Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi
Sex and secrets are the best topics for any conversation between friends. No wonder I tore though this new collection by Marjane Satrapi in less than an hour. But immediately after closing the smooth brown and cream cover of this tiny hardcover I knew I would have to go back to savor each thickly drawn page.
Set during one amazing rap session between members of the author's female family and their friends, the stories told in Embroideries map the lives of three generations women in Iran through the anecdotes of love, sex, and pain. The chat moves from semen to razor blades to gay husbands back to womens' rights with amazing grace. Setting a book about women's sex lives in Iran has its challenges to lighthearted storytelling and this book is full of depictions of the veil, arranged marriage and strange sexual superstitions. The women try to get good husbands, have good sex and lead exciting lives under harsh social restrictions, even going as far as to have the "embroidery" (a vaginal tightening surgery meant to simulate the feeling of virginity) of the title, but there is not a sense of judgment in Satrapi's framing of the stories, simply a fascination with the subject. In Satrapi's imagination, Iran is a place of adventure and mystery, but it's home too. I was equally fascinated, but a feeling of Western feminist frustration clouded the amazing sense of fun given off by the stories. The deft ability to arouse anger and laughter in the same picture is the power of this book.
The stereotypical character roles that tend to pepper fiction about women don't get phased out in the land of comics. Included are the sexually frustrated wife, the wise grandmother with a checkered past and the artist that feels the strain of breaking convention tug at her soul. Satrapi's character listens to gather the collected wisdom of the guests and throws in a few stories that represent her own generation's concerns moving in the space of tradition. The mix of memoir and fiction here allow these stories to breathe and become more than a boring of examination of East vs. West. The comic format makes each character distinct and the drawings tell so much more than an extra hundred pages of exposition would.
The segment that best showcases Satrapi's skill comes toward the middle. The older women discuss what they've done to become sexy and powerful and the discussion turns toward plastic surgery. The illustrations are full of energy, from a panel showing before and after shots of family nose jobs, to a cute story of the author's childhood biscuit 'n' cigarette stand where she hustled with a cousin to get enough money for an operation on her grandmother's "super ugly" nose. Little talking heads tell the story in short paragraphs and mix with larger drawings and the effect of a many-voiced conversation is very well done. This section also contains the best line in the book. After admiring her new fidelity-inducing shape, the women ask how this auntie got the killer bod, she tells them she got her fat moved around. The next page is a full picture of an elderly gargoyle-looking man nuzzling her chest, she says, "Of course this idiot doesn't know every time he kisses my breasts, it's actually my ass he's kissing..." There's scorn here, but it's delicious.
The author's grandmother, seated comfortably in her chair near the beginning of the book boils down why this book is so important. She says, "to speak behind others' backs is the ventilator of the heart." In Embroideries Satrapi sets up a beautiful confessional space for the women in her life to ventilate. By extension, she challenges all readers to think about our relationships, and more importantly, to talk about them without fear.
Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi