True Confessions: Persepolis: The Story of An Iranian Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

 

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Week 5: Monday 25 February

 

This week’s topic is Childhood in Contemporary Women’s Fiction and we will be reading:

 

  1. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  2. Babak Elahi, “Fake Farsi: Formulaic Flexibility in Iranian American Women’s Memoir Author(s).” Melus, Vol. 33, No. 2, Iranian American Literature (Summer, 2008), pp. 37-54.

Trailer for Persepolis

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PXHeKuBzPY

In week three, we discussed the complications of “writing for” or “speaking for” women and minority groups in literary and other forms, and the reading for this week develops that same idea in a number of different directions.  In the first place, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood can be read as one example of a growing number of memoirs written by Iranian women living in exile in a variety of Western countries (including France, America and the UK) that have been published in the past ten years.  Others include Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi, Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran, and To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America, by Tara Bahrampour. As Babak Elahi argues in the essay “Fake Farsi,” along with stories of pre-and post revolutionary Iranian life, escape and exile, such memoirs offer a “defamiliarized relationship to language, a relationship at the heart of the exilic experience.” As Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have argued in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, the life writing of exiled women enacts the hyphenated split of their national identities: Iranian-American, Iranian-British, etc.  Such writing therefore, “becomes a site on which cultural ideologies intersect and dissect one another, in contradiction, consonance and adjacency.”

Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis not only confronts the difficulty of the defamiliarized relationship to a new language of which Elahi writes, but also addresses the multiplication of such defamiliarization in communication in the use second and third languages. Through its graphic form, moreover, Persepolis literally illustrates the constraints of using any form of words to communicate the whole story.  In scene after graphic scene, Satrapi reinscribes the power of language to hide, deny, obfuscate and damage both national identity and familial relationships.

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But we must also remember that this is not only a memoir of exile, but also of childhood, and the representation of, or speaking for the experience of a child brings further challenges.  How can one ever capture or evoke the thoughts and language of one’s childhood?  When grown-up writers “represent” their childhood selves in memoirs, are they not in a sense “colonizing,” “speaking for” and “interpreting” the voice of a powerless, voiceless self who cannot speak for herself?  As we will be discussing this week, what are the multiple pressures that are brought to bear on our reading and understanding of a text in which a woman writer writes her child-self?

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by floeastoe on February 20, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    ‘Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood’ Marjane Satrapi

    ‘Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood’ seems to be a very honest portrayal of a childhood in a society unfamiliar to a Western reader. While it seems that Satrapi’s narrative is honest, the other characters deceive her child character. The reader does not know how faithful this novel is to true events, but the author seems to be more honest than her adult characters.
    Her use of a graphic novel, as opposed to a literary one, makes it more memorable, and makes it stand out from the traditional canon of exiled women literature. The simplistic nature of the illustrations contrasts with the complexity of the topics covered. There is no description in the writing, it is not necessary; the illustrations provide that information, and personalities of characters are shown through their actions.
    Satrapi represents her child-self, as very aware, not only of herself, but of the political situation in Iran. She is able to converse and argue with adults on a range of political issues, and some of her more controversial opinions land her in trouble with her teachers. It does make the reader question how much Marjane Satrapi knew as a child, and how much she has embellished, with hindsight, to further the plot of the novel, and make it more interesting. As Satrapi grows up, experiencing more complex feelings and emotions, so the political situation in Iran becomes more difficult and dangerous.
    She presents her parents as liberals, who tell their only child a lot more than most would, even if she is told the bare minimum. Some of what she learns, age 9, could be seen as shocking, but the political and social environment is far more volatile than that of France, England or America. For example, she is told of her uncle’s execution, of the torture of prisoners, and of the oppression of women.

    Q: Without the history of Iran that is presented early on in ‘The Story of a Childhood’, would the book have been as popular? Iran’s history is not taught in schools and a lack of knowledge or explanation would seriously detract from the understanding of the text.

    ‘Fake Farsi: Formulaic Flexibility In Iranian American Women’s Memoir’ Babek Elahi

    Babek Elahi focuses on the language used in the works of literature by Iranian exiles. She focuses on the works of women who have gone to America, and are torn between their two cultures, describing it as a “displaced national identity”.
    Her focus on language, shows it’s importance to creating connections to a society, culture and other people. Elahi highlights how without language, and an understanding of it, there are huge difficulties for people as they try to maintain their identity and sense of self. Elahi places huge emphasis on language and the use of the “fake farsi”, which runs like a thread through the essay, indicating how language can inform, create, but also deconstruct identity.

    Q: Although Elahi mentions Satrapi in her essay, it is one brief quote (“The goal of my life is always to be marginal, to be on the margins, not to be part of any group”), and she does not focus on ‘Persepolis’ at all, despite it fitting into the genre of subversion that Elahi puts the memoirs of Iranian American exiles into. Did she do this because Satrapi is an Iranian French exile, or because she does not regard a graphic novel as part of a literary convention?

    Reply

  2. Babak Elahi, ‘Fake Farsi: Formulaic Flexibility in Iranian American Women’s Memoir’

    In his article, Babak Elahi analyses the memoirs of Azadeh Moaveni and Hakakian to explore the limitations and problems arising from ‘fake farsi.’ Elahi demonstrates how ‘fake farsi’ is used to resist ‘exile’ and overcome feelings of estrangement through a reconstruction of language and identity. Both Moaveni and Hakakian narrate a conflict between the languages they choose to express themselves in and how this complicates their identities. Hakakian recalls the ‘public protests of the revolution’ that we witness in Marjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis, causing Hakakian to feel torn between Persian and Arabic. Language also causes Moaveni to feel displaced in both her Iranian home and America as she refuses to be labelled as a ‘hyphenated’ American and holds on to her origins, inspired by her grandfather’s passion for Persian poetry. Elahi investigates the difficulties of Iranian American women’s memoirs as they address an American audience, upholding Western ideas of Muslim women. Hakakian’s work calls upon this judgement as she feels obliged to express herself in English, conforming to ‘an institutional and hegemonic power,’ disabling her own voice.

    Questions:
    1.Elahi singles out Iranian men from his study in memoirs therefore, do Iranian American women feel more displaced than men due to gender stereotypes and oppression? Is language the main contributor to their identity or does gender play a larger role?

    Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: The Story of Childhood (Part One)

    In her memoir, Marjane Satrapi documents the experiences of a child growing up during the revolutions of the Iranian and Iraq war, and underscores the strict social codes enforced particularly upon women. These oppressions are marked by segregation in educational institutions and the demonstrations made against the legitimate wearing of the veil. Women are also shown to be exploited by the guardian who steals rebellious girl’s virginities before their execution, sending their families money in exchange. Additionally, the maid is suppressed by her class as she is rejected by her lover due to her inferior status. The graphic novel form emphasises the theme of childhood as the simplistic comic strip is realistic in capturing the mind-set of a young girl as she struggles to understand the world around her. Whilst her religious yet, modern family inform Satrapi of her cultural history and share their hatred of the regime, educational systems adjust their material to fit the teachings of Islam. As a young girl, Satrapi does not hesitate to challenge these contradictions as she educates herself with books that motivate her rebellious attitudes towards dictatorship and patriarchy. Satrapi manages to confront issues arising from her childhood in the revolution and avoid representing the oppressed as an entity, demonstrating how her culture responded to the regime in different ways.

    Questions
    1. Does Satrapi feel displaced due to the confusion between her cultural beliefs and public teachings? What shapes Satrapi’s identity and in what ways may she try to regain a sense of self?
    2. How accurate is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir? Would a young child hold this much knowledge of politics or is Satrapi forgetting the gap between her adult and child self?

    Reply

  3. Posted by Nina Gill on February 22, 2013 at 12:04 am

    ‘Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and the Story of a Return’, Marjane Satrapi

    This bildungsroman written in first person shows the life of a young, Iranian girl living in a time of war in Iran. Marjane Satrapi uses the first section to provide an historical scope of the political situation, people who influenced the protagonist’s life and stories within her family. The comic genre of narrative accentuates the importance of each of these events as every situation is directly followed by another; they suggest a direct link to one another, like a consequence. Unlike a novel, this comic style of writing means that Satrapi does not have to describe the characters or the morality or the depth of situations, instead the few words and sentences along with simple pictures allows the reader to follow the suggestions of the protagonist’s feelings and identify with the younger, helpless character. The protagonist is portrayed as a young, innocent girl who is thrown into dealing with political and general injustice, such as the war and the control of her culture’s religion. Throughout, there is a sense of struggle and a questioning of morality within her personal life whilst growing up, which is further enhanced by the setting of the seriousness of the war, violence and injustice surrounding her. She is shown to be oppressed as a young person, as a woman and as an Iranian.

    Q: Throughout, Satrapi is looking back at her childhood and re-creating these scenes, so the realistic aspect of this autobiographical novel can be questioned. For example, the comic value of some situations, were they really as integral to her youth as the book suggests? Or is it only in hindsight that the comic value is revealed/appreciated?
    Q: Does Marjane Satrapi use this style of writing because she did not want to fall into the category of Eastern women sharing their stories of childhood struggles, because the literary world would perhaps find a novel style too recurrent? Or maybe, she just wants to add a more human element to the inhumanity of those situations, making it more identifiable without sharing too many disturbing scenes, therefore including comic and humour…?
    Q: As she is writing about her childhood, it is tempting to question the accuracy of the events, but is it necessary to question it if all of those events have ultimately impacted her beliefs today as an adult, affecting her in such a way that allows her to create this book?

    ‘Fake Farsi: Formulaic Flexibility in Iranian American Women’s Memoir’, Babak Elahi

    Babak Elahi describes language as an influential factor in establishing one’s identity, or at least ‘national identity’ for Iranian women who have lived in America. He reflects upon the ‘problems and the promise of imagining an identity caught between two or more languages’. This is essential to understanding why the ‘self’ can be complex for bilingual people, having lived in two or more different cultures. He refers to a game that he played as a child: composing Farsi-sounding syllables to sound like Farsi-sounding words which do not exist in the Farsi language. Using this game, he describes the fluidity of language and how easily it can lose its meaning. He describes the inability to translate some words and convey its exact meaning, (as Hoffman says: ‘the problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified’). He discusses Moaveni’s ‘love’ for her home-country Iran, but her inability to return to such a place where the ‘articulation of abstract thought was beyond [her]’, because of its language. Finally, it is through women’s memoirs that he examines the ways in which the ‘self’ can be identified, created, reflected and also deconstructed by language and literature.

    Q: Does Elahi’s focus on women’s memoirs indicate that women are more susceptible to the feeling of a struggle for identity than men? Or, just that in the literary world, women are more likely to express it?
    Q: Is Elahi accurate in placing such an importance on language when in relation to identity?

    Reply

  4. Posted by Nabilah on February 22, 2013 at 12:16 am

    Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

    Persepolis is a tale of Marjane Satrapi’s childhood growing up in Iran during the 1970s and 1980s – when the Islamic Revolution had begun and changed the country into a theocracy, and the war between Iran and Iraq began. Satrapi makes Western, non-Islamic readers aware of the history of a country that they may not have necessarily learnt about before. One important factor of the story is that Marjane is a rebel – she reads Marx and Descartes, listens to music when her country has forbidden it and is fascinated with her Communist Uncle Anoosh. For many readers, it may be different but interesting to see a girl as young as Marjane having such views and be able to argue with adults, as many people usually develop political views in their late teens or as an adult. By doing this, however, Marjane is giving a voice to all the powerless people in Iran and accurately shows what life is like for the oppressed.

    Question:
    What is significant about the fact that Persepolis is a graphic novel? Would it have been perceived differently if it was not written in the style of a comic strip, but in prose instead?

    Babak Elahi, Fake Farsi: Formulaic Flexibility in Iranian American Women’s Memoir

    Fake Farsi discusses texts written by Iranian American women such as Tara Bahrampour, Azadeh Moaveni and Hakakian. Using these women, Elahi in his essay ‘reflect[s] on the problems and the promise of imagining an identity caught between two or more languages.’ Elahi reflects on the displacement Moaveni felt because of this dilemma: ‘She is most American in Iran and most Iranian in America,’ Elahi also comments on Hakakian’s ‘resistance’ to Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic Revolution and her ‘uncomfortable deterritorialisation from the Persian language into Arabic, particularly as Arabic signals the hegemony of an Islamist ideology in a revolution that was at first a broad-based coalition of resistance to the Shah.’

    Question:
    Babak Elahi is male but chose to write solely about the memoirs of Iranian women in his essay. Is this important? If so, why?

    Reply

  5. Posted by Alice Gomm on February 23, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

    Summary:

    Persepolis presents the memoir of Marjane Satrapi using the graphic novel form, which uses images to depict war in ways which may be difficult to express. Satrapi presents the war in Iran from a child’s perspective and so demonstrates the emotional impact of war on ordinary people. Satrapi shows how children used humour and their games to cope with the war; this may subvert our vision of an idealised childhood.

    Questions:

    Does Iranian culture idealise childhood in a similar way to Western cultures?
    How does the protagonist subvert our notion of childhood?
    Does the humour and warmth of Persepolis derive from the protagonist’s subversion of our idealised vision of childhood?
    How does Persepolis challenge stereotypes about Iranian people which the mainstream Western media encourages?

    ‘Fake Farsi: Formulaic Flexibility in Iranian American Women’s Memoir’ – Babak Elahi

    Summary:

    Babak Elahi argues that ‘fake Farsi’ is a way of playing with language that ‘takes formal structures and reworks them into an improvisational reinvention of the original’ (38). This play with language is, according to Elahi, ‘an important part of literary constructions of ethnicity in the United States’ (38). Elahi writes that Iranian American women writers have a ‘defamiliarized relationship to language’ because they are in between cultures (39). The essay discusses how Iranian American writers Azadeh Moaveni and Roya Hakakian ‘reflect on the problems and the promise of imagining an identity caught between two or more languages’ (39). Iranian American writers fall into some problems as they are often ‘forced into the pigeonhole of memoir and autobiography by a publishing industry that sees them as representatives of “formerly oppressed third-world women”’ (40). These writers, however, are ‘aware of their position’ and ‘try to reshape the formulae into which they seem to be forced’ (40). Moaveni struggles with her relationship with language and identity: ‘In English, she produces abstract meaning without the tactile feel of the tangible signifier. In Persian, she can trace the words with her finger but cannot “love” what they mean in English.’ (46) Hakakian has slightly different problems with language, she ‘challenges the Islamist discourse of the Islamist Republic’ (49) but uses the style of ‘mainstream North American journalism’ (49). Elahi argues that this space is ‘unstable and susceptible to appropriation’ (50).

    Questions:

    Do any of Elahi’s ideas about language in Iranian American women’s memoirs apply to Persepolis?

    Reply

  6. Persepolis; The Story of a Childhood – SATRAPI

    This memoir is from a young girl’s perspective and details the corruption within her society as she is growing up. She is trying to understantd the controversial, diverse and most importantly extremely dangerous world of politics. Despite her ambitions to change the world and fight for justice, she becomes confused by the numerous extreme beliefs of her nation; from imperialism to communism. Her dreams of going to university and travelling to America are dashed when the universities are closed for two years and school books are re-assessed in order to make sure they are inkeeping with the politics of the time. Later her mother is approached and told that she deserves to be raped because she is not wearing a veil. The introduction of the veil imposes an even greater restriction on women and forces them eventually to bend the truth and exaggerate their dedication to religion in order to seem pure enough within society’s unrealistic expectations. The children of society rate the bravery and heroism of men on how much time they have spent in prison and in their eyes, a man who ‘hasn’t even been to prison’ is less of a man. Overall people are forced to hide who they are from the world just to be allowed to live. Anything western or enjoyable and liverating from the west is forbidden. Therefore the amount of laws enforced make it impossible to remain law abiding.
    Q. A Persian saying is included in the text. It says: ‘When a big wave comes, lower your head and let it pass’ Considering the war-torn setting of the story, do you think it is as young Satrapi states ‘typical Persian resignation’ or is it simply the only realistic option in order to survive?
    Q. The introduuction of the veil sparks heated debate in this society and leads to a social and political divide. The reason for the wearing of the veil is said to keep women safe from sexual attack. Therefore could it be seen as the only way of protecting women? Or is it purely another form of oppression forcing women to live in further fear of men? Or both?

    Fake Farsi – ELAHI

    Fake Farsi is described as a foreign language which Elahi and her brother mimicked as children. Being a foreign language it made no sense to them but rather created a musical speech of nonsense. This is then compared to Hoffman’s idea of the ‘riff’ of American speech, describing the sound of it rather than the content and meaning behind the sounds. This leads to a defamiliarisation of language. Later on she discusses the relationship between identity and language and says that even though she is Iranian, she sounds American. She says that many American-Iranian women who chose to write, are seen as ‘formerly oppressed third-world women’ who are ‘celebrating western civilisation’ as non-Americans. Furthermore she eventually notices that her professional life is geared around American English and her social and personal life is geared around Iranian.
    Q. Elahi says that she uses both languages for the different aspects of her life (professional and personal). Are the languages working to signify her identity in both instances? Or are they simply used for the convenience of more effective communication within the two areas of her life?

    Reply

  7. Posted by Caroline on February 24, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood – MARJANE SATRAPI

    This is a story of a child between two identities, the Iranian child and the Americanised Iranian child. She is in the passage of transition between childhood and adulthood, and is becoming rebellious as she learns the truth of Iran’s situation.
    There are many oppressed images of women with Persepolis, such as the veils being used to protect women’s bodies from the man who cannot control his sexual desire. However, this oppression is enforced by the women characters, in the supermarket, when Marji is walking by herself.

    Q. Women are contributing to their own oppression by turning on one another. Why are women not supportive to one another’s situation?

    Fake Farsi: Formulaic Flexibility in Iranian American Women’s Memoir – BABAK ELAHI

    This essay discusses the memoir written by Iranian American women, and how they digress from their mother tongue due to the infusion of another territory into their culture and identity. These women become a parody of their own culture. Due to their existence as in between two cultures considered to be dichotomies, these women become considered as oppressed and powerless, as considered by the Western liberals, misconstruing how they might be considered within their own culture. Women are becoming lost in their own self.

    Q. The use of the term ‘mother tongue’ presents the idea that a child learns the language through the mother rather than the father. What does this imply about the father’s role within the child’s language learning abilities? Does this mean that if a child’s mother is Iranian and it’s father is American, that the child is primarily Iranian, and what are the implications of this?

    Reply

  8. Posted by Sabina Nawaz on February 24, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

    The story follows the childhood of Marji, a young girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The unstable political situation and the conflicting views taught at home and at school, initially, confuses Marji making her unsure of her sense of self, “deep down I was very religious but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde”. However, due to the never ending conflict and the oppressive regime Marji rejects her once strong beliefs, instead adopting Marxist and Western values. She rebels against the radical Islamic regime and rather than oppressing her, it helps her in determining a strong sense of self.

    Q. Does presenting the story in comic form help in relaying sensitive subjects, such as religion and the political situation of such countries, which might otherwise be deemed as offensive?

    Q. Does Marji’s personal struggle with her sense of self represent the feelings of displacement and the conflict of identity immigrants and/or ‘ethnic minorities’, experience in Western societies?

    Reply

  9. Posted by Jasmin Staveley on February 25, 2013 at 12:53 am

    Marjane Satrapi – Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

    Persepolis is written from a child’s perspective with a somewhat reflective tone. This is mirrored in the comic strip layout that provides a childlike visual format, similar to that of picture books, while discussing serious and adult topics. Satrapi explores identity. By utilising a child as the main character she is able to explore growing up through war and revolution in an interesting and simple tone, showing the Iranian family as relatable and human. Additionally the use of a child provides a blank canvas by decreasing the audiences chance to prejudge the character or assign cultural stereotypes, for the character is innocent and has had little input in their societies flaws or successes yet. The character is portrayed with little childhood, reading Marx instead of playing and saying she is too grown up for toys. Although the character is happy this provides a somewhat sad perspective of children deprived of innocence, spoilt by the maturity of war, making them too worldly to death and too susceptible to hatred. Despite the serious subject, there is always a positive, almost comical, perspective in Persepolis: a likeness is ascribed between Marx and God is somewhat comical as they are both portrayed as revolutionaries with large, bushy beards. Additionally, although the character understands the horror of prisons, Satrapi shows a childlike view that everything is alright as long as you have a good story to tell your friends at school. The narrow misses with the poster, the music tapes and the wine also provide seeds of hope for happiness in this disheveled world. The overarching principle of text is the strive for change and to stand up for what is right no matter your age.

    Q: Could Persepolis have been as effective if It wasn’t a graphic novel? Would it have had the same messages?

    Babak Elahi – Fake Farsi

    Elahi’s text explores the importance of language and identity. ‘Fake Farsi’ describes a game played by children in which grammatically correct and formal sentences are constructed using gibberish language. In doing so the sentences are not limited by words or signifiers just as a child creativeness is not yet bound by societies constraints and limits: they can still see possibilities and an ability to question everything. Elahi compares this to the freedom of reworking jazz compared to structured classical. The argument progresses to explain that you can only ‘appreciate arbitrary nature of discourse if you look at your own language as foreign’. By a Persian person speak to another Persian in English it could be seen that they are denying their national identity however they could also be creating a hybrid. Flaws in such cultural compression include exiled Iranian’s being pigeon holed into memoir writing for the Western audience, however they subtly strike back by knowingly trying to reshape the form as their own.

    Q: What is the importance of the male author focusing only on women? Is it less accurate?

    Reply

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