Thursday, March 31, 2016

Startlingly relevant

I promise that I like normal comic books - I'm currently reading Squirrel Girl and Giant Days, I just finished the six-issue run of Coming of Rage; there are normal, day-to-day supers and horror books in my life. I guess I just like giant political memoir comics better in some ways. Maus is almost incomprehensibly good, probably my favorite comic book of all time, and now that I've read Persepolis I have to say that it's reasonable competition for the title of greatest illustrated war story.

Which is saying a fucking lot - Persepolis is different from Maus in many ways; Satrapi is telling her own story whereas Spiegelman tells his father's story; Maus is the story of concentration camps and adults struggling to survive while Persepolis is about Satrapi largely evading the war as a child sent away by her parents, but both are compelling, simply-but-beautifully illustrated stories about people stifled by a world they have little control over and attempting to live in spite of facing unexpected horrors.

Marjane Satrapi's story follows her as a child in Iran and a teen and young adult in Europe before returning as an adult to Iran to find the changes that have warped her world since her parents sent her away to protect her. The difficulties Satrapi has acclimating to the various cultures she is a part of are communicated beautifully and pathetically - she doesn't hide the ugliness she experienced from others or that came from herself but honestly examines the person-to-person conflicts that can hit so much closer to home than news of a bombing or the sham election of a leader. Satrapi rarely has to fear for her life and physical safety the way that the Jews in Maus do but she is constantly afraid for her way of life, for her identity. She struggles under religious conservatism in Iran but is also injured by racism and xenophobia in Austria - in fact the problems of enlightened Europe take a greater physical toll on her than the bombings of Tehran took on her family and reconciling those experiences becomes a tremendous source of conflict within her that makes it impossible for her to maintain a foothold in the shifting sands of her life.

There's so much that happens in Satrapi's narrative that it feels cheap to attempt to summarize it here but I will say that this character spoke strongly to me - from a childhood of lofty, thwarted dreams to a lost adolescence isolated from home and family to a young adulthood hemmed in by a foreign morality Satrapi is pulled in dozens of directions and has a hard time finding a solid center to build a life on. And while I've had the privilege of growing up largely without the fear of war or bombs I can relate to the glazed confusion when being presented with a world that seems to be shedding the expected skin to expose something uglier underneath.

Satrapi's introduction makes it clear that she is writing to counter the image of Iranians as terrorists and religious extremists. She talks about a world rife with European xenophobia that bares its teeth at children fleeing a war. She talks about living in a country where women have few freedoms and fewer rights. And she talks about a wish to leave that behind in a brighter future, something that has unfortunately not yet come to pass. While this memoir is only 15 years old it seems unbearably optimistic in a world where I see all people from the Middle East being stereotyped as terrorists, where global xenophobia is rearing up against children fleeing wars, and a world in which women's rights have regressed in many places. I want the same future that Satrapi wanted, I just didn't have her words to make clear what was missing or how much we still need it.

I hope it happens. And I strongly recommend reading Persepolis to hear an Iranian voice calling for what so much of the world believes no Iranians want.

     - Alli

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis.  Pantheon Books. New York: New York. 2004. (2000).

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