The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts October 14, 2005

Convocation continues with Persepolis author
Satrapi discusses graphic bio
Marjane Satrapi: The graphic novelist spoke about her childhood in Iran.

On Monday, a throng of Oberlin residents and students filled Finney Chapel to see an unusual convocation speaker: Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian graphic novelist, best known for her first book, Persepolis.

Satrapi, an endearing and enthusiastic speaker, came to the podium with no prewritten speech, preferring to say what came in the natural flow of the talk.

“I apologize for my English, which is not great,” she said, just before launching into a vivid discussion of her experiences since Persepolis was written. Her English was more than enough to engage her listeners, and she also speaks Persian, German and French.

Satrapi started her talk by answering a question she is asked at every engagement she attends: why did she write a graphic novel and not a book?

“Nobody would ask of a movie director, ‘Why did you make a movie, why didn’t you dance?’” she said. “I made a book. It is an object made out of paper. The difference is that it has pictures.”

She said that the most common reaction to graphic novels is that they are juvenile because, after the age of ten, people either stop drawing altogether or become “real artists.” But the form of the graphic novel was the only one that would adequately tell the story of Persepolis, which describes her life as a young girl during the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Comics were not first nature to her as a child, when the only ones available were translations of Tin-Tin and Asterix, in which she “was not interested, because it had no female figures in it.”

Iranian poetry is often illuminated, or enhanced with small images, so the idea of illustrated text was not foreign to her growing up. And as children, she and her cousin got their hands on an American comic book version of Dracula, which both exposed her to the larger comic world and, because the two children ate raw chicken in order to become vampires, led to them “getting worms at the end of the summer.”

During the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and afterward, Satrapi was constantly afraid, especially since she came from a somewhat radical family. She was sent at age 14 to study in Vienna, and later to Strasbourg, France. Abroad, she found herself constantly justifying herself simply for being born in Iran, because of the international attitude toward the new regime of her country. Usually, Westerners did not differentiate between the regime and Iranian citizens, an ignorance she attributes to the media’s influence.

Her book is not for an Iranian audience, but for Westerners. She said that when journalists ask her why she wrote Persepolis, her answer is, “because you didn’t make good your job!”

The book is an attempt to explain Iran to the West, hopefully bringing the two together using humor. The book is funny because the subject is so serious, and because humor was the only way she knew to make people care what she was saying.

“The moment we can laugh together is the moment we understand each other,” she said. “Once we understand each other, we cannot make war with one another.”

As soon as she finished speaking, the audience got to their feet to cheer the obviously flustered Satrapi. After prolonged applause the question and answer period began, with a student asking about Persepolis’ reception in Iran. Satrapi answered that she could not go back to Iran because of the book, and that there was no Persian translation.

“But in Iran, there are no copyright laws, so there might be an Iranian translation,” she said.

She also talked about her political and personal relationship with the events in Iran since the ’70s. Women have fewer rights than they had before the revolution, she said, and a woman is legally worth half of a man. But, she noted, 64 percent of university students in Iran are women, because Iranian women so badly desire the rights they are denied.

“Before, it was like they cut off [women’s] legs and said, ‘The door is open, run!’ Now, it is like the door is closed but we have strong legs, and with strong legs we can break the door,” she said.

One questioner was especially aggressive, seeming to interrogate Satrapi about dissenters leaving Iran. He asked about dissenters’ responsibility to stay and affect change in their country, implying that those who remained in Iran were complicit in the government’s wrongdoing.

While Satrapi attempted to explain that a large percentage of Iran’s 70 million citizens disagreed with the government, whereas there were only two million Iranians living abroad, the questioner frequently interrupted to reiterate his query. He suggested that Iran’s citizens were too “isolated” from the rest of the world to change anything themselves, at which point Satrapi became very frustrated.

“We are not isolated. Thanks to God we have things like the Internet,” she said. “You cannot imagine how much information is there.”

Satrapi ended by fielding a question about her grandmother’s influence on her life.

“She gave me this big bag of freedom of thinking and I always have it with me.” While her grandmother has passed away, Satrapi said “I have made a book about her, so I have made her alive.”

The night ended with another standing ovation and a book signing in the lobby. The line was dozens long, and many audience members came away exhilarated from meeting Satrapi, who was ceaselessly energetic and friendly. As one student said afterward, “She made it okay for us to laugh together about the sad things.”


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