Persepolis: A Childhood


Trailer for Persepolis

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.

But Persepolis is we must also remember that this is not only a memoir of exile, but also of childhood, and a distinctly challenging   childhood framed by a shifting social context in which her gender begins by being of little interest to her, and becomes a key social marker of her value in society and the freedom she longs for in repressive post-revolution Iran turns to loneliness and isolation in the equally alienating world of Vienna.


There is one series of frames which represent Marji being taken to the airport to go to Vienna as a young teenager. Her parents are sending her off on her own, fearful for her safety if she stays in Tehran. In a series of uncomfortable exchanges her nervous parents try to normalise their sending Marji off by telling her “Everything will be fine” and “As soon as you get to Vienna, go and eat a sachertorte. It’s the most delicious chocolate cake.” But beneath these words is another text, one which cannot be said and which Satrapi forces into a box at the bottom of the page. “What I had feared was true. Maybe they’d come to visit, but we’d never live together again.” This shocking realisation of the finality of her exclusion is followed by two more exchanges. “No tears,” he mother says. “You are a big girl,” and her father hugs her with tears in his eyes saying “You’ve got to go now. Don’t forget who you are and where you come from.”


These parental parameters of what it is to be a big girl and what it is to be true to your gender and national identity are the keynotes of debate within the text as a whole. As this scene ends, however, we have only Marji’s careful and loving farewell. “I love you,” she says, waving goodbye. From the other side of the security glass, she shoos them away “Go on, Go on” she thinks, longing to be free. But as she turns around one last time, she is witness to her mother, fainting dramatically and being carried off in the arms of her father.  “It would have been better to just go,” Marji concludes, but the second part of the text challenges that interpretation of her childhood as well. Stay or go, there was no fully safe, free place for Marji – every location involved some degree of suffering, swooning, and struggle against the socially acceptable parameters of gender and culture. And in that sense while this is a book about the particular experience of Satrapi, it is not unlike the female childhoods explored in Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude”, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Jackie Kay’s “The Adoption Papers” and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which we will be reading next week.  As we will be discussing this week, there are multiple pressures  brought to bear on our reading and understanding of a text in which a woman writer in a patriarchal culture writes her child-self.


13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Eliza on November 5, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    In one particular frame in ‘Persepolis’, Marjane describes how the regime in Iran puts women in a politically (and personally) immobilising situation, explaining that ‘Our fear paralyses us’. Their ‘fear’ is entirely bound up in concerns about appearance, and how their personal presentation will effect how they are treated; they are taught to censor themselves. Like Foucault’s idea of the panopticon, the women act as their own jailer, regulating their behaviour while under the impression that they are being constantly watched. As a consequence of this, Satrapi shows that a woman who is so forced to be so concerned with her appearance cannot think about her freedoms, about her existence as more than a gendered being; she is locked inside a body by the emphasis on, and control of, her body.


  2. I’m interested in this notion of ‘be a big girl’ and what it is meant to mean. Marjane is sent off to try and find her place in a part of the world she doesn’t know after not being able to fit in at home either. Her struggle for identity not only as a young person but as a young woman specifically.


  3. The words her parents send her off with, talking about the most delicious chocolate cake and that Europe awaits her, for me doesn’t connote bad parenting, but wishful thinking; they hope by reinforcing the idea that Austria will finally be a safe space for Marjane that it will become true for her. I think this is particularly true for her mother, as she hasn’t yet experienced a safe space as a woman, as seen in her fear of being published in the Iranian magazine, so she hopes things will be different for her daughter in Austria.


  4. Posted by Salma AlTabari on November 8, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    At some point during Satrapi’s childhood, she tries to figure out who she is in terms of her family history. She enjoys listening to stories about her grandfather and is ecstatic when her uncle tells her about his time in prison because she sees it as a part of herself, which she can take pride in. However, very slowly the reader begins to see her evolution in identifying herself in different terms. As she grows older, her self-perception begins to shift into more individualistic terms. Society’s view of her, forces her to see herself in their terms: as a woman. She goes from being somewhat genre blind – identifying herself in terms of familial bonds – to identifying herself in terms of gender identity. This shift begins to set in when her mother cries hysterically because a man told her “that women like [her] should be pushed up against a wall and fucked. And then thrown in the garbage.” Satrapi’s shock is an indicator of this shift, since on the very next page the headscarf is introduced, indicating Satrapi’s new way of looking at things. She begins to become familiar with the social construct of gender and how “the way people dressed became an ideological sign.” Satrapi’s identification as a woman, and what it means to be a woman in Iran, is seen as moulded by society.


  5. Posted by Eva on November 9, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    In the beginning of the story, we see Marjane not defining herself by gender, which I believe is like most young children. She wants to be a prophet, later a revolutionist and play Che Guevara or Fidel Castro with her friends – Gender is not an issue. However, growing up in Iran she doesn’t have the same freedom to explore her own identity as teenagers in the Western world do. The coming of age is a bit more problematic for her. Like any other adolescent she rebels against her mother by smoking a cigarette she has stolen from her uncle, and listens to Iron Maiden and Kim Wilde. When she puts on her new Nikes and her new denim jacket with the Michael Jackson button on it she is happy, but unlike other teenagers she has to lie about her clothes and her family when she is out in public to avoid being detained and whipped. This scene in the story illustrate the regime’s idea that she is not allowed to have an identity apart from ‘woman’ – she is a woman and must therefore be like all other women; veiled and hidden.


  6. Posted by Lukas on November 9, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    We see Marjane moving to Austria to be safe and to get an education. After four years she still struggles to fit in and have an identity. At every turn, people discriminate against her for coming from the Middle East, up to the point where when her boyfriend breaks up with her, she feels like she has nowhere safe to go. She lives on the street and completely loses her identity. After recovering she returns to Iran, yet she struggles to fit in there as well, especially after her Western experiences. In the end, Marjane leaves Iran again. I think Marjane’s struggles to fit into different nations, or spaces, reflect the way she struggles with fitting into the space the world has created for her as a woman.


  7. Posted by Kirsty on November 10, 2015 at 3:49 am

    I think it’s interesting to see how it is manoeuvred within the story that she is a child while this is going on. On the one hand, both her parents seem determined to protect her from as much as possible, but on the other, they also encourage her to be as knowledgeable about what is happening as possible, without causing her too much harm (emotionally, or physically). Even when they might attempt to keep her in the dark (such as using the term ‘on a trip’), they quickly change their minds and decide to tell her a version of the events that are going on.
    I think it interesting that the mother dictates “She should start learning to defend her rights as a woman…!” relatively early in the book (p.76), even Marji herself mentions that her mothers opinion on such a thing as her daughters involvement had progressed and changed fairly quickly over the course of the revolution. Her being a woman, in this case, encourages the necessity of active participation.


  8. In Marjane Starapi’s ‘Persepolis’ the readers are given glimpses of the protagonists conventional childhood. However, as the Iranian Revolution and conflict took place during those years of Marji’s childhood and adolescence, it took a toll on not only Marji herself but also her upbringing. Alike Chloe, I am also interested in the phrase ‘You are a big girl’. The reason for this is because it is not a phrase that is typically said to an adult or a ‘big girl’. It is always said to young children in order to encourage them to face adversity. In a sense, expecting them to grow up faster than they should have to.


  9. Posted by Christie on November 10, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    I find it interesting that, considering the strict patriarchal society of Iran in which the Satrapi family live, Marjane’s father is not presented to the reader as a particularly patriarchal or controlling figure. The majority of the important decisions made within Marjane’s family (for instance, the decision to send Marjane to Europe, and their involvement in political protests) appear to be joint decisions/actions made by both Marjane’s mother and father. Furthermore, there are examples of small quarrels in the narrative between her mother and father, in which it is made clear to the reader that her father does not have an ultimate and unquestionable authorial voice within the family as her mother is not simply submissive, but holds her ground. Finally, when Marjane is getting married and goes to dinner with Reza and her father, her father states the terms of his agreeing to the marriage: Reza must allow Marjane the right to divorce him, they must move to Europe to ensure Marjane can live a life of freedom, and they must only stay together for as long as they are happy [pg.315]. Ultimately, Marjane’s father permits her marriage under the circumstances that it is not a patriarchal and oppressive marriage, but a union of equality.


  10. Posted by Phoebe Deans on November 10, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    Throughout the novel, Satrapi stuggles to form an identity due to the masculine and feminine ideals put forward by the Iranian government. During this time in Iran, women were not treated as equals and had little freedom in the patriarchal society. Throughout the novel, Satrapi addresses ‘the veil’ as a symbol of female repression. In 1980, it became obligatory for all women, including young school girls, to cover their hair with a veil so as not to ‘excite men’, thus protecting them ‘from all potential rapists’ (74). When attempting to defend their rights, women were often physically or verbally abused by men, such a traumatic experience can be seen within the novel when Satrapi’s mother Tarji was told if she didn’t want to ‘be pushed up against a wall and fucked… then thrown in the garbage’ she should wear a veil. Despite the negative repercussions, Satrapi continually does what she wants, not what society wants her to do, speaking back to authorities figures and displaying typically ‘masculine’ qualities.


  11. Marjane is not just writing about her child-self, she is writing from the perspective of her child-self, therefore she is effectively speaking for her child-self. It is particularly interesting to consider whether or not it is acceptable for Marjane to do this, especially as she criticises her male colleague so heavily at the end of the text for not letting his wife ‘get one word in’. Perhaps, having left Iran, she feels she finally able to give a voice to her past-self who was silenced for so many years under the regime.


  12. Posted by Angela Melville on November 10, 2015 at 11:40 pm

    We find out quite quickly in part one of Persepolis that Marjane’s great-grandfather was the Emperor of Iran until he was overthrown by The Shah. This affords Marjane a very real historical identity entwined with her country of birth. As the war begins to break the identity of Iran, Marjane’s identity becomes questionable. The introduction of the hijab puts her in a box that, at her age, she is not ready to be placed in and her rebellious side begins to cause problems of safety for her. She is sent to Vienna to keep her safe and because she lacks her own identity she is unable to fit in and feels uncomfortable. The next four years are spent being pushed from place to place and experiencing things that no parent wants for their child. The idea that she has left the bosom of her family to be safe and ends up in the situation she does, like drug dealing and on a commune, begs the question would she have been safer in Iran? The experiences she endured seem to make her more confused about who she is and on her return to Iran she suffers a depression that she then needs medication for. Throughout her life however, she has a faith that is unfaltering and although she doesn’t agree with the regime’s demands of their religion, her faith remains, which sees her going back to study. In this patriarchal society that has women being abused for very slight issues, the two main women in her life, her mother and grandmother, are far from submissive, which is encouraging for the fate of the protagonist. As they wave her off at the airport, It’s too late for them to leave, but for her she can be independent, successful and happy.
    ‘And my grandma was there, happily… …happily because since the night of September 9 1994, I only saw her again once, during the Iranian New Year in March 1995, she died January 4, 1996…Freedom had a price…’


  13. Posted by Wafaa on November 17, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    Satrapi brings a unique insight in to what life was like in her perception of being very closely intertwined with the history of Iran and growing up through the revolution and most of the war, has had an effect on her and what is of importance to her life and identity. The story gives us a glimpse of how some people lived in these conditions and how they were able to overcome sudden changes to their lifestyles. Her childhood depicts her experiences with coming to terms with some of the worlds cruelties at a young age and quickly adapting to stay out of trouble as we see she has to ‘learn to lie’, at one point in the book, which is a new experience. As a child she is leaving her naive innocence very rapidly.


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