Marjane Satrapi: Parlance With the Person Behind Persepolis

On April 4, Marjane Satrapi glided on stage in Garrison Theater, took a seat behind the podium and calmly adjusted her shawl. She was introduced as a figure of "voice and vision," an illustrious cultural icon invited to speak as part of the Alexa Fullerton Hampton series. Satrapi is the mysterious woman behind "Persepolis," a film based on her graphic novel account of her life growing up in Iran and Europe, a film which was nominated for multiple Academy Awards. As soon as Satrapi began to speak, however, it was apparent she shared more similarities than differences with her audience, and I grew to realize that this relatability was exactly what she wanted us to understand.

Satrapi maintained an air of casual intelligence as she spoke, as if she were enjoying a dinner conversation with several thoughtful friends, rather than formally addressing an audience. Her natural familiarity with the crowd fostered an atmosphere of respectful engagement, and quickly established Satrapi's easygoing personality.

Just as she does in "Persepolis," Satrapi demonstrated a rather sardonic sense of humor, and stressed it as a pivotal quality. "A sense of humor," Satrapi commented, "is really a question of intelligence. Life is unbearable and we're going to die. Without humor, what do we have?"

Satrapi also discussed the comic book as a unique medium of expression, and articulated her own rationale behind telling her story in such a format. She has always been interested in using image as a tool for communication, especially since "the first language of the human being was drawing," she explained, " and in a way it is more true to humans. With drawing you create a world in your own image, like God."

Satrapi also delved into the very personal process of writing down her life story. Although she returned to Europe in 1994, it wasn't until 1999 that Satrapi began writing "Persepolis," and she felt that this distance from the events she was recording was absolutely vital. She was still angry when she left Iran, and said that she did not feel this was an appropriate mood in which to write her story. Satrapi explained that, had she begun her story in 1994, she feared that she might stoop to the expression of human resentment, the very emotion that had resulted in the tragedies that had upset her in the first place. This aversion toward resentment is also part of Satrapi's reliance on humor: it offers her a way to bring joy to stories that often seem only to contain darkness.

"Humor allowed me to write my story without falling into cynicism," Satrapi said. "I always say that life is like a Greek Tragedy—it is full of disillusion, so cynicism is practically written in our destiny—but that's exactly why I refuse to let it consume me." Satrapi's main task, she decided, was not to use her comic book simply as a way to emote about her past, but as something with which a large audience could identify, something that could humanize the Middle Eastern "other," which is becoming more and more prevalent in popular discourse.

"Persepolis" is, after all, a pretty normal coming of age story. Satrapi created a comic book about a girl, and aspects of her childhood life familiar to most people: her loving parents, her maternal grandmother, her occasional desire to break the rules, her problems with teachers at school, falling in love, learning the pain of death and being unable to fully grasp the complexity of the sociopolitical world around her. The choice to make her film animated—and black and white—was part of Satrapi's attempt to universalize her tale; she felt that a simple animated character would be more abstract than a live actor, and would help audiences focus on the story rather than the face.

Satrapi believes that the two most important factors in achieving international understanding are "culture and knowledge." Just as many Americans probably have their own set of stereotypes regarding people in the Middle East, Satrapi came to America with her own set of assumptions, but soon found that a national image and a government do not define a country's people. "West/East, Muslim/Christian, these dichotomies don't really exist," Satrapi concluded, "The real divisions are between fanatics and non-fanatics. The fanatics are less in number but more loud, and sometimes violent. The non-fanatics have received enough education and culture to ask questions, rather than always feeling they have the answers. Any work of art, I believe, is an anti-fanatic act."