God. She loves God, so she loves the King. Her parents are leftist activists against the monarchy. Her father sits her down and tells her this is not true, that God did not choose the King and that is just what "they" tell you. Later, her teachers will tell her that God is the reason she can't show her hair, wear tennis shoes and jean jackets, and, in the name of God, call her slut and whore. This all before she is barely 14-years-old. Her mother and father will buy her Iron Maiden posters and Michael Jackson pins anyway. They will make sure she is educated, at school and at home.

Like any historical text, Persepolis is a cautionary tale. This one has been told many times, and we keep seeming to tune it out. In its personal nature as a memoir, it is also a love letter to a place that many people, especially we Europeans and Americans hardly understand and greatly malign. In her decision to make this "graphic novel" experience, it is a jarring wake up call to see how easy it is for a nation to fall under the spell of the propaganda and misinformation and wake up one day to a country they did not want and nobody saw coming. It is jarring, too, in its discussions of violence and injustice and the pain that comes with loving your home while watching it crumble around you.

On Good Parents and Postmodern Feminism

The more I read Chapter 3 of Roberta Trites’ Disturbing the Universe, the more unique Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography seemed. If you take the idea of narrative structure, for instance, specifically the idea of real author and real reader vs. implied author and implied reader (Trites 72-73), they mesh together in interesting ways that seem to defy a good number of points Trites makes. Who is the implied reader of this novel? It’s certainly not an Iranian woman like Satrapi, who acts as both real and implied author.

It seems also that Satrapi herself would tell us that her Persepolis books are for the people who don’t know Iran. Hence, it’s early lessons on her country’s history and religions. Persepolis subverts Trites’ ideas of parental roles. It subverts the idea of teen rebellion, especially in relation to its place as a narrative of in parentis, as Marji’s parents are both completely present. In simply being autobiographical in nature, it even subverts the issues of its dated pop culture references (Trites 82). The more I think about it, the more Persepolis seems to play by its own rules. It is, honestly, unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Trites does, however, lay much of her chapter titled “Paradox of Authority” on the notion of parents. Persepolis is firmly a book about parents, as I pointed out in my first post. But it’s also unusual in the way it gets into the idea of in logos parentis. Let’s take it back a bit. In the previous chapter of Trites’ Disturbing the Universe, she discusses the “institutional discourses” often involved in YA Lit. Religion, above all, is at the center of Marji’s life and the major through-line of the book. Trites states, in Chapter 2, that “religion [is] an institution that is patriarchal and discursive” (45). Marji gets a lot of that. She comes at it from the outset: “I was born with religion,” she shows us, before going on to describe her religion, the ancient religions of Persia. She has several fathers, serving as both “intradiagetic adult narrators” or those adults who take over to teach (Trites 77). She has her own father, a decent secular man, wealthy and in tune with Western intellectualism. She has her uncle, an activist out of prison, who teaches her that religion and government shouldn’t mix. Then, she has the Oedipal father that must be murdered, “a parent in name and word only,” her in logos parentis, the Islamic Republic itself and its oppressive, repressive nature (Trites 64). Clashes of identity follow.

Marji spends much of her childhood at odds with the ideologies of her parents, lightly religious, heavily intellectual and Marxist, attuned to popular culture, and completely not fundamentalist. The addition of school to the mix only further complicates natures as teachers become the embodiment of the “religious father.” In this way, Persepolis begs the question, especially when seen through a Lacanian psychoanalytic lens: If “the child must come to terms with the Symbolic Order as a necessary precondition to understanding herself” (Trites 69), then what happens if that order is disrupted by chaos? When you have as many conflicting “parents” as Marji, you are bound for a life of confusion. This is marked by this moment, as Satrapi writes, “I realized then that I didn’t understand anything. I read all the books I could” (32). Iran, and Marji’s life, only get more complicated from there.

In postmodern Feminist theory, the idea that women of color can use autobiography to create/revise discourse stands out. Persepolis is revisionist by nature. It has to be, as both a history and an autobiography. The book is an adult Marji coming to terms with the complications of her childhood. I found it strange that, of all the books Trites works with in Chapter 3, Persepolis features parents most in line with those in Alcott’s Little Women. This comes in the form of the idea of both novels featuring protagonists with good parents, “involved parents,” in parentis. One can’t help but consider how hard Marji’s parents try to keep their lives normal, even if they have to hide. The poster smuggling scene is a true beauty. The image of Marji’s sweet father, Iron Maiden and Kim Wilde posters under his coat, is forever cemented in me. It’s something my father would do. It’s something I would do. “It looks like you’re wearing shoulder pads. It’s stylish,” his wife tells him (Satrapi 128). It’s a scene worth both laughs and tears.

It is also a precursor to what life Marji’s parents wish for her, a life she doesn’t have to create a parental figure for, and leads to a pivotal event for a young woman growing up in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the scene in which Marji is stopped by two “guardians of the revolution,” who berate her for wearing a jean jacket with a Michael Jackson pin and the way she has to lie, cry, and beg to be set free. Marji’s parents in some way extrapolate the danger of being a woman under the rule of Islamic extremism. In some way, Marji’s parents make it more dangerous for her to be in Iran, leading to the idea of them letting her go.

It seems evident that one of the tenets of postmodern Feminist theory, likely in tandem with her Middle Eastern cultural experience, that Satrapi is dealing with is the idea that women of color don’t need white people to save them. This is both true and false for Marji. She doesn’t need to create her own in logos parentis, the Islamic Republic did it for her. She doesn’t need to protect herself from that “Symbolic religious father” either, her parents did that for her as well. They sacrificed for her. Her parents send her to a country (Austria) filled with white Europeans, yet this is their choice, not Marji’s, and it’s also the reason we are here to hear her story.

As a child, Marji wanted to be a prophet, to spread the positive message of her family’s religion. She is left, in the end, with the kinds of phrases she heard from the teachings of Zarathustra, the original prophet of ancient Iran’s religion: “Behave well, speak well, act well” (Satrapi 7). Trites writes of Peter Hollindale’s argument that “adolescent literature is by definition a literature about transitions” (80). This is what Persepolis is primary concerned with. This is also where it ends. Because Marji gets out, she can be a prophet as an adult and teach us, her “real audience” about Iran and religious extremism.

Satrapi’s book is a prophetic discourse. It is this because it is a history of a country and an Entwicklungsroman, a narrative of the ongoing development of a young person. It that way, her father’s reminder, “Don’t forget who you are and where you come from” (152) becomes all the more powerful. Those words sealed the deal that Marji is a prophet. This is no better evidenced than in the books powerful final frame, which illustrates how much Marji still has to go before she can fulfill her prophetic destiny. Turning to see her parents’ devastation as she leaves maybe forever is what did it. In that instant, they taught her what she would one day do in telling this story.

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