October 2004

Annie Tully


An Interview with Marjane Satrapi

Anyone who read Marjane Satrapi’s simple and evocative graphic novel, Persepolis, felt the sting of its final page. In Satrapi’s first installment of her memoir of Iranian life before, during and after the 1979 revolution, she chose to end with the image of our fourteen-year-old heroine -- the cartoon Marjane -- with her hands pressed against airport glass as her father carried away her fainting mother. Marjane was being sent by her parents to Vienna to get an education, and to go through those best of times -- the teen years -- free from a totalitarian regime. We meet Marjane again in Persepolis 2, laying face down on a made bed. It’s a pose typical to teenage angst. Only this time the kid has something to complain about.
In an interview in her hotel lounge, Satrapi talks with a rapid, thick accent and cigarette in hand about teenage rebellion, identity crises, and such important things as peeing in pools and how Jennifer Lopez will never play her dad in the movie. But mostly the conversation leads back to politics, and it’s obvious why she’s so thrilled about a pin that reads “Japanese Americans for John Kerry.”

The first Persepolis is told from the viewpoint of a young girl taking in a difficult world around her, whereas this second book, facing young adulthood, you make an obvious decision to focus inward more. Instead of the story of a young girl trying to make sense of her country, it’s more about a young woman trying to make sense of herself. Was it more difficult to write the second one?

In the first book I had the advantage of being cute, because I am just a small girl, it’s not me who makes any decisions, it’s not me who does anything. So the world around me changed, I am a witness of this big change around me. The war starts, and after a while it becomes completely normal, the situation of the war. That is the capacity of the human being, that everything suddenly becomes absolutely normal. The feeling that I am evoking in the second book is more a problem of when you are going to a new culture and you absolutely want to adapt yourself, and you absolutely want to be integrated. You have to forget about your own culture first. You know, because culture takes all of the space inside you. If you want to have another culture come into you, it’s like you have to take out the first one, and then choose what you want from the two and swallow them again. But it’s the moment you look at everything that it’s this lack of identity. You don’t know anymore who you are. You want so badly to be integrated, but at the same time you have a whole thing that is inside you. It’s the problem that when you leave and then come back, you are a foreigner anywhere. I am a foreigner in Iran. I don’t take the risk to go back to my country anymore, but at the same time, it’s a good feeling not to belong to any place anymore, at the same time it’s a hard feeling. So if I wrote a book and said I was worrying about the situation in Iran the whole time, that would be so untrue. Any of us who have moved from Iran -- and there were many of us who left like this without parents -- all of us have gone through this desire to be part of a new society, that we had to abandon everything. And the funny thing is, all the Iranian friends I have now, who left the country alone at 12, 13, 14, we have become extremely Iranian after all these years.

How so?

Because when you are young you mix the fanaticism of the government of Iran with the culture of your country, and it’s all one thing. When you are also very young, it’s so difficult all the time justifying yourself because of your nationality. A simple question that for everyone is a one-word answer to “Where do you come from?” -- “I am French.” For an Iranian, it’s a one-hour explanation: “I am Iranian but, I am Iranian but…”

How do you answer that question now, as opposed to when you were young?

When you are young you hate to answer that question. Well, today I just say “I am Iranian,” and they say “You are Iranian?” and I say “Yes, it is a fact, I am Iranian. I was born there, I have black hair. Yes, I am an Iranian person, what can I do?” Since writing the book, nobody can tell me “Give me some explanation.” I think now my explanation is just “Read the book and you’ll see.” This book has permitted me not to talk so much anymore. People have read the book so they see what my situation is.

So you’ve been in France for a long time now. Do you feel you can call it home in any way?

I can live fifty years in France and my affection will always be with Iran. I always say that if I were a man I might say that Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother, whether she’s crazy or not, I would die for her, no matter what she is my mother. She is me and I am her. My wife I can cheat on with another woman, I can leave her, I can also love her and make her children, I can do all of that but it’s not like with my mother. But nowhere is my home any more. I will never have any home any more. Having lived what I have lived, I can never see the future. It’s a big difference when someone has to leave their country.

At the end of this book, you leave to go to France to have the freedom to work. As a woman and as an artist, do you feel like you’ve gotten that freedom in France?

Oh yes. You see, the basic problem of a country like mine, apart from the regime, apart from the government, is the patriarchal culture that is leading my country. That is the worst. That is why the government is still there. Whatever it touches, it gives its interpretation of the thing. When it touches psychology it says that the woman is more sensitive than the man. Even when a man buys cheap Viagra. When it touches the medicine it says that our brain is a little less weight than the man’s. When it touches anything it gives its own interpretation, and the interpretation goes towards politics, towards religion, towards everything. So that is the situation. You know, the feminists become very angry when I say I am not a feminist. I am a humanist. I believe in human beings. After what I have seen in the world, I don’t think women are better than the men. See what the women soldiers did in Iraq, that was not better than the men. Margaret Thatcher was a woman, look what she did to Great Britain. Or Madeleine Albright? So the women are not better than the men.

So do you think the definition of feminism is to define that women are better than men?

That is what I feel. When they talk about “The men ruined this, the men did that,” it is a person, and their sex comes after what they’ve done. I believe that we say too much “We the women” and “We the men,” but should say “We the human beings.” There are really two types of human being -- the ones who care about environment, who want a more just society; and the other ones who care about greed and war. So it’s not a question of East and West, and American and Iranian, and women and men.

You are very determined in both books to show both sides of a situation, and often two sides of individuals. Whether it’s you, your grandmother, or even more minor characters in the books.

The world is complex. Even in my book I show a mullah who is good, the one who accepted me at the ideological test. He accepted me. So I can never say “All the mullahs are bad.” There was a man who believed in honesty. It would be so much easier to say they are all shit. My life would be easier. But everything is so much more complex. There is so much good in bad, and so much bad in good.

Are you so determined to foster understanding between people because you see -- particularly in the last three years -- that we’re getting further away from that?

I don’t think the question is between the people. The politics of the world has created that. When I come to the United States, I’m supposed to be the axis of evil. They are supposed to be the Nest of Satan. That is the way the two countries call each other. Which is really bad, when George Bush uses the same kind of words. To use the same words as a completely fanatic, theological regime. When I come and see people here, everything is fine.

Since the kidnapping of the two French journalists, with the demand of the kidnappers being that the ban on headscarves in schools is lifted, we’ve been reading a lot here that there’s a solidarity in the French Muslim community against this. Have you witnessed that?

Absolutely. It is the truth. When they banned the veil in schools, I was against that. It became complete nonsense, because instead of understanding why the girls were putting the veil on their heads, they just made a law. And if by just making a law you could stop things, it would be so easy. Forbid persecution, and it doesn’t exist anymore? Of course it will exist, it will just become hidden. Just get rid of the veil and it will come out in another way. So the law is not a good idea for me. Then they cannot go to school to get an education, and the one way they have to become emancipated is then lost. At the same time, when the two journalists were taken in the name of Islam, no religion in the whole world allows this kind of thing. So of course there was very quickly solidarity. Even those for the veil, even the more fanatic ones, they just said “No.” Which is a very great thing. We cannot agree on some stuff, but the life of a human being, everybody agrees. All my life I have been against the veil, and now I am the one defending the veil. I hate the veil and what it means, I would never put that thing on my head, but I put myself in their place. It’s a question of these girls’ identity. Their mothers never wore the veil, and so they want to. Why? They have come to France, 30-40 years. For French they are not French, and for Arabs they are not Arabs. So the height of irony is that the veil has become a symbol of rebellion. When you are fourteen and they tell you not to do something, of course you want to do it.

That brings me back to the question about the search for an identity that you write about in this book. You get very personal by showing how you try on so many identities and are never quite comfortable. That had to have been difficult to look back on, and write about.

It was more difficult than the first one because I have lost my innocence in the second book and I don’t have anything to justify myself. Things happen, and I grow up, and I am the actor of my decision, I am the actor of my life. It is more difficult but you have to try to be as honest as possible. I wrote the thing in the book that is not so cool for myself. When I turned over that guy to the Guardians of the Revolution [to save them from arresting me] it was not so great to show about myself. But it is also to show that when you are scared, you behave badly.

I read once that you once apologized to Art Spiegelman for the fact that every graphic novel is now compared to Maus.

Yes, if I were him, I would have hated me.

Well, why is that? Do you think that constant comparison is more of a problem for Art Speigelman, or for other graphic novelists like yourself who might be a little bored of the comparison?

No, it’s not a problem for me. Maus is a masterpiece. To be compared to Maus is nothing but a compliment. But for him that should be extremely tiring. If I was him I would have hated all these younger graphic novelists being compared to myself. So that is why I called him once, to tell him that none of this propaganda is being made by me, that it is other people who say this. He thought it was very charming. He invited me to his studio, and I met his wife and children, and we are friends.

Who are some of the French graphic novelists that you admire?

Joann Sfar’s book comes out in 2005 called The Rabbi Cat. This is a Jewish guy, and in the book the whole question of Judaism is evoked by his cat. He has a very ugly cat, the most ugly animal you can imagine. He can draw with ease, as fast as I’m talking. I am always interested in him. He makes stories like fairy tales, with questions like religion, and at the same time making this great drawing. (Satrapi lights another cigarette.) You know Art Spiegelman so you know how much he smokes.

Did you get a smoking room here?

No, I don’t think they have them. But I smoke in the room, and I have this spray that’s supposed to stop the alarm. But I don’t think those work anyway. It’s like years ago, when you were a kid, they said there was this thing they put in the swimming pools so if you peed it was going to turn red around you. That doesn’t exist, because I have peed since then in the swimming pool and it didn’t work. So the same thing in the nonsmoking room, it’s a lie. You just need to get the spray.

You end this book just as abruptly as the last, with the last line telling us that this was the last time you would see your grandmother. And once again, things end in the airport.

I hate airports. Goodbye is the worst word for me. Goodbye means they could die and I never see them again. Anyone, even you who I meet for an hour, it is a difficult thing to say. I like the word forever. Forever -- we will be friends forever, I will see you forever.

You grandmother is a sort of moral center of both books. Are you writing more about her?

The day I die, you will look at all my books together and see a big family saga. The book Embroidery, my grandmother is the main person. Everything revolves around her. I have another book coming in France in October called Chicken With Plums, about the uncle of my mother. I appear on two pages and disappear. Like Hitchcock did in his movies, I am playing a little bit like him.

When will Embroidery be out in the States?

In America in 2005. It is in her living room with nine or ten women. What do nine or ten women do in an afternoon, especially when they are old? They talk about sex. And one thing leads to another and they laugh and they cry. To some people my grandmother could seem a little bit cynical. But she was not cynical. She had a great sense of morality. She wasn’t a moral person -- she didn’t say “Do this, it is good, Don’t do this, it is bad,” but she always told me “Marjane, if you go to a party and you don’t talk to anyone, they will say “Who does she think she is,” but if you go to a party and start laughing with everyone they will say “Oh, look at this bitch.” So, no matter what you do, if people want to talk about you they will talk about you, so do what you think is right. If you don’t feel like talking, don’t. If you feel like laughing, laugh. Because she had a great sense of justice. And she was not an educated woman. She hardly knew hard to read and write, but at the same time, what was the most important to her was justice. I remember during the war, we had this coupon for some oil and some sugar and things. We went into a shop, and there was a lady begging the guy to give her credit for a little bit of chocolate and the guy didn’t want to. And my grandmother became completely mad. For two years, every time we went into the shop, she would make something fall down in the guy’s shop, joking, and would say “You know, I am old.” Just to make this guy pay.

Is the most difficult part of a translation the humor?

Absolutely. The words are not the same and the feeling is not the same. You know, they say in France that translation is like a woman. She is either beautiful or faithful. So it’s better when she’s beautiful because when she’s too faithful it might be very ugly. This is French people. This translation, though, is very well made. This is my American editor, who knows me very well who has made the translation. But in any translation you lose a little bit.

Have you written very much in Persian?

Not really, because, well, the book Persepolis, I wrote for the other ones, not for Iranians. For Iranians I wouldn’t give so much explanation. And I speak in French, so it is now more obvious for me to write in French, and not in Persian. In a way, when I write in Persian, I think others can do it much better than me.

Did you, however, feel a sense of responsibility to the Iranian people in telling this stories?

Yes. You know, last year, someone from LA proposed to make a series, like Beverly Hills 90210, but happening in Iran. Based on my book. With lots of young people, and then there are some bombs. I don’t know what the basic idea was. So I imagined that they would put Jennifer Lopez in the role of my father, and it would be a whole mess. And even if they gave me two million dollars for this I wouldn’t have accepted. When you make a book like that, you have a responsibility, you cannot give it to anyone who will turn it another way. So I thought I should work with French people, and now I’m working with them, and Americans are also interested, so maybe it will be a co-production.

Speaking of Art Spiegelman, have you seen In the Shadow of No Towers yet?

Yes, thank god people like him exist! I have made a bet with him. I think that Kerry will win, and he thinks that George Bush will win. So if I lose the bet I must take him to a very nice restaurant in Paris. And we both hope he will lose.

So, last question. I assume you know that Kim Wilde writes gardening articles and books now?

Yes, but I am much more into Iggy Pop, you know. When I was in Barnes and Noble in Chelsea in New York, they had this music that I hate, this R&B that makes we want to throw up when I hear that. So the guy asked me what music I would like and when I said Iggy Pop he laughed and that was the end of it. But then, he was expecting, like, 70 people to come, and instead more than 360 came and the whole place was full. So he was so happy about that, he said next time I am there he will have Iggy Pop playing for me, live. So some day I will have Iggy Pop play for me in Barnes and Noble.

Cover photo credit: Maria Ortiz