Marjane Satrapi: ‘I Will Always Be Iranian’ – Asia Society
marjane satrapi was born in 1969 in rasht, iran, and currently lives in paris. She has written several children’s books and reviews and comics of her appear in newspapers and magazines around the world, including The New York Times and The New Yorker. She is the author of the internationally best-selling, award-winning comic book autobiography in two parts, Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003) and Persepolis 2 (Pantheon, 2004). embroideries was published in April 2005 by pantheon.
Asia Society’s interview with Marjane Satrapi was conducted over the phone, with Satrapi in Paris.
How did you become interested in the graphic novel form? Are there other authors working in the same genre that inspire you?
no, actually, that was just a coincidence. I wasn’t really a comic book reader at all. in iran, there really isn’t a culture for this kind of thing, although of course there are illustrations and comics, but never a complete book just comics, so i never read any of that. in my childhood it was just tintin, but I always thought tintin was extremely boring, so I wasn’t interested in reading that!
when i came to paris it was really by coincidence that i found a place in a studio unit with a couple of artists. I wanted the place as it’s just impossible to sit at home and work. so I went there, and all these people were cartoonists, and they were talking to me about comics and encouraging me to try to do cartoons too. They said it’s a very long procedure, making comics, you have to draw all these frames, and they all have to look the same from one frame to the next, and it’s a complete mess to be able to make good comics, really. but I didn’t want to do that, because I didn’t think I’d have the patience to wait eight, nine months, or a year before I could say a book was finished. but I always thought that the image and the text, the writing and the image, there is no separation between them. for me thinking with images is extremely normal. then I found out what comics were and actually this was the medium that suited me the best because I love to write and draw so it really was the best for me. I knew from the moment I made the first page that this is what I should be doing.
when you start drawing and writing, do you have an audience in mind in iran, france or elsewhere?
No, I really don’t care. I care when the book is published, because as you may have noticed, in the word ‘publish’ you have the word ‘public’. so once the book is out, of course I’m interested in whether people like it or not. It is normal. Of course I don’t write just for myself. everyone who pretends to write for themselves is shit, it doesn’t exist. of course writing is extremely narcissistic, you want to be loved, and everyone has to read you, and they have to applaud you, and then they have to pay for your book and all that. but at the time when I write and draw, it’s not really for an audience. I think mainly when I make jokes, for example, I think mainly of a friend, and I say to myself, if I make this joke, I will make him laugh.
but at the same time I must say that there is something extremely pedagogical in persepolis. for me there were so many misunderstandings and so many mistakes regarding my country that I wanted to tell the story in a way that people would understand it better. so I had to take that as one of the parameters as well while writing because I didn’t want to write a book that only I, myself, could understand. this book was really a scream, like, “please come on, i’ll tell you how it was!” it’s not because the regime is a dictatorship that all the people in the country are crazy and all that. and that was it. but whenever I’m doing humor or a joke, I always have a friend in mind… you always love to impress your friends.
Several critics have pointed out the differences between persepolis and persepolis 2. How would you characterize these differences both in terms of content and form?
well the difference between drawing in a comic and a normal illustration is that in comics you have the notion of movement, of movement. In comics, drawing is part of writing, it’s not like you write something and then do a little illustration to repeat what you’ve already said. so it’s another reading, in a way. what you don’t draw you write, and vice versa. so the notion of movement is very important.
but once i started with persepolis, i couldn’t do much movement due to the fact that when i was studying in iran, we didn’t have that much anatomical model, and we couldn’t draw as much of the human being. so I was missing a lot. after waiting twenty more years i can finally draw a decent knee or decent arm! but first I thought of taking my lack and making a style. actually this style fit very well with this story because I start as a child. so my drawing is very childish, but not because I wanted it to be childish, but because I couldn’t do better! and thank god it turned out well but of course the more you draw the better you draw. I always try to draw what I can’t draw because repeating what I already know doesn’t interest me at all. so this style evolves.
also between the first and the second book, of course there is a big difference, because in the first book I am a child. she is a girl to whom things happen, she is not responsible for anything, she is only considering the world around her. I’m cute in the first book. in the second book I’m not cute at all. First of all, I’m a teenager, and no teenager is cute. when you’re full of hormones, how cute can you be? and then in persepolis 2 I am a young woman, full of doubts and lacking in self-confidence, and on top of all that, I am no longer a victim, it is not me that happens to her, the I am producing myself. so of course the relationship you have with the marji in the first book and the second book can’t be the same. in the first book you are absolutely delighted with this little boy, in the second book there is nothing to be enchanted about. so of course it changed. but it’s about life. he wasn’t going to go on forever pretending he was cute. that’s like those old ladies who still pretend to be little girls. it’s just pathetic.
Your next book, embroidery, about your grandmother, is also set in Iran. How do you explain your continued affinity with Iran, a country you left so many years ago?
Well, first of all, it wasn’t that many years ago, because I actually left Iran eleven years ago. in between i was in austria for a while but the fact is that the real time i left was in september 1994. i was twenty-four years old. and i finished my university in iran, got married, divorced and had a whole life there before. this is the first.
The second thing is that I have a very good intellectual knowledge of France. I have learned French literature at the same time that I have learned Persian literature. but my understanding of france will never be as deep as the understanding of your own country’s french. due to the fact that, in this case, you have to have almost, how to say, a genetic memory of a place. for example, my grandmother never said to me, “oh, you know, monsieur marcel, in the fifties, why, did you sell us camembert”. no, she was not talking about any monsieur marcel. probably she talked about someone called ahmad, and maybe she was selling another type of cheese. and this is something that even if I wanted to, I will never be as good as French. this is the second.
The third thing is that there are things that also only mean something in Persian. For example, in my last book that hasn’t come out in the US yet, it’s called poulet aux prunes, the guy walks into a store and this guy is selling leather jackets, musical instruments, opium and everything. that. Can you show me a store in France where he can buy honey, opium and musical instruments? that doesn’t exist either.
so there’s all these things. for example, from time to time I say an expression, and this expression in the mouth of an Iranian sounds completely normal. If a woman’s name is Isabelle, you don’t believe for a second that she’s going to say that. and first of all, in order to write the story, I have to believe in my own story. When I write Juliet and Jerome and David, I know them, but I don’t know what their parents were like, I don’t know what their grandparents were like, I don’t know what their aunts and uncles were like.
Then my understanding of Western society will always be an intellectual understanding because I’ve struggled to know it, I wasn’t born into it. I myself am not made with this culture. I have always said that as an example, one of my favorite writers is kundera. and kundera, when he writes his stories, and they’re set in prague, and the people, his name is milos, and they’re eating all kinds of, I don’t know, goulash and all that, I completely believe him, I know he’s telling me the right thing. the only story he wrote that happens in paris, it’s a very beautiful story, it’s cute, it’s well written, but something’s wrong. And I can’t believe the story. it’s like he’s putting on a jacket, the jacket is very nice, but it’s not the right size. It is a size too small or too big, you don’t know. but it’s not a jacket made just for him. for me, my stories are made for me. and I think: what can I teach Europeans about themselves that they don’t know better than me? but I know that I can bring you other stories. I can bring you something you don’t know about.
First of all, this is more interesting for them, but first of all, it’s much more interesting because you write about the things you like, and the people I like are Iranian. my affection is iranian. and will always be Iranian. my affection will never become western. never. if i had left iran when i was seven years old, it would be something different. but basically, i was twenty-four years old, i’ll always be iranian, i was made in iran, if you know what i mean. so it will never change. The fact is that I haven’t returned to my country for five years, and that puts me in a very strange relationship with my country, because if you don’t return to your country because you don’t want to, that’s something else. if you are afraid to return to your country, it is different. So for me, not being able to go to my country makes me love it much more. because for me, like all exiles, how can you project yourself into the future when your past is not close to you? my past is not close to me. my past is stolen from me my past is elsewhere. and I have no hand in it. I have all my friends who are French, I can talk about many things with them, but it’s another half of my life that I can’t share with them. and the past is not close to me, so I have no references to lean on to be able to project myself into the future. then the only thing I can do, like many other exiles, is go back to the past. because if you don’t have a past, then you don’t have a future.
Have any of your books been translated into Persian?
my children’s book. It hasn’t been published in America, but it’s called ajdar’s dragon, because ajdar means dragon in Persian. so this is a story, a fairy tale about a great earthquake, and a king who sends a girl to the center of the earth to find out why the earthquake occurs, and the girl finds out that it is a dragon that is the guardian of the earth . the dragon says that people making holes too big broke his back, and he just moved to try to make himself more comfortable – the book has ecological themes – and this made an earthquake. but the girl learns a lot and has many different experiences on her way to find the dragon. so this one has been translated, because there is no political or sexual message in it.
did you translate it yourself?
oh no, an Iranian woman did it, and I really like her translation. because i made rhymes in french, and to be able to find the same rhymes in persian, it is better if someone who knows how to translate does it. she is very good. translation is very difficult.
but persepolis and embroidery have not been translated into Persian?
no. However, I have to say something: last year when I was in the United States, people told me that they had seen an example of persepolis translated into Persian. I don’t know to what extent this is true. but the notion of copyright in my country is extremely vague, it doesn’t mean much to anyone. if they want to do it, they will do it and they will not ask my permission to do it. so I don’t really know.
How do you think your portrayal of the veil in Persepolis 1 in particular influenced the debates in France about the ban on the veil?
oh, they wanted so badly to include me in the debate about the veil and Muslim women, and how much I have suffered because of the veil, etc., etc. I have always said that I have nothing against the veil. I have something against being forced to wear a veil. during the time of the shah, even in the city of tehran, sometimes you would go down from the south of tehran (the poor area) to the north of tehran (which is very rich) and you would see more women with scarves, with chadors and this kind of thing. but at that point we still had a choice to use it or not to use it. and all this was fine. For me, the fact that it has become law, that they force you to wear something on your head, that creates a problem for me. but I’m not in the head of someone who’s religious, and I can’t, I can’t, judge, and I don’t want to give others permission to judge either. never. so, for me, prohibiting the veil and forcing it is the same. you can’t just go and tell people what they should and shouldn’t do.
the other thing is these girls, they’re fifteen and sixteen, and the veil has become a symbol of rebellion here in france, which is really ironic. these girls were born here, there are three generations here, but everyone calls her “arab”. I mean, if there is a good soccer player, then they are French! but insofar as they are poor, they are Arabs. nobody forgets that they are Arabs. So, it’s all these things. nobody wanted to point out the real problems and that was the real problem. so of course I was completely against it. in fact, france came up with this idea that france is secular, and for a secular society, and for secularism, the veil is not possible. but what about when the pope died and the whole world was in mourning? And everyone was like, “The pope, what a good man, what a wonderful man,” but for God’s sake, this pope, he’s gone to Africa, and he’s told people not to use birth control, and fifty percent from Africa, they have AIDS. this guy, he’s a killer, and he’s a jerk. They say: he has made the revolution. what kind of revolution has he made that I don’t know? and then they say that he is a man of peace. Come on, he can sit in his church and he’s not going to tell people, go out and kill yourself. I mean, he’s just doing his duty. so when they talk about secularism, they should look at themselves.
From what you say, it seems that “secularism” means something different when applied to Christian contexts (such as France or the United States).
yes, exactly. Secularism, that means you’re a Christian, you’re a Christian believer, you read the bible, and then you go to church, and then you’re against abortion, and you’re against it, and then you’re extremely secular. come on! what the hell, I just don’t agree with all this. You cannot speak of secularism only every time it concerns the Muslim world, and never for the rest of the world. what does that mean? and also look at the expression they are using: “muslim countries”. what does “muslim countries” mean? Muslim countries, ranging from Morocco to Indonesia. They go from Bosnia to Somalia. a particular country being said to be “Muslim” is already anti-secularism. why? because if you say that, it means that the only thing that defines the culture of a society is its religion. So where is the secularism?
perhaps we should also start saying “Christian countries” and we can say this is “Christian” art. I can draw flowers and they’ll say it’s “Islamic” art! no matter what you do, if you are a muslim, that is what defines you, it is absurd. you are not building a mosque, you are not doing this islamic work, it is not muslim art, it is art. Also in art, when they talk about us, it’s either the thousand and one nights, or it’s terrorism. they have nothing in between. They cannot say that, between terrorism and the thousand and one nights nothing happened, there was nothing. other things can happen, just can. but even this word “may” has disappeared. we are living in a very sick time, actually.
and during the veil debates in france, they just wanted to use me as a witness saying, “look at these iranian women, they have suffered so much”. and that was very funny, because all the Iranian people, they were against this law! from shirin ebadi to me, to all these people, all of us, we were against this law, because we know how it is when they force you to do something. so when they force you not to, they force you anyway.
Have you spoken publicly about this topic, either on radio or television?
no, I totally refused, because the level of the debate was very low, the level of the debate was completely absurd. they were comparing the veil to the strap! they were saying “the veil or the thong?” so from this you can imagine the kind of debate they were having. and to me, it’s clear that they’re insulting people’s beliefs, and I don’t want anything to do with it. and these sick feminists believe that since their legs and breasts have taught them, they are very free. The idea of these women being looked down on just because they’re putting a veil on their heads, it’s just too much, and I didn’t want to participate in that at all. it would make me feel dirty, really.
so I refused from day one. Furthermore, my position is not easy because, at the same time, I am against forcing people to wear the veil, I am also against forcing them not to. in the real world, you have to have a very precise idea, because the world is made of black and white and good and bad, and if you want to make the story a little more complicated, nobody likes it. . They want to use me for five minutes, putting me on TV, and of course they will cut you off the moment you have to say something. so I don’t want to be used for these things. I rejected. You know how it is, the media, because they want me to be against the veil, that’s all they want me to say and then whatever I say will be quoted out of context or just cut. so no, I didn’t.
in other contexts he has compared the fanaticism of george bush to the fanaticism of the islamist regime in iran. Do you think the two are equal in terms of the power of their rhetoric or actions?
for crying out loud, I mean, they’re using the same words. the iranian government says you have to read the quran, and bush says you have to read the bible! the iranian government says they are going to fight evil, and the us is also fighting evil. both are convinced that god is behind them. so the terminology they are using is the same, but at least everyone knows about the iran regime. First of all, Iran is a small country, compared to the United States, with no power and everyone in the world has a vague idea of what it is all about. what is very scary is that the president of democratic america speaks the same language. what is a democracy like then? also this idea they have about muslims: if you don’t have any headscarf, then you are not a muslim woman. if you drink alcohol, you are not a muslim. If you don’t have a beard on your face, you are not a Muslim. In real Muslim countries, people drink, don’t have beards, don’t wear headscarves, and still consider themselves Muslims. so these people have the same logic as bin laden, he is the one who says that you are not a muslim because you do not do these things. so what is the difference between them and bin laden? they are as fundamentalists as bin laden. So what is the difference? It is difficult for me because yes, I come from this country, from Iran, and nobody is going to tell me what I am or what I am not. I am not a westerner, I am Iranian and I am very proud to be Iranian. because I do not have any veil, and I am not suffering, they will tell me that I am not an Iranian, but a Westerner. I am not a Westerner, I am a free Iranian woman and I am proud to be one.
More recently, how did you respond when there was widespread speculation that the US or Israel might launch targeted military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities?
well, my own position is, again, very difficult. because if you say, well, Iran has to have nuclear weapons, then they’ll say, ok, then you’re up for fanaticism. if you say that iran should not have nuclear weapons, then you are for george bush. It is a fact, Iran is a country that does not have a neighbor as a friend. we are also surrounded by nuclear capable states: pakistan has nukes, india has nukes, israel has nukes. Also, I don’t know how true that is, because if you are as convinced that Iran has nuclear weapons as you were that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, then we really are in trouble. this is the first.
also the iranians can see that pakistan has nuclear weapons, so the us can’t say anything to pakistan. North Korea, they have nuclear weapons, so they can’t tell North Korea anything. so having nuclear weapons is a way for a government to also have its freedom. But at the same time, I always have to remind people that the only country in the world that has used its nuclear weapon is the United States of America itself. So what are they talking about? They are giving everyone a moral lesson, saying that there are no nuclear weapons for anyone. but in fact nobody has to have nuclear weapons, including the United States. Why can the United States of America have a nuclear weapon when they are responsible for Hiroshima? they have used nuclear material even in iraq, so how can they justify having nukes themselves? This uranium material has been used in Iraq, and children there are born with all kinds of diseases. who are they to give moral lessons to the rest of the world?
Given everything you’ve said here and in other contexts, do you think your future work could become more overtly political?
all my stories are always a little bit political. In the book I’m writing now, my paternal grandfather has a little mustache like Hitler. he did have one, not because he was anti-semitic, nothing like that. The fact is that at that time the greatest enemy of countries like Iran were the English, they were screwing up the entire region. then germany was against britain, then germany was our friend, in a way: the enemy of your enemy is your friend.
also in the west they are absolutely convinced that the second world war was a big problem in the west, so it must have been a big problem for the whole world. it is not. World War II wasn’t a big deal to us. you have to understand that. All these whites from America to Europe, in total there are about six hundred million, that is, ten percent of the world’s population. They are not going to make us believe that the problem of ten percent of the people in the world is the problem of one hundred percent. but that’s white narcissism, it’s us and us and our problems as the only problems, the biggest problems in the world. So they project whatever problem they have, and they project it onto us, and they judge us by projecting the problem onto us! i’m not going to tell people in france that the 80’s were horrible. even in france it was horrible, because they were killing political prisoners in iran, and we have had a war. After the Korean War, the Iran-Iraq War was the biggest war, but who cares or who knows? there were more than a million people who died in this war. no one talks about it. what about the fact that at that time, during the war with iraq, the entire west, without question, was all supporting saddam? what the hell?
So, could you tell me a little bit about the work you’re doing now?
I’m working on a scenario for a new book. I’m making an animated movie of the two volumes of persepolis. we’re making a black and white animated film and for the first time in my life, I’m going to be working with other people! That’s what scares me the most, because then it doesn’t just depend on me. this is a hundred people, it also depends on them.
and is it a French production?
yeah, this is a french production, absolutely, and we’re doing it in paris. So I’m working on it, and then I’m going to go to Barcelona to do a mural for the contemporary art center there. I make posters, I draw pictures for newspapers and magazines. but the two big projects, really, would be the movie and the new book.
There are also many book tours. persepolis is translated into 17 or 18 languages, and every time they translate it, people want me to go there, and I can’t go to every country, of course. but I have to do a little each time.
interview by nermeen shaikh of asia society.