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Persepolis 2 Essay

Why do people read memoirs? There is something fascinating about memoirs, because they transport readers to a different time and place. Memoirs allow you to step into someone else’s shoes and feel what it was like to be him or her. This is definitely the case for Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, written in 2000 and Black Boy by Richard Wright, written in 1945. In fact, you could say that these works are literary, because they offer insight into the times and places in which the author’s grew up. What’s more, they challenge the values of the cultures in which the authors grew up, making them even more literary.

One often associates literature with fiction, because fiction is the art form of telling make-believe stories. Telling true stories, however, can also be a form of art. Marjane Satrapi and Richard Wright both lived in extraordinary times, which makes their life stories interesting. What makes their life stories literary, however, is the way in which they are told. Both authors engage their readers in the opening pages of their memoirs by writing the unexpected. Richard Wright does not explicitly introduce his readers to the American South, racism and the 1920s in the opening lines, even though that is what the memoir is implicitly about. Instead he tells a story of how he, as a young boy, burned down his house, killed his cat and beat up the neighbor boys. These are small anecdotes that comment on his personal frustrations with his family. They are told through an intriguing use of first person narrative, where Richard is not the obvious hero. This is an artistic choice of the author.

Similarly the opening lines of Persepolis are not an explicit attack on Islamic fundamentalism, even though this is the subject of the graphic novel. Instead readers are offered a child’s perspective on growing up during the Islamic Revolution. The features of the graphic novel allow Satrapi to tell her story with voiceover boxes, a form of direct narration that is characteristic of memoirs, where the author looks back on her life. She writes ‘This is me when I was 10 years old.’ Furthermore she shows children on a school square playing with their veils in a child-like way. From the first pages it is clear that Satrapi uses the features of the graphic novel in an artistic way to juxtapose the innocence of youth with the horrors of autocratic rule.

Both literary works are set against a backdrop of oppression and injustice, which reflect the spirit of the times in which they lived. Because Richard Wright gives the reader a child’s perspective, racism seems like a complex set of rules that make no sense. In one passage he asks his mother why a white man was beating a black boy. Richard assumes that only fathers are allowed to beat their sons. It does not occur to him that the white man could not be the boy’s father. After all, Richard has a white grandmother and he is beaten by his father. Richard’s mother becomes frustrated by Richard’s questions, because she cannot explain why the South is the way it is, namely unjust.

Persepolis, like Black Boy, also depicts a child growing up in an oppressive situation. Unlike Richard’s mother, Marjane’s parents share her rebellious spirit. Her mother and father also want to have secret parties, break the law and dress however they want to. In one scene Marjane helps her mother pour alcohol down the toilet while the Guards of the Revolution threaten to inspect their house. Her parents travel to Turkey, buy a poster of a Marjane’s favorite rock star and smuggle it into the country for her. Her father looks ridiculous with rolled up posters in the sleeves of his trench coat, but he does this for his daughter who has to grow up under an oppressive police state. In fact, the decision to send Marjane to Vienna at age 14 is her parent’s way of letting her escape the horrors of the Iran/Iraq war and Islamic fundamentalism. This is dissimilar to Richard’s escape from the South, which his mother does not support. He has to steal money from a movie theatre and a gun from his neighbor to runaway to Chicago. His mother is unable to stop him and asks if Richard would send for her one day. He never sends for her though. He does not love his mother the way Marjane loves her parents. Rather than being on his side against racial oppression, Richard’s mother is part of the system that keeps racism in place.

Both Satrapi and Wright could be considered literary authors, not only because they use artistic devices or reflect the spirit of their times, but also because they challenge the values of the cultures in which they grew up. For example Richard is frustrated with the church and the role that it plays in keeping racism in place. He stands up to his grandmother, who regularly blackmails him emotionally, saying that she cannot love him if he does not love God. He walks out of her house and speaks his mind openly. Just as Wright criticizes blacks and religion for keeping the system in place, Satrapi also criticizes Muslims for keeping the religious regime in power. She depicts children on the school square bragging about how often they pray every day. She shows how self-mutilation was taken to extremes during the revolution by fundamentalists. In one scene, young Marjane stands up to her teacher and tells her to stop talking about ‘the blood of martyrs’, which was metaphorically ‘injected into the veins of the Iranian people.’ Marjane explains to her classmates how Iran was actually killing and torturing its own people in the name of religion and the war against Iraq. In Black Boy and Persepolis the protagonists are commended for protesting against the oppressive, institutionalized religion. Both works, in fact, clearly make a case for atheism.

To conclude Persepolis and Black Boy have literary merit, because they use several artistic devices, they reflect the times in which they were written, and they challenge the values of the cultures in which the author’s were raised. Satrapi uses the features of the graphic novel artistically to juxtapose the innocence of childhood with the atrocities of Islamic fundamentalism. Black Boy reads more like a novel than an autobiography, with a protagonist who is beset on all sides with injustice. Both authors, in a rather un-heroic fashion, manage to break free from the oppressive worlds in which they live. They challenge the reader to think about the role of religion in society.

READERS GUIDE

The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis 2 begins where Persepolis ends, with Marjane leaving Iran and arriving in Austria to attend high school and live with family friends. After four years filled with loneliness, confusion and prejudice, Marjane returns to her parents in Iran. We observe her difficult homecoming and the life she manages to carve out for herself–friends, university, romance–before the repression and the relentless, state-sanctioned chauvinism force her to face whether she can have a future in her homeland. Funny and heartbreaking, edgy and searingly observant, Persepolis 2 follows the life of Marjane and her country.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Compare Persepolis 2 to other stories of the immigrant experience you’ve read (perhaps The House on Mango Street, The House of Sand and Fog, The Joy Luck Club) or to what you imagine emigrating to a new country to be like. What are the basic difficulties shared by immigrants? What does one gain and lose by leaving one’s country and adopting a new one? How does one calculate/weigh the gains and losses? Why does Marjane leave Iran, return, and then leave again? Will she always be “a Westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West”?

2. How do you think Marjane’s experience would have been similar or different if she had gone to a high school in the United States, in your hometown? Would you have befriended her?

3. Why is adolescence an especially difficult time to move to a new country? Or even to a new city? What is universal about Marjane’s high school experience? What is unusual about her situation? Compare/contrast her high school experience to your own.

4. How is Persepolis 2 particular to its time? How does the cultural and political atmosphere of the 1980s affect Marjane? What trends (in attitude, dress) does Marjane refer to and adopt in Austria that are specific to the 1980s? What does the book teach you about that time? What were you doing in the 1980s?

5. What are the similarities and differences between the little girl in Persepolis and the more mature Marjane in Persepolis 2? How has she changed? In what ways have her experiences affected her personality? And how has her personality affected her experiences?

6. What does Marjane learn from her experiences with drugs, homelessness, depression, and a suicide attempt? How did she slip into those periods? What external and internal forces brought her to take to living on the streets? How does she overcome these obstacles and transform herself into a stronger woman?

7. How is this story different in comic strip form than if it were a straight prose memoir? What do the black and white images add to the narrative? What has Satrapi emphasized and what has she overlooked by telling her story in a non-traditional manner?

8. How is Marjane’s political sense/being formed? Which experiences and people most influence her and pique her interest in politics?

9. Persepolis, the first volume, received much praise and sold well across the United States. How do you explain its appeal? Why is a book about growing up in Iran succeeding in the United States at this time? What drew you to this book? What have you learned about Iran? How is Iran’s recent history inextricably entwined with Marjane’s story?

10. What have you learned about university life in Tehran? Describe how the authorities enforce the separation of the sexes, and how the students circumvent these rules. If you’ve read Reading Lolita in Tehran, compare the life of those women with that of Marjane and her friends.

11. In the beginning of Persepolis 2, Marjane wants to become “a liberated and emancipated woman.” By the end, do you think she achieves this goal? In what ways is this story a typical coming-of-age tale filled with obstacles that the protagonist must overcome on her journey to adulthood? How is this similar or different to coming-of-age stories that you’ve read?

12. Persepolis 2 is filled with vibrant secondary characters. Describe some of them. Describe the men in Marjane’s life and her relationships with them. Who stands out as the most memorable and influential person on Marjane?

13. Why does Marjane frame an innocent man while waiting for her boyfriend one afternoon? How is she betraying her family as well as the man himself? How does she redeem herself in her grandmother’s eyes? While in Austria, Marjane tries to assimilate and denies being Iranian, “betraying my parents and my origins”? How and why does she betray them? What are the consequences of this? Do you think her betrayals are justified?

14. How do tradition, family, duty, opportunity and memory each play a role in determining whether Marjane returns to Europe or not by the end of the book? Why do Marjane’s parents encourage her to leave both times, as a 14-year-old and as a 22-year-old, though they remain in Iran?

15. Despite being forced to wear the veil in Iran and hating it, Satrapi recently wrote an article in The Guardian (UK) newspaper against banning the veil in French schools and stating that forcing girls not to wear the veil is as bad as forcing them to do so. Do you agree with her stance? Describe the role of the veil in Persepolis 2. What is its religious and social purpose? How do the women deal with wearing the veil?

About this Author

Marjane Satrapi was born in 1969 in Rasht, Iran. She now lives in Paris and is a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers throughout the world. Persepolis was translated into twelve languages and was awarded the first Fernando Buesa Peace Prize in Spain in 2003.

Suggested Reading

Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street; Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog; Firoozeh Dumas’s Funny in Farsi; Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior; Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran; Joe Sacco’s Palestine; Art Spiegelman’s Maus; Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.

 

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