Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Graphic Memoir Review: Persepolis

One of the books I chose to read to celebrate Banned Books Week is Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic memoir. It is the author’s account of growing up in Iran during the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution, a unique child’s-eye view of a specific time and place in history.

Marjane, known as Marji to her friends and family, was just six years old when the memoir begins in 1976. She lived happily with her mother and father in a modern apartment in Tehran. Her parents were Marxists and not very religious, but six-year old Marji frequently talked to God and told her teacher she wanted to be a prophet when she grew up. To that end, she began writing her own holy book, though she only shared it with her grandmother, with whom she had a wonderfully close and loving relationship. She had an ordinary childhood at that point, filled with days at school, playing outside with other kids from her neighborhood, and enjoying quiet evenings with her parents, sometimes playing games like Monopoly.

Then, in 1980, the Revolution began. Marji’s parents, like many other ordinary citizens of Iran, were in favor of the ousting of the Shah, getting rid of the puppet regime they saw as controlled by oil interests, and the Revolution in general. Her parents demonstrated in the street each day, while Marji and her friends played revolutionaries and held pretend demonstrations in the garden. Once the Islamist extremists took over, Marji’s life changed even more dramatically, as she had to begin wearing a veil and complying with the strict rules being implemented, especially for women.  Her life at home became completely different from her life in public. Once the war with Iraq began, amid massive bombing of Tehran and other cities, even her home life was invaded. Things got even more difficult as Marji entered her teen years.

This powerful and emotional memoir works on two different levels: as a young girl’s coming-of-age story and as a fascinating insider’s look at the history of political change in Iran. What makes it all the more fascinating is to see that historical and political shift from the perspective of an innocent child. Protests, violence, getting stopped in the street: these are not typical elements of a childhood. For Marji, though, they became a part of everyday life. She was a very thoughtful child, whose mind was fed by the books her parents give her about Marxism, war, and revolutions. She was forced to live a double life, as were many other Iranian citizens, though she did manage to get kicked out of school for pointing out the obvious contradictions in what her teacher said before and after the Revolution!

Image by Marjane Satrapi
Marjane tells her story in a graphic novel format, with stark black and white drawings illustrating her unusual childhood. Her simple drawings range from playful (my favorite is on the first page, of the little girls in her class at recess, shortly after the veil became mandatory, using their veils in all kinds of creative make-believe scenarios! see image at left) to horrifying, as war, torture, and executions are depicted alongside normal childhood scenes. I was riveted by this unique and powerful memoir from the first page to the last (and then immediately wanted to get her next book!) and found it both informative and very moving. I can’t wait to read more about Marji’s life in her follow-up book, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return.

153 pages, Pantheon (a division of Random House)

Why Has It Been Banned?  I’m always curious to find out what would make people take the drastic step of banning a book. In this case, I assumed it was due to the violence depicted: executions, torture, beatings, and wartime violence. Nope. According to the ALA’s list of Top 10Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2014 (of which Persepolis ranks #2), it has been banned due to: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”. So, maybe “graphic depictions” is about the violence, but really? Amid scenes of torture, people are offended by gambling?? (By the way, I don’t even remember gambling in the book) And how can an honest portrayal of the author’s childhood be “racially and socially offensive”? Like all reasons for banning books, this just floors me. We need more honest looks at other cultures and other political viewpoints in our books. Without that kind of diversity, we end up with a society that is intolerant of differences. I am happy to report that our own school district has not banned this book. In fact, my son will be reading it this year (12th grade) as assigned reading for his World Literature class. I can’t wait to talk to him about it. NOTE: This is not a children's book, though it would be appropriate and educational for older teens.