Book Club in the Time of Trump: Persepolis
I picked Persepolis last month because, at this present political moment, I think its important to center tales of those who have sought refuge from war. I’d read it before—I remember it being gorgeously done, and I enjoyed it very much (as most who love comics tend to). Perfect, I thought. This is the sort of story we should be reading and really listening to right now. I’d read it before war in Syria had reached fever pitch. I’d read it before we elected a white nationalist authoritarian to the White House. I’d read it before we bombed a country whose refugees we would not accept.
I was unprepared for how this read, this time, affected me. It feels so much closer than it did—and not just in the sense in that I wonder how many Marjane-esque children are out there right now. It feels close in the sense that we feel so unstable right now. Foreign powers have affected the way we govern, and Christo-fascists have gained a foothold in our government, now a Democracy in name only. I’m not saying that our shitty political situation means we understand Marjane’s experience; war on your soil, in your home, is its own horror, comparable to nothing. What I am saying is I think, constantly, how will we know? Because Marjane’s family? Her friends? They didn’t see Islamic Revolution coming, either. Are we about to have a Christo-fascist one? Anyhow—onto the questions for y’all to use and expand upon in your book clubs in the Time of Trump.
1. What ground rules do we all want to set for discussing memoir, and specifically this one?
There shall be no Islamophobia here. Period. End of story. Just as a Christian person isn’t the same thing as a Christo-fascist, a Muslim person isn’t the same thing as one of Marjane’s oppressors. It’s not a complicated distinction to make. That’s rule one.
Rule two—we shall not pretend to be color blind. I myself am whiter than a virginal Easter lily. That will affect how I read this book! It just will! When you’re talking about this in your groups (and even when you’re reading my thoughts!), you should prioritize Iranian thoughts over others. Lift up and listen to your fellow readers of color and, if you’re as white as I am, maybe take a “first three, then me” attitude to your discussion. Listen and take notes on three other readers’ of color’s opinions before asking a question or offering your own opinion. I am not saying don’t read or discuss this book if you’re white: that’s reductive and unproductive and also everyone should read this book because it’s a seminal work of art and a genius memoir and voracious media consumption that amplifies voices other than our own is ONE OF THE WAYS WE COMBAT THIS SHITHOLE MESS WE’RE IN. I am saying be aware of how much space you’re taking up, and listen if someone points out a hole in the way you read something.
Third, and this goes for all memoir: treat the characters like characters. Even Marjane; especially Marjane. Authors pick and choose what events wind up in the story. There is no way to put a complete person on the page; that book would take a human lifetime to read. We are infinite jello-beings and contain too many multitudes to translate entirely into two-dimensional space.
Fourth, and this is just for memoir-in-comics: don’t forget to discuss the art! The art isn’t just a vehicle for plot. Form and content are always so inextricably linked that leaving discussion of the art out entirely is like keeping your discussion in a plastic container.
2. What thoughts and feelings came up for you as young Marjane began to be exposed to Revolution and War?
I’m generally of the opinion that we coddle children in the wrong ways here in the
U.S. We rate movies, for instance, in an attempt to protect children from sex. But our attitudes on violence are far more permissible. It’s never made sense to me, our allowance of war over love. Maybe my resistance to this, our way of thinking, has leaked into some of my very visceral reactions at how Marjane is often used as a receptacle or mirror for the adult characters’ feelings on the conflict in the book. A few examples of this: on pages 50 and 51, the Satrapi family has two newly-released political prisoners over. They discuss the various tortures they endured, made even more horrific with their graphic depictions. Those panels, one of a man getting his back ironed, signalfor us the horrific images that young Marjane is conjuring up in her head. Her parents, also shocked, seem powerless to protect her amidst their own trauma. In this way, this single moment is one of the many ways that the reader, who may or may not have experienced a torturous authoritarian regime themselves, comes to understand the impossibility of protecting children in a war zone. (And when the Baba-Levy house is bombed on page 142? Forget it, I totally lost it, that poor child SAW THE BRACELETED ARM OF HER FRIEND). Though I knew her parents were doing their very best, I still felt the constant peril for this child so deeply. That’s one of the powers of this narrative, I think: it places the blame for these events where it should be placed. On governments, systems, those in power, and not on the individuals caught in the crossfire.
Contrast this moment to story time with Uncle Anoosh (pages 55-61). My feelings were a lot harder to parse on this one. The character of Uncle Anoosh seemed so willing to sacrifice a child’s innocence to pass on a culture, a story, an idea to the next generation. Part of me was angry at this character for his willingness to do that. But then I remembered the impossibility: if a child is in a war zone, the truth is probably the right call, even when it is violent. Even when it makes me, an American largely insulated from war, clutch my metaphorical butch pearls. It’s just heartbreaking; it is also my privilege to be heartbroken over it.
3. When speaking to people who don’t identify as a feminist or as a part of the resistance, are there any passages that might prove helpful in moving them from active opposition to passive opposition, or from passive opposition to neutral?
I ask this because I spotted some really helpful nuance that I feel like brocialists might appreciate because these moments make sure to center men, though the book largely centers the experience of women and girlhood. It’s a concession I hate tomake in any of my own work, and that’s probably why I’m regarded as a man-hating shrew. The character of Marjane points out why religious-fueled-patriarchy is also bad for men, even though men appear to have all the power in it: during the story of The Key, she explicates very clearly how this fundamentalism becomes weaponized against poor boys and men (without pulling any punches on the boy’s sexist behavior in their living room). Men who have trouble relating to female protagonists will likely listen to this anecdote anyway. (Excuse me while I barf in my mouth a little, brb.)
Marjane also sometimes looks forth from the page to address the reader, staring straight out of a panel and explaining something she doesn’t think has been well-ex- plained in the context of the story. On page 75, young Marjane takes advantage of this convention to directly inform the reader:
But let’s be fair. If women faced prison when they refused to wear the veil, it was also forbidden for men to wear neckties (that dreaded symbol of the West). And f women’s hair got men excited, the same thing could be said of men’s bare arms. And so, wearing short-sleeved shirts was also forbidden.
There was a kind of justice, after all.
Because this convention necessarily centers the reader as a conversation partner, a group of people who have literally never been asked to relate to anything that doesn’t reflect them may yet find within themselves the capacity to empathize. If not that, at least sympathize. Because they become a character in the story once they’re addressed. And then they’re in the book. And then they’ll be interested.
IDK, y’all, am I too mean to cis dudes? Given the themes running through pages 334-337, I’m not sure I’m being mean enough.
5. Satrapi opts out of colors in Persepolis, choosing instead to express everything in black and white. Let’s talk about what sort of effect that has on the reader.
Like I said, don’t forget to talk about the art. The stark contrast throws horror into relief, to be sure. I like to pay attention to Satrapi’s shadows. For instance, when Mr. Satrapi delivers the line “God has nothing whatsoever to do with this story” on page 21, his shadow is as pronounces as he is. Like another person, standing behind him, delivering his bad news. Is it about the faults of the historical systems that lead here? Is it just that shadows are creepy and its easy to grab them up for an oppression metaphor? Whatever the reason, I know when evil is lurking and baggage is baggag- ing whenever the shadows get long and pronounced. That same history-soaked drag- ger-down of humans is reached for again and again, but the other specific instance I’m thinking of is on page 78, when a TV station depicts a shadow crawling over Iran.
6. What did we miss?
Loads. We didn’t talk about colonialism, which Satrapi talks about in the voice of her father. We didn’t talk about partying and recreation and care in the face of human tragedy, and that’s a hugely present theme in there as well. But the truth is, at this point, this post 1600 words long. This question is a friendly reminder that these are mere jumping off points. You should follow the lead on your group—the world of this book is so rich that each time I think I can wrap this up, there’s more. It changes from read to read. It’s—gosh y’all. It’s so brilliant.
Next Month’s Pick: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
I’ve been lucky enough to hear Adam Johnson read from his short story collection, Fortune Smiles. Before reading that book and hearing him speak at last year’s Story Prize, I didn’t know much about him except that he incited a fervor in many of my writer friends. After hearing him read, I immediately understood why. Not only is his writing spectacular, his research is breathtaking; this man spent only five days in North Korea and is one of very few Americans to have done even that. His connections showed him a side of North Korea that Westerners don’t normally see. His obsessive curiosity made him soak everything up like a sponge. And then he wrote the book. I’ve read Johnson’s short stories, but this will be my first experience with his Pulitzer Prize- winning novel.
A.E. Osworth is Geekery Editor at Autostraddle, Managing Editor at Barnard Center for Research On Women’s Scholar and Feminist Online, and Part-Time Faculty at The New School, where she teaches digital storytelling. She’s writing a novel about GamerGate, which is really depressing. Follow her on Twitter or on Instagram.