This graphic novel review is only for the first volume in the Persepolis duology.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood follows our author, Marjane Satrapi’s life in 1980s Iran under the Islamic Revolution. Marjane was barely old enough to know what was going on when her world was turned upside down; when Islam became the way of life on a government level in Iran, Marjane found herself having to wear a veil in school where previously she wore skirts. Drinking was outlawed, so was gambling and innocent games like chess. Music was considered forbidden. Perhaps the most difficult thing for Marjane was that her life at home was vastly different from what was considered ‘moral’ in the public sphere- her parents were largely secular who were admirers of Marxism and considered themselves patriots. On the streets, however, the Irani national anthem was replaced with Islamic hymns. This is Marjane’s true story, simultaneously tragic, horrific and humorous.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from this graphic novel when I went into it, but I was most definitely not expecting a story so thought-provoking. I wasn’t expecting a story rife with the brutal realities of war, politics and religion to be so deeply relatable. It is told with the utmost integrity and originality – Marjane’s experiences seem real and surreal at the same time. How is this woman sane after witnessing what she did? How is Iran still standing after all it has been put through, from within and without? These questions are not answered, nor should the reader expect a tale of motivation, encouragement and hope. This is not a hopeful story. Told in black-and-white illustrations, the tone is somber as is suitable for the depth of the tale, but it also retains a sense of innocence as is appropriate for a child narrator.
It’s funny how so many of us choose to pay attention to the things that we – directly or indirectly – relate to. We often fail to fully grasp the fact that each country has its own share of horrors, its own culture and living, breathing human beings whose lives are not more important than us, nor less important. The sheer scale of the realization is enough to take anyone’s breath away- which is exactly what happened when I was reading this. I grew up in Pakistan- a place that shares a border with Iran, yet I had little to no idea about the horrors that had taken place in the country. It’s incredible how vastly different two areas – separated only by a border – can be. Pakistan has its fair share of problems, but this amount of religious dictatorship is something unheard of to me. Compulsory veils do not exist in my country. We have a national anthem- our women form an integral component of the armed forces, they walk freely on the streets and drive freely, they have jobs and run businesses. We have actors and fashion models and a good entertainment industry- music is considered the heart of Pakistan, and yet… there are two countries that border mine – Afghanistan and Iran – where things are not like that at all. It’s jarring to realize how close you can be and yet how far.
Perhaps the reason I found myself so engrossed in this novel is just how closely I relate to it. My parents are a lot like Marjane’s – secular and extremely patriotic. And despite things not being nearly as bad in Pakistan, my family and I have always thought that it’s best to remove religion from governance altogether – much like Marjane’s family. I’ve come to realize, in all my years of reading, that relating to a story is perhaps the most important aspect of a reading experience. But I’m not sure how universally relatable this story will be. I went through my friends’ reviews on Goodreads, and most everybody had given it a negative rating with a simple, “This was boring,” and/or “This was overrated.” I get it. It’s not an easy story to digest, nor is it the most entertaining, nor is the art style as eye-catching or as stunning as, let’s say, Kazu Kibuishi’s. You may not relate to it – you may not care about it. And that is much more likely if you are not familiar with elements of it.
And I recognize that. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s an incredibly important tale about a region that used to be like yours or mine, about a country that contains people like you and me, who were torn apart by war and dictatorship. Now, the situation of Iran is brushed under the rug. Nobody wants to talk about Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan. These topics are better left alone because nobody wants to talk about war or religion or offending someone of that religion (note: I am a Muslim), so they’re largely ignored. But I wonder how easy it will be to ignore it if we read a story about a child who saw what she did, and think about the many children alive in the region today who are probably seeing even worse.
I have always said: you do not need to like a book to understand its significance. You do not need to give 5-stars to a book like Persepolis to acknowledge its importance. And I hope that I do not need to shower it with praise and call it the best book ever written to urge my audience to simply give it a go.