Fans and cosplayers alike flocked to New York Comic Con over the weekend, visiting panels about manga and getting their memorabilia signed, among other things. On campus this past Monday, Oct. 10, however, a crowd gathered for a talk by the creator of a very different kind of comic.
On Monday, Oct. 10, Marjane Satrapi, author-illustrator of the highly acclaimed comic series “Persepolis” visited the Vassar College Chapel to give a talk on her life and work.
“Persepolis” was originally published in four volumes in French starting in 2000 and later in two volumes in English. It chronicles Satrapi’s experience living through the Iranian Revolution as a child and subsequently moving away to Europe as a young adult. The books have been translated into more than 40 languages and were adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film. Their popularity and wide reach was reflected at Vassar by the array of academic departments and programs—from Women’s Studies to French to German to Film and beyond—that co-sponsored the event.
As opposed to the typical storylines of Comic Con-featured works, Satrapi utilizes the comic format in a very individualized way. “What I find really amazing about ‘Persepolis’ is that Satrapi is able…to explore difficult political, social and religious issues and the psychological toll that exile and diasporic experiences can have on individuals and society as a whole without having to create an imaginary society and instead foregrounding her own experiences and that of her family and friends,” affirmed Professor and Chair of French & Francophone Studies Vinay Swamy. “She is able to bring to the fore some of the most pressing questions regarding citizenship and belonging…”
Professor of History Mita Choudhury spearheaded the campaign to bring Satrapi to Vassar. She collaborated with the various co-sponsoring departments along with Interim President Jon Chenette and Associate Dean of the Faculty Stephen Rock to coordinate the visit, as well as with Events Coordinator for the President and Trustees Angela DePaolo and Media Relations and Social Media Coordinator Julia Fishman to publicize the event both within Vassar and out in the larger Mid-Hudson Valley community.
“I was inspired to get her because I teach Women’s Studies 130 [Intro to Women’s Studies], and we read ‘Persepolis,’” explained Choudhury. “And for me personally, I lived in Iran as a teenager and I had to leave Tehran because of the revolution, so every time I read it, it’s a very personal experience … It also forces us to think about Islam and Islamic culture in really nuanced ways at really important moment in the world’s history, and to continue thinking about Islam and society…[as well as what it means] to be an exile one the edges of two different cultures.”
“I didn’t write this book for the Iranian people; I wrote it for others,” Satrapi explained. “But to make them understand, you have to think like them. I had to write in French.”
In the talk, much like in her work, Satrapi touched on a myriad of themes, and the anecdotal structure of “Persepolis” came through even in her informal explanations of her life and views. “15 years of my life cannot fit in 400 pages of comics,” she stated, later citing an adage, “If you want to talk about the world, you have to write about your small village.”
A major topic Satrapi covered was a defense of her genre, the comic book (not the graphic novel, a term she scorns). As she is often asked why she decided to explore such a personal and political subject through comics and not with a traditional book, she replied, “I wrote a book … [Comics use] a language that works between drawing and text.”
Satrapi recalled that the Iranian government only really started objecting to her work after it was adapted for the screen, explaining that in a broader sense, drawing is seen as childish as unrefined. In fact, she originally intended “Persepolis” to be written as a novel, but was weighed down by her idolization of authors like Dostoevsky, thinking that she had to write seriously and to reach a level of “at least Ernest Hemingway.”
Since Satrapi studied art at university, the comic format felt more natural and better told her story. Furthermore, the position of Satrapi’s books within French-language literature is thought provoking. “In a lot of ways,” continued Choudhury, “the graphic novel genre, the bande dessinée, is actually much more vibrant in France…[and] in a larger sense, Paris has always been a city of exiles.”
“‘Persepolis’ has the appeal of a familiar coming-of-age story. It can be said to function as Saint-Exupéry’s ‘The Little Prince,’ an inquisitive and sensitive young person opens up to the realities of the world,” wrote Professor of French & Francophone Studies Patricia-Pia Célérier, who incorporates “Persepolis” in many of her courses, in an emailed statement. Célérier also contextualized Satrapi’s work, bringing up predecessors and influences like Agnès Varda’s 1977 film “L’Une chante, l’autre pas,” Marguerite Abouet’s comic series “Aya de Youpougon,” Joann Sfar’s “Le Chat du Rabbin” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.”
Among its many strengths, “Persepolis” has also been lauded as an important feminist work. Satrapi mentioned in her lecture that the French comics of her childhood, while a source of inspiration for her, were almost exclusively narrated by male protagonists.
Choudhury remarked, “I think that she provides a very important feminist perspective in terms of thinking about revolution, and it’s kind of a complicated feminist perspective as well. On the one hand, she had the privilege of class, but in a regime like the one in Iran, class doesn’t matter, all women experience the same thing.”
Echoing Choudhury’s sentiments, Swamy added in an emailed statement, “Satrapi follows in the footsteps of a long series of women authors and artists who have strived to create a space for their collective voices to be heard. Focusing on a young girl’s coming of age in a politically charged historical movement allows the reader to understand the specific gendered challenges that women have to face—whether it is an Iran run by Islamist fanatics (to which many episodes are dedicated) or in the so-called liberated West, as we see in Marji’s experiences with the nuns in Vienna.”
As Satrapi mentioned, condensing decades of history into 400 pages is nearly impossible– however, she manages to masterfully convey her life story in “Persepolis.” Célérier noted, “The strength of ‘Persepolis,’ through its tenderly sarcastic, yet at times melancholic tone, is that it recounts and teaches: the denial of creation and education, the dwindling light of the Iranian spirit, and the oppression that falls on the individuals and their families.”
Célérier continued, noting Satrapi’s balance of politics and its personal ramifications: “Satrapi provides a careful historical framing at the beginning of her graphic novel, after which she lets the boldly executed illustrations take over, presenting in black and white, literally and figuratively, the dire situation the country is engulfed in. Marji and each of her family members and close friends symbolize the collective riches of the Iranian and Persian culture, but also the different individual facets of what was lost and ripped away through that historical period.”
Although “Persepolis” spans a tumultuous period of both personal and national history, Satrapi maintained that her story was best told through humor. In fact, she argued that humor is one of the most important vehicles for human empathy and understanding, both within literature and without.
“We all cry for the same reasons…but laughter is something abstract. The height of understanding others is humor,” Satrapi remarked. After a pause, she joked, “We’re all going to die… so I’m going to continue to smoke and eat butter, a lot of it.”
Yet Choudhury reflected upon Satrapi’s sentiments, saying, “I think she provides a compelling example of how something like the graphic novel—or as she calls it, the comic book—is actually a really powerful vehicle for dealing with trauma.”
Satrapi’s focus on empathy in her storytelling has, in turn, informed her world view. “The more time goes by…[I realize that] the ‘clash of the cultures’ is not true. It doesn’t exist. It’s a neologism created to divide us,” she reflected. “The real division in the world…is [between] stupid, fanatic people and the rest of us.”
Satrapi explained that her initial attempt to bridge this divide through politics became an incredibly demoralizing process, and eventually turned to writing and illustrating instead to better tell her story–and its success has been more widespread than Satrapi ever imagined, reflected in Monday’s packed Chapel and the vast number of students who stepped forward to thank Satrapi for her work that not only illuminated a complex political situation, but also reached each reader on a universal level.
Swamy reflected, “Even though ‘Persepolis’ recounts the story of one young girl’s struggle as she grows up, it touches its readers deeply because Satrapi is able to present in an engaging manner some of the fundamental questions that we all have to face and grapple with.”