Persepolis: A State of Mind

Persepolis: A State of Mind

Marjane Satrapi

On April 12 Marjane Satrapi, an internationally celebrated graphic memorist talked about the aclaimed Persepolis. The film adaptation by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud received a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Foreing Language Film and an Academy Award Nomination for Best Animated Featured Film. This presentation, a special event by the Inprint Brown Reading Series, was presented by Inprint, a literary arts non-profit organization with the mission of inspiring readers and writers.

As usual, I’m very impressed to be standing in front of so many people. I’ll ask you to pardon my English. This is not a language that I’ve learned well and I make, and will be making, lots of mistakes. So if you’re kind enough, please, forgive these mistakes. Before I start, I need you to know that I’m a heavy smoker, so before I start the signing, I’ll have to go outside to smoke a cigarette.

Editors call me a graphic novelist and my work a graphic novel. However, this is a term I don’t like because I’m a cartoonist and what I make are comics. The reason I chose the media of comics is because it belongs to the popular arts. I didn’t want to make any artistic work that would only be conceivable by the elite. I wanted people to have access to it. I thought I could make it work with degrees of knowledge; they would have different layers of understanding. It needed to be understandable to everybody. That’s the reason why I want to be called a cartoonist and my work to be called comics. I’m pretty convinced that this is a term invented by the publishers so people wouldn’t be ashamed of reading comics. That way, when they’re in front of their friends, they don’t have to say “I’m reading a comic”; they could say, “I’m reading a graphic novel.” They would look much more interesting, of course. This differentiation is not made with movies. If you have a movie by John Houston or Spiderman, both are called films. My work is a comic; therefore, I’ll talk about comics.

As opposed to my fellow cartoonists, my dream as a child was not to become a cartoonist. Not because we didn’t have cartoonists in Iran. We had many translations like Tin Tin, Asterix, etc. but most of them lacked a female character. In Tin Tin you had a mean ugly lady that no girl in the world wanted to identify with. At the same time, in the Persian culture, we had serious illustrated work, so this was not unknown to me. But comics are different. Actually, I used to read comics when I was a child. I will tell you a story that will explain why I didn’t read comics for such a long time. When I was a child, Iran was a very Americanized place. I used to eat hamburgers with my cousins, I would go bowling , so there was a lot of bowling and eating of burgers going on. The store in front of my house sold comics. In 1977, when I was 7, I visited the store with my younger cousin, who was 5. We bought an American comic called Dracula. At his time, my cousin, who was convinced that I could speak all the languages in the world, asked me if I could read and I said, “Of course I can read that,” I began going page after page. For some mysterious reason, I said,“here it says that if we want to become Dracula, we have to eat raw chicken.” That was at the beginning of our summer vacation, so for 3 months we stole small pieces of raw chicken from my mother and grandmother’s kitchen; we ate raw chicken for 3 months. As a result, at the end of the summer we got worms. I guess that’s why I stopped reading comics.

I started to read them again when I was 24, in 1994, when I arrived to Paris. On my first birthday there, my French friend gave me a comic book. At the time, the idea surrounding comics was that they were meant for kids, adolescents or, in the worst case scenario, retarded adults. So I kept wondering why he gave it to me. However, this comic book was Maus by Art Spiegelman. When I read the book, not only was it the best story I’d ever read about the Holocaust, so from the world of images,it came as a revelation. I thought it was possible to tell any kind of story with this media. It’s just a genre through which I could do anything. I was astonished by the things we could do with comics. It was many years later when I was at the studio that I understood that this work was for very obsessed people. Because comics, you see, require a long procedure: first write the story, then you cut it into the frames, and then you write the dialog, draw the characters, which, by the way, should look the same from one frame to the other. Then you have to ink it. I never thought I was this obsessive until I started doing it. There are many things you learn about yourself when you work, you know?

This media was very important for me and I’ll explain why. What one considers the Middle East is a very vague concept. “The Middle East” is a geographical place in Asia shaped by many different countries, languages and religions. It’s not a specific place at all. For a long time, the descriptions of the Middle East came with images of violence, sufferance, people crying for the destruction of the West. Therefore, I had to find a way to write a story about this place which could be appealing for people. The only way to do it, for me, was with the use of humor. I’m completely convinced that all human beings will cry for the same reasons. Around the world, we will all cry because our father is dead, our mother is sick or our child has a problem. However, we do not laugh for the same reasons. To me, laughter is the height of the understanding of the other. It’s touching the spirit of the other. It’s not like crying, which is an instinctive way of expressing oneself. Laughter is more complex… It’s more of an abstract notion, and to be able to laugh at people is not instinctive at all. The first time I came to America, I watched all these shows where the public was laughing and I wondered what they were laughing about. It wasn’t funny to me. I was also telling jokes, and nobody was laughing either. The first time I laughed, I really had the feeling of understanding who the American people were.

After the comics came the movie. It wasn’t my idea in the first place. The first time when the book was published in America was in 2003, and I received many propositions from Hollywood. They were the craziest things you can imagine: from a story that took place in the middle of the dessert to a series of programs where Iranians were a bunch of cool people with a car that was supposed to explode. As you can imagine, it was out of question. When you write a story like that, you have some responsibility. I was not going to sell the rights to a company which was going to make another version of Not Without My Daughter. Two years ago a French friend of mine wanted to become a producer and asked, “What about if we make a version of Persepolis” but I thought it was a bad idea. Most adaptations don’t work well, specifically in the case of comics. Comics are a medium that exists by itself. It doesn’t need literature or cinema to exist. It’s a completely perfect medium. Besides, the relationship that the reader would have with the comics would be completely different from the one they would have with the movie. By definition, the reader of the comic is active: you have frames and between them the reader’s imagination becomes activated. In a movie you’re completely passive. That’s the way it is. You sit and watch the film. But this friend kept insisting, and to get rid of him I told him it needed to be a black and white, animated, handmade, with a studio in the center of Paris, the voice of Catherine Deneuve, etc. And he accepted! I said, shit!! Now I have to make this movie!

With these two projects, I kept justifying myself for the use of images. Unlike any illustration that comes to illustrate something that already exists, what distinguish the comics is that part of the narration is done with drawings. Same with the movie, people asked me why didn’t you make a real movie? Believe me, I made a real movie, it’s the same hard work. However, it is much longer and painful; you have to draw 12 images per second. A movie is more than 6,000 seconds. I always wondered why this question was asked, because if you sing, people don’t ask “Why don’t you dance?” But you know, in my case I always had to justify why this medium and not another one. I then found out where this question came from. Drawing is something that all kids do until the age of 10. Unless they’ll become a professional, 99 % of the kids stop drawing at that age—I’m not inventing these numbers, there are studies about this subject. To draw is an activity that belongs to childhood. This was the first reason. The second one is that our educational system—everywhere in the world— very rapidly teaches us to talk about work. Actually they say so many things about the authors and poets. I always wonder what if a poet was drunk? I mention this because when I read the critics about my own work, they find these angles that make me look much more intellectual, much more artistic than I really am…anyway, so the lack of ability to talk about a drawing, plus the fact that we stop doing it because we associate this with childhood, makes us reject it. Drawing is the first medium of expressing, just look at things left by human beings, like painting wild animals to confront their fear . Drawings are not only an international language—there’s no country in the world where you show a crying man and they’ll think that he looks happy, but are closer to human beings, even more than photography (it is a representation of the surroundings exactly the way it is). When we draw, there’s a human being who’s reproducing nature around himself at his own image; you situate yourself in the place of God. You create your work in your own image, but at the same time, we reject it.

Let’s talk about the medium and the reason for the existence of Persepolis. I didn’t wake up one day and said to myself, “I’ll write the story of my life and of my country.” I left Iran two times. The first time I left it in 1984 when I went to Austria. The second time I left it in 1994. Both times, I was confronted with the same problem: the misjudgment and misconception of where I came from. A question that any normal person needs one word to answer required a 45 minute explanation for me. “Yes, I’m Iranian, no, I’m not the Mullah, no my father doesn’t have 5 wives, yes, I’ve seen the movie, yes we have cars, no camels please, etc, etc, etc.” And you know how human beings are, we love to identify evil. It’s a specific thing with a specific address in a specific geographic location. On some days evil is communism, sometimes it is Bin Laden, one day it is Khomeini, another day it is Saddam… it changes all the time. In 1984, Iran was evil. Now we’re just a part of the axis of evil, which means we’re improving.

Despite my 14 years, I wondered why people didn’t understand democracy. The government of a country does not represent the whole population. You know about it, don’t you? You can imagine, if in Iran the government was representing all the people, and people liked it, then why would they call it a dictatorship. If they need to dictate, if they need to place innocent citizens in a political prison, if they feel the need for censorship, it means people are not happy. While in Austria, I kept wishing I spoke German well enough to be able to explain all this to my Austrian fellows. The problem was that, when I finally spoke German well, I was homeless, and when this happens, you find you don’t have many people to talk to.

In 1999 I thought of France as a place of culture. It was the first place which hosted the Iranian cinema. Unfortunately, just before arriving to France, the movie Not Without my Daughter opened, and believe me, it caused a lot of harm. Suddenly, because of the misdoing of one man, the whole country was judged. People asked me all these questions like, “does your father let you out of your country?” I responded, “I’m in France in front of you. You’re looking at me. What kind of a question is that?” They kept asking and I kept answering over and over again until one day, while reading Italo Calvino, I discovered that he found in writing a way to express himself without being interrupted. That’s another reason why I wrote my book. And it’s not like I don’t enjoy talking. Just listen to me, I like to talk, but I don´t like repeating myslef at all, and I don’t want to be interrupted either. I’m not a sociologist, politician or economist. I’m just a person that, by coincidence, happened to be born in a certain place and time. The things I know are what I’ve seen and felt.

I started working on Persepolis at a good time in my life. It was 1999, 5 years after I left Iran, and this permitted me to control my anger. In 1994, I was very angry; all I wanted was revenge and blood. But then I read Gandhi’s quote that says “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. I also needed these years to experience the luxuries of civilization. We have the capacity of being civilized if we’re not living in a state of fear, if we have food to eat and if we have a roof. If you lack that, you can’t have a civilization. Believe me. It’s not a question of culture or place. Take any city of the world. Take Paris, empty the supermarket, cut the electricity and gas for one week and people will be eating each other. It’s not a question of superiority of one human race over another, it’s that some of them are wealthier, so if we want to live in a better place, everybody should have enough to eat, be safe, etc. As I was saying, during these years, I could afford to be less angry because in Iran, as you know, you live in constant reaction to something. A person answering anger with anger, stupidity with stupidity, will probably never change because of their ignorance. But if I am conscious of this cycle, and I do the same thing anyway, it makes me 10 times worse. I also had the possibility to take some distance from the problem; I learned not to judge.

As an artist I don’t have any answers, but I have many questions to ask. I think that the basis of free thinking is the distance we take with respect to the event. Without distance, the whole notion of free thinking does not exist. Fanaticism presses the button of emotion. You press that button and you have the population yelling, shouting, killing, going to war or whatever you can possible imagine. When we make an intellectual work, if we ask a question and we don’t necessarily have the answer, not only do we ask the person in front of us to be smart, but also to make an effort to find the answer themselves. Of course, you can’t see a short term result, but in the long run this is what works best. Once we’ve understood the questions and found answers, we’ve understood once and for all.

By distancing myself I realized that it’s a matter of points of view. Nobody has the right to monopolize the concept of love, patriotism, etc. When I was a child and studied one of the Persian wars, we portrayed ourselves as glorious and victorious. That was our version of the story. Then I went to Italy and books talked about how glorious and victorious the Romans were to have killed the Persians. And none of it is a lie, it is just how we see things.

Now please don’t take this badly, I’m in love with American people, but the policy of America in this region, starting from the 50´s, has been in support of dictators, making coup d´etats; the CIA was involved everywhere… Imagine having people from another country telling you what to do, you wouldn’t like it. Well, we didn’t like it either. After the revolution, this presence was not tolerated anymore and people no longer liked the Americans.

In 1999, I came to America for the first time with my husband. They gave him a 3-month visa and I got a 9-month visa passport with my Iranian passport. The Swedish man was not happy, because he always had to be better than me, so he asked, “how come she gets a 9 month visa and I get a 3 month visa.” The officer told him, “because she’s cute and you’re not.” That’s how the world was in 1999. Two and a half years later, after 9/11, we came and believe me, I was the same cute girl, and nothing had changed. They separated us, they sent me to the back room and wanted to know “where the weapons of mass destruction are, show them to us.” Everything was the same, I was the same person. Now, with my French passport, nothing has changed. After asking me to see my weapons of mass destruction, they want to see if I have stinky cheese in my bag.

Unfortunately, with this new nationality, I have this new problem. Anyway, this is how the situation is. We’re not living in the same world anymore. We’re living in a world of fear. We’re in a war against something we don’t know. I mean, we call it terrorism. Where are the terrorists? Who are the terrorists? They make us believe that democracy is a color with which you paint the wall, and suddenly you have a democracy. And even worse than that, they make us believe that we have a gift that we can give to people by bombing and killing them. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which we dehumanize other men, reducing them to a some abstract concept, calling them terrorist, fanatics, Muslims, middle easterners… It’s condescending not to call people humans, to reduce their reality. If we think that evil is in a specific place and a specific nation, we have begun to create a fascist ideology. The justification to exterminate all of them is that we’re nice people. “Who cares if fifty or a hundred die, after all, they weren’t humans anymore. They don’t have parents, children, hopes, and the right to love and to live.” So my work wants to give a human face to this other side of the world that has been reduced to an abstract notion. I don’t know to what extent I’ve succeeded, but at least that’s what I try to do.

I would like to finish up (because at some point, one needs to finish) with 3 things that are extremely important to me. The first one is this term of a culture clash. Culture is international and belongs to everybody. African art influenced Pablo Picasso. Persian poetry that was translated in the 18th century became a big source of inspiration for Baudelaire and all the French writers… Culture travels.

The second thing I wanted to address is this incredible division that has been established in the world. We call it Southwest. Northeast, Muslims and Christians, etc. This notion of East and West is bizarre; the earth is round and we are always at the East or West of somebody else. They talk about Muslims being bad. We forget about the Inquisition, we forget about the killing of knowledgeable women, calling them witches, burning them in public places; we forget of what an Orthodox Jew can do, even the Buddhist who burns the faces of the daughters that are married to another man. Any extremist, independent of the fact that he’s religious or not, is the same thing. There’s no such line that divides West from South, or Muslims and Catholics. There is indeed a separation in the world that is between the stupid fanatics and the rest of the world. We’re much more in numbers, but they are easily swayed by their emotions. They can’t understand that life is short, so why make it shorter? If we make ourselves a big anti-fanatic nation maybe we can imagine a better world.

I would like to end by saying that I’m not such a hopeful person, but there is something that I very strongly believe in, and that’s education and culture. It may be that they will not solve all the problems of the world, but culture and education give us the possibility of being less stupid, and you may agree with me that in life, it is always better to be less stupid.

Posted: April 13, 2012 at 9:41 pm