Intersectional book club #2: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

“I had learned that you should always shout louder than your aggressor.”

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Hi earth friends, and welcome to the Talking Egg!

For our second intersectional book club we move towards the wonderful country that is Iran!

For those that do not know much about the country, it goes far and beyond what you see through the lens of Western media, far more than the question of nuclear arms, the Islamic State and state oppression. It is a country of resistance, of strength and of beautiful cultural heritage. This is the inspiring story that Marjane tells in her autobiographical comic, Persepolis. We not only learn about the more recent history of her country, Iran, through her comical, heartwarming tale, but also hear a story of immigration to Europe, the experience of a woman of colour in the West.

After reading Persepolis, I was very much inspired to experience a bit of Iranian culture myself, which I managed to do by accompanying a dear friend of mine from Iran to her local Iranian supermarket visits as well as trying out Iranian food with her. Between large happy bites of Kobideh, sips of Iranian tea and licks of delicious Iranian ice-cream, my friend would tell me all about her wonderful country, and I could really understand better and visualise Iranian culture and society – the way I would read the stories of Marjane. Food can often be the best way to accessing a culture and meeting people with stories to tell – and I recommend you to try Iranian food in any case as Iranian food is absolutely a delight!

Going back however to our book club (I diverge), Persepolis tells a courageous tale of struggles and joys, of loss and understanding, of feeling comfortable in one’s skin and visualising the future.

Marjane grows up in Iran throughout the 70s and 80s, watching her parents fight against the monarchy in Iran with Marxian dreams and hopes for a better future. She experiences the rise and fall of the Shah, as well as the beginnings of what we know today as the Islamic Republic of Iran. She survives a long war between Iran and Iraq, resulting in her parents sending her away to Europe to make sure she is safe from the disasters of war. From heart-wrenching stories of loss (family and friends that do not survive the unfortunate consequences of their revolutionary spirit) to other humourous ones of her own rebellions in Iran (smuggling Western music, wearing her veil very loosely, wild secret parties), we get to see Iran both in the light of the difficulties it goes through, as well as the constant small joys of life the locals experience. We all often fall into the hole of thinking that people from countries of war and strife must constantly be miserable. By doing so we force them to forever be victims, to fit into the narrative of sorrow and loss – which is not all there is to them. By forcing them to lose their agency, their sense of identity, we commit the worst crime of ignorance. Yes, individuals from war-ridden countries do go through difficulty, are very often victims in many of the situations they face. However, that isn’t all there is to them. There are moments of happiness, of deep joy. Celebrations of culture and tradition. Love, food, family and of course, according to Marjane, punk music and cigarettes. They have dimension, depth, in the same way we all love to think we do. This is something that I felt quite strongly reading Persepolis, reading about Marjane’s story.

As mentioned above, Marjane also tells her amazing tale of her experiences in the West. She juggles her guilt towards those suffering and dying everyday in Iran while experiencing the difficulties underlying being an immigrant in the West, including financial struggles, difficulties reconciling her identities, as well as increasing issues with mental health – which, similar to Americanah (our last month’s intersectional book club book), is often seen as a white man’s issue in many non-Western nations. This of course, is very much a false assumption (driven in some ways through long centuries of shame related to mental health issues), however says more on the one hand, about how difficult these countries may realistically have it (mental health becoming just one of the many mountains of basic issues they face such as poverty and hunger) as well as on the other, about the skewed vision that individuals of colour do not feel or experience mental health issues. This vision of course not only originates from white Western individuals but also is often internalised by people of colour, making it somewhat of a vicious cycle (more on mental health in the POC community another time…)

Marjane experiences an initial strong culture shock, seeing sexually liberated Europeans, individualistic values, and the lack of family-centred relationships. Then quickly realises the hypocrisy and the irony behind the scripted sympathies and ‘edginess’ of Europeans (the example of her anarchist friends looking up to her for having lived through a war), understanding very quickly that most individuals either see her as a strange Middle-Eastern pretending to be French, or a martyr that exaggerates her experiences of war and revolution back in Iran. She can never simply just be Marjane, always having to play the role that people expect her to play. Realistically, she has very little money due to her solo young immigrant status, and eventually, after going through depression, finds herself on the streets and becomes very sick with pneumonia. It is only after this she decides to return to Iran. The continuous string that goes through Persepolis and is talked about more frequently during her time in Europe and her return to Iran, is Marjane’s vision of identity. Her father and grandmother’s last words to her before she leaves Iran, to not forget who she truly is and where she comes from, becomes at times her guiding star and in other times a source of stress and heavy responsibility – the main reason for which she refuses to contact her parents and tell them the truth about her life in Europe.

After her experiences in Europe, returning to Iran has its difficulties too of course, as Iran remains an Islamic Republic, and her depression only gets deeper, leading to her attempting suicide. She becomes a lost soul between worlds: feeling a strong attachement to her country, while desiring freedom and liberation (from the Islamic Republic and the veil) which she also finds to be concepts shaped into a hypocritical framework in the West. Her return to Iran ends well however (after university, a failed marriage, confronting the realities of her country), where she does truly remember and find herself again, like her father and the grandmother told her to when she first left Iran. She reminds herself that wherever she goes and wherever she is, there will be positives and negatives, and the story she chooses to tell about these places are within her own power, and within her own strength. It is ultimately, a tale of a woman realising that her agency gives her strength and that no matter where she is as long as she reconciles her identities and feels comfortable in her skin, her heart remains in the right place.

Marjane’s book does end however with a touch of bittersweetness, as she mentions that her loving grandmother passed away after she left Iran for the second time, ending with the line, “la liberté avait un prix…” (Freedom came at a price). A strong reminder of the things we leave behind in exchange for what we may feel is the brighter choice for our lives.

Hope I have not spoiled so much that you do not want to read the book anymore. It’s an amazing read, and I really do hope you will want to check it out for this month’s book club! There is also a movie version of the book, that is quite wonderful too for those wanting to go the extra mile.

See you next month for our next intersectional book club!

Eat your Kobideh,

Meena.

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