Walking home from middle school, I used to stop at a corner deli known as Bob’s. Behind the counter, Bob had posted a photocopied comic of Mickey Mouse making a profane gesture beneath the words, “Hey, Iran!”
I started middle school in the fall of 1979. That November, the U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized by students during the Islamic revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Fifty-two Americans would be held hostage there for 444 days.
I would have been grateful for the perspective offered by Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Satrapi grew up in Tehran and was 10 at the time of the revolution. Persepolis is her memoir of that period, but it’s also a fascinating portrait of an ordinary kid – smart, outspoken, ambitious and very funny – trying to find her way in a wildly different world than the one I came up in.
Despite the story’s sweeping geographic and historical perspective – the founding of modern Iran under the influence of the British, the deposing of the Shah amid a ruthless revolution, a devastatingly bloody regional war – still some of the most poignant passages are recollections of small moments. Young Marji sneaks out to the black market on Gandhi Avenue to buy a Kim Wilde cassette (remember “Kids in America”?), watches jasmine flowers fall from her grandmother’s clothing as she prepares for bed, makes sure she’s dressed nicely to visit her uncle in prison, the last time she’ll see him before he’s executed. After she tells a classmate her late father had been a hero, the girl tells Satrapi, “I wish he were alive and in jail rather than dead and a hero.”
Born into an affluent and politically prominent family, Satrapi attended French-speaking schools and aspired to study chemistry like Marie Curie. In 1984, with religious fundamentalists tightening their grip on every corner of Iranian society, Marjane’s parents sent her to live in Austria. A second volume continues her story in Vienna and an eventual return to Iran.
The story is mostly told in conventional comic panels. Satrapi’s lightly stylized black-and-white drawings are reminiscent of Charles Schultz. She has described growing up with Batman and Dracula comics but having the world opened to her when she encountered Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Her technique is sensitive and evocative when it needs to be. One full-page panel expressionistically conjures the fantasy world of a vacation to Spain during which the family missed the outbreak of war with Iraq.
Satrapi wrote and co-directed an animated film version of the story. It was released in France in 2007, dubbed into English, and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008. The film tracks the book’s story very closely. But it feels softer-edged and lacks the emotional immediacy that makes the book so frequently intense.
Parents and teachers should note that in 2013 Persepolis was ordered removed from the 7th grade curriculum in Chicago Public Schools, though it was ultimately not removed from school libraries and a directive to remove it from classroom libraries was rescinded. The reason given for the ban was that its graphic language and images of torture made it inappropriate for students.
I keep the book in my middle school library and have no qualms about it. It continues to be popular. Satrapi’s presentation of torture is unsensational but frank. It could be disturbing to a sensitive reader, though it should be noted that the events portrayed are no more violent or lurid than what can be seen on prime-time TV or found in novels marketed to young teens. And in Persepolis, they have the distinction of having been actually lived by the author and her family.
In a recent interview with American Libraries magazine, that was the reason I picked up the book. Satrapi says, “I couldn’t do anything else but write about myself because I’m not a politician. I’m not a historian. I’m not a sociologist. I’m not any of those things. It happened that I was born in a certain place and at a certain time. And as much as I can be uncertain about lots of things, I know what I have lived.”
Hassett is the librarian at Luther Jackson Middle School in Fairfax County.
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