November 2006

John Zuarino


An Interview with Marjane Satrapi

The Independent in London crowns her the "Princess of Darkness," while others say she's the spokesperson for Iranian women. But ultimately Marjane Satrapi is a writer and an artist. Her new book, Chicken with Plums, strays from the Persepolis format by chronicling the last eight days of her uncle's life. After someone breaks the Iranian musician's tar, he simply decides to die and waits for the angel of death. Appearing herself this time for only three pages, Satrapi leaves the graphic memoir crowd to join the likes of Chester Brown (Louis Riel) in the world of historical comic biography.

During a phone interview from her hotel room in Madison, Wisconsin, Satrapi talks about her experiences in writing as well as directing the upcoming animated film version of Persepolis, and her childhood dream of becoming Darth Vader.

At the reading in New York you said that Chicken with Plums is, in fact, part of a trilogy. Is that what you are working on now?

I wrote the first draft of the next book, but now I am working too much on the movie. When I do work on the project I can make small things like a page of comic for this one and a poster for that one. But I cannot work on two long-term projects [at once]. Persepolis is [about] Iran between the '70s and the '90s, and Chicken with Plums is the '50s until the '70s. I want to make a book that is around the '20s until the '60s. It's really like a backwards trilogy, a family saga, not that you will know exactly what happened in Iran, but you have a general idea of the atmosphere in those days. Like for example, in Chicken with Plums, since it is a love story, it has nothing to do with politics and sociology. At the same time you learn that there had been a coups d'état in the '70s. You learn that in 1935 the veil was banned, and at the same time you know, that's the beginning of the sexual revolution of Iran where he loves the woman, but in the end he cannot marry [her]. There's always going to be some background where you can put it in the context of when these things happen. So you will have a feeling of what the century was.

I noticed a more complex structure of Chicken with Plums than in Persepolis and Embroideries -- you focus on the last eight days of Nassir Ali Khan's life. What prompted you to choose that style over, say, the strip style of Persepolis?

You know, Persepolis was almost an educational book to [show] people the other point of view of Iran. It's a linear reading.
Embroideries is like a conversation, and for me the book itself had to look like one. A conversation is something small without any frame that you can enter and leave whenever you want. It's not a big speech that we make.

Then in Chicken with Plums I made these [four-column] pages, which you never do in this format. I wanted the book to look like eight days of life, which is extremely short. But it's extremely dense at the same time. I could have made much bigger pictures and a much bigger book, but this is not the purpose. I want my book to look like what I'm talking about. You have the images that are there, but then you have the whole layout, the whole way of constructing a book. In Persepolis I couldn't make a complex construction because that was not the purpose, It was too educational for that, and in Embroideries I wanted something light. But here I had the opportunity of doing it, and to tell you the truth, I spoke with a friend of mine about the scenario of Chicken with Plums, and he told me, "But this is a script for a movie. It is impossible to make it as a comic." And that is where I said, "I am going to make it as a comic," because that was where the intellectual challenge was for me.

What is most important to me is the artistic and intellectual challenge of doing something that I don't know how to do. That is why I work. The day I have to start repeating myself is the day I stop working and do something else. I will become a private detective.


You laugh, but at one point when I couldn't sell my illustrations and nobody wanted my book, I decided I wanted to become a private detective. But the only thing in France is that the private detective is only to catch people that are cheating on their wife or their husband. From a completely ethical point of view, I cannot just go and take pictures of someone when they're kissing. I mean, it's out of my business

Why did you choose to write Persepolis as a comic instead of straight prose?

I didn't have any other way. My brain functions with images. Just the words is not enough. I have tried to make a serious book and all of that. I just become completely pathetic. I lose my sense of humor and I write badly. I sit down, and I say to myself, "Now you have to make a masterpiece!" And of course I make shit. The second you say to yourself you should make a masterpiece is the best way to make the biggest shit in your life. But when I draw, I don't have this problem. I am so into my work and I'm so happy to do it, so I'm just floating. I don't have any other way, actually.

Every graphic novelist probably has a different answer for this. Which do you do first, the writing or the drawing? Or is it simultaneous?

I think it's just more of a simultaneous experience. It's true that at the beginning I have a scenario. I know almost how I am going to start and finish it, and almost what I would like to say in the middle. But once I start working, it all just comes together. The best example of that is like a baby growing up in a belly. They don't have first the nose that grows and one leg and then the other leg and one eye and then the head. All of it grows at the same time.

You said that going back to Iran would probably not be a good idea. Have you ever received any threats over your work?

Not really threats. They didn't write me a letter saying "We will cut your neck." But just to give you an example, two years ago there was a festival about Iranian movies in Paris. They contacted me, and I told them that they should also show some movies from before the [Islamic] revolution. Anyway, I was supposed to present it, and two weeks before the festival, the Iranian embassy called them and said that if I participated they wouldn't let them take the movie out of the Iranian cinématèque. And then the French said, "Oh, we are going to say to the ministry of foreign affairs…" and I just said, "Please, don't make it political. My parents still live there." And I just went out.

These are the kind of things that they make. It's not a state of law. Iran is a little bit like Guantanamo. You don't know exactly what is going on over there. You remember more than two years ago this Iranian-Canadian journalist/photographer? She took pictures of the prison that she didn't have the right to. It was very easy to confiscate her camera, but they took her and they killed her. And the guy who killed her was promoted. The lawyer of her family was Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, and even with her name and the whole Nobel Prize thing etc., you know, the process doesn't give anything. It's not something that you can count on that can happen. That's why I don't go [back].

And you know, if they told me that if I go to Iran they'll kill me or they'll hang me or whatever, and that then Iran will be a fantastic place and a democracy, I would go today. Believe me, I will do it. But the fact is if dying would change something in the world, you would have a paradise right now. For all the people that have died for their ideas until now, nothing changed. Now I have decided that I want to die for my ideas, but through a very slow death. It's better.

You said in New York that one of your biggest influences is Rumi. In Chicken with Plums you have Nassir Ali Khan encounter Azrael, the angel of death. How big of an influence was Rumi on your writing?

You should understand that, in Iran, Hafiz and Rumi are even more precious to people than the Koran. Iranian culture is very much based on the poetry, and even people who cannnot read or write know all the poems by heart because it is an oral tradition. I had been brought up with this Rumi story. My grandmother told it to me. Rumi and Hayam are two poets that I love the most. Hayam for his nihilism, where you don't know where you come from and you don't know where to go, so just drink and enjoy your life, and Rumi for his wide vision of the world. It's the way I see the world too, and of course I am convinced that I cannot do anything but fit it in my writing.

You also mentioned Marguerite Duras.

I have read almost all of Marguerite Duras, and the reason that I always talk about her is that I am sick of these feminists who talk about this female and male literature, and at the same time they say that they are fond of Marguerite Duras when she was the woman who said that literature doesn't have any sex.

People tell me "Oh, you wrote about a man!" Yeah, but Flaubert wrote about women! I mean, who is Madame Bovary? She is so much more like me than this woman who is herself in her book. This woman who she is describing is not me at all. Flaubert described Madame Bovary with all the particulars of [her] pathetic side. That described everything, and it reminds me very much of myself.

I was very happy when I finished Chicken with Plums. Most of my friends are men, and of all of them who read the book, none said "Oh, this is a man described by a woman!" I never felt as free as when I wrote it. Since the main character was a man, I could hide so easily behind him.

Regarding the upcoming Persepolis film: did you find this as an opportunity to make any changes to the original story?

Yes, there are things that have changed because the narration in a movie and a graphic novel or comic is absolutely not the same. At the beginning, everyone was thinking that I would just take the frame of the comic and make a movie, which is not true. First of all we cannot put [in] all the things that are in the two Persepolis books. When something moves, the sound, the dialogue and the music, it completely becomes something else. And it's really not to flatter myself, because if I wanted to flatter myself I would say that my book is the best thing I have ever done. I made the movie with my best friend, so we co-wrote it and co-directed. [He] is extremely talented, and he is very good where I'm not good and I am good where he is not good. From what I have seen now, I prefer the movie to the book.

I saw an interview you did recently with The Independent in London, and…

[laughs] With all the "shit" and the "fuck," yes.

It was called "Marjane Satrapi: Princess of Darkness." Is this an accurate description?

Well, I don't know about "Princess," and I don't know about "Darkness" either. I can just tell you that the first time I saw Star Wars, I went with my cousins, and all of them wanted to be Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. And I was the fan of Darth Vader -- that is who I wanted to be. But if you go to my childhood memory, probably the Darth Vader is true. I like too much to laugh and I like too much life. I know that the cause is lost. I know that everything is going to Hell. I know that already my death is the biggest scandal, and your death also, of course. But you know, in the time that we have to live, I prefer to laugh every day. I want to have as much pleasure as I can, because otherwise I won't live at all.