Graphic novelist from Iran charges across cultural divides

November 27, 2005|By ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Perhaps fiery, irreverent Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi was not the most orthodox choice to address the evolving young minds at West Point. After all, she is as ardent a critic of President Bush as she is of Iran's religious leaders. And a roomful of crew-cut cadets facing deployment to Iraq was not exactly Satrapi's idea of a highbrow literary audience.

But when she spoke to them this year while on tour with her new book, Embroideries, "I was very impressed," Satrapi said recently. "I realized a soldier is just a 19-year-old boy. A baby. If I was 21 and had to go to a place and probably die, I wouldn't want to have doubts. These kids, they have doubts. Not all of them think it's a good idea. Not all of them want to go."

It is this ability to look across political divides and locate the humanity on the other side that has propelled Satrapi to the forefront of those writing graphic novels.

Her humanized account of Iran's 1979 revolution, told through the eyes of a little girl - Satrapi as a child - is required reading at West Point. Satrapi's highly expressive characters, rendered in stark black-and-white drawings with a woodcut feel, have put a startlingly recognizable face on the struggles of ordinary Iranians to maintain a sense of normalcy amid their country's political convulsions.

More than a million people in 30 countries have read her books printed in 16 languages, her publishers at Pantheon Books say, since Satrapi made her debut in 2000 with Persepolis, her memoir of a youth (she was born in November 1969) disrupted by the 1979 Iranian revolution. Her growing popularity has also handed her a platform as a commentator on international affairs. Her devil-may-care frankness warms - and occasionally, outrages - people at her speaking engagements.

Recently, she has contributed a new illustrated guest column, An Iranian in Paris, to The New York Times' Web site. "For many years, many people in Paris, maybe most, didn't see the immigrants as part of Paris," Satrapi, who makes Paris her home, wrote in one column. "Now many of these immigrants are giving notice, via thousands of burning cars and smashed windows, that they are not happy with their current lot."

But as she expands her reach, Satrapi sticks to the first-person view of history that pulls her readers into the living rooms and streetscapes of her world. "I was born in a certain place, in a certain time," Satrapi told a heavily Iranian-American audience at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently. "I might be unsure of many things, but I'm not unsure of what I've seen with my own eyes. This is not the story of Iran. I'm not speaking for the Iranian people. It is the story of Iran through my eyes. This was my truth."

Perhaps. But for many people, Satrapi's highly subjective witnessing of history decoded an Iran that had been crudely framed by one-dimensional news reports.

Embroideries draws readers into the warm heart of Iranian life, with a story of a close circle of women and the resourcefulness they employ to outmaneuver the vise grip of their patriarchal world. "`Persepolis' was a scream: `Look! We're not so different from you,'" Satrapi said. "In Embroideries, I try to dispel crazy ideas people have about Iranian women - that they don't have a sexual life, that we don't talk about anything."

The heroines of Embroideries talk about everything. In a virtual Iranian Sex and the City, the women - drawn from Satrapi's relatives and family friends - pull the veil off the intimate encounters that have more than doubled the Iranian population since the revolution. The book's title reflects the new reality of sex in Iran - it's a euphemism for a kind of plastic surgery in which a bride-to-be has her virginity "restored" before her wedding night.

To Satrapi, unequal power between the sexes is at the heart of her country's oppressive government. "In a patriarchal culture, when the father has the final say in everything, the furthest manifestation of that is the dictator having the final say," she said. "If we fight the patriarchal culture, we will have democracy in Iran."

Satrapi, whose profession was graphic art, began to write graphic fiction while living in Paris with her Swedish husband. Her introduction to the form came in 1995, when someone gave her Maus, the internationally acclaimed graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. "It was really a revelation to me," she said. "I realized: An image is an international language. A sad man is a sad man to everyone in the world."

She began the drawings that became Persepolis, thinking she might copy them for friends. A small press caught wind of it and offered to publish it. Satrapi said she was startled when her memoir mushroomed into a best-seller.

Satrapi is blunt, outspoken. "I really like Americans very much. If there wasn't a President Bush, I would probably come and live here. Kick him out!" she told a college audience in Los Angeles, to some laughter and clapping.

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