Satrapi, Marjane

views updated

Marjane Satrapi

Graphic novelist

Born in 1969 in Rasht, Iran; married, c. 1994.Education: Graduated from L'Ecole de Beaux-Arts, Tehran, Iran; studied at Arts Deco in Strasbourg, France.

Addresses: Agent—Steven Barclay Agency, 12 Western Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952. Publisher— Pantheon, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.


First graphic novel, Persepolis, published in France, 2000; Persepolis 2 published in the United States, 2004; Embroideries published in the United States, 2005.

Awards: Prix Alph'art Coup de Coeur (beginning comic artist award), Angouleme International Comics Festival, for Persepolis, 2001; Prix du Lion, Belgian Center for Comic Strips, for Persepolis, 2001; Prix France Info for best news comic strip, France Info, for Persepolis, 2002; Prix Alph'art for best script, Angouleme International Comics Festival, for Persepolis Tome 2, 2002; Fernando Buesa Blanco Peace Prize, Fernando Buesa Blanco Foundation, 2003; Prix d'Angouleme for best book of the year, Angouleme International Comics Festival, for Chicken and Plums, 2005.


By recounting her life story of growing up in Iran and emigrating to Europe, and by telling it in graphic-novel form, Marjane Satrapi has become an unusual ambassador for her native country. She has also become a spokeswoman for greater freedom there and a voice against war and for cross-cultural understanding. Her use of graphic novels to tell autobiographical stories with political facets to them makes her messages especially accessible and affecting while bringing serious attention to the graphic-novel form.

Born in 1969 in Rasht, Iran, Satrapi grew up in Iran's capital, Tehran. She was an only child of secular, Marxist parents. Iran's Islamic Revolution against the shah, the country's monarch, took place in 1979, the year Satrapi turned ten, and her child's-eye view of the changes in her country later became a focus of her first book. Her parents, who were against the regime of the shah, happily joined in the first protests that helped depose him, but the religious rule that followed turned out to be worse for them. An uncle of Satrapi's was imprisoned by the shah's regime, then executed by revolutionaries. Her mother, who was not religious, eventually felt compelled to wear Islamic garb to avoid attracting the attention of the religious police.

Satrapi studied at the Lycee Francais, the French high school in Tehran. Her parents, who had taught her to think freely and not believe the propaganda the government required the teachers to teach, became concerned when Satrapi began to openly question the teachers. They wanted their rebellious daughter to live in a freer society, so they sent her to Austria to study.

In Vienna, as she later recounted in her second book, Satrapi expected to live with a friend of her parents, but when the friend decided she did not want Satrapi with her any longer, she sent the young woman to live in a convent. She left, according to the book, when one of the nuns used ethnic slurs while yelling at her. She threw herself headlong into life as a western teenager, befriending punks and anarchists and throwing herself into romantic relationships and drug use. She found various temporary homes until, finally, she ended up homeless in wintertime and woke up in a hospital.

At 18, she moved back to Tehran, where she attended college and struggled to adjust to living behind a veil and under the watch of the religious police, which would sometimes raid and break up the parties where she and her friends would wear makeup and western clothes. After college, she moved to France, where she studied art in Strasbourg, then moved to Paris. Some of her friends there, who were part of a prominent artist's studio called the Atelier des Vosges, introduced her to graphic novelists, starting with Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel Maus told the story of the Holocaust through the lives of a few Jewish survivors. She realized she could tell stories and make serious points the same way. "Images are a way of writing," she wrote on the Pantheon website. "When you have the talent to be able to write and to draw it seems a shame to choose one. I think it's better to do both." Graphic novels had some of the advantages of filmmaking as a way to tell stories, but without needing sponsors or actors, she added.

Inspired, Satrapi created a book of black-and-white comic strips about living in Tehran from ages six to 14. The book, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (named after a part of Iran known for its ruins) tells the story of her growing up, while also showing the Islamic Revolution and its effects on Iranians. Toward the end of the book, war breaks out between Iran and Iraq, and her mother puts tape on the windows of the family home, anticipating correctly that Iraqi bombs will fall nearby. The book also included moments of humor. "Tales of torture and war are offset by lighter scenes, like the 13-year-old Marjane trying to convince the morals police that her Michael Jackson button is really a button of Malcolm X, 'the leader of black Muslims in America,'" wrote Tara Bahrampour in the New York Times. Iranians, Satrapi explained, are used to using humor to stave off despair.

Satrapi said she hoped Persepolis would combat the negative images people had of her native country. When the Iranian Revolution broke out, most people in the West only saw images of the revolutionary leaders, which did not reflect the lives of ordinary Iranians, she said. "If people are given the chance to experience life in more than one country, they will hate a little less," she wrote on the Pantheon website. "That is why I wanted people in other countries to read Persepolis, to see that I grew up just like other children." She also said she hoped to find a way to get the book to young Iranians, perhaps through the Internet, so that more of them could learn the truth about what happened in their country in the early 1980s.

Persepolis was published in France in two volumes in 2000 and 2001. Critics picked up on the influence of Spiegelman and favorably compared Satrapi's work to his. The first volume won two of Europe's biggest awards for comic books and graphic novels, the Angouleme International Comics Festival's Coup de Coeur award (for a book by an author who has published three or fewer books) and the Prix du Lion from a comics association in Belgium. When it appeared in the United States in 2003, it earned an endorsement from leading American feminist Gloria Steinem. Edward Nawotka, writing in People, called Persepolis "one of the quirkiest, most entertaining memoirs in recent years." Dave Welch of said it "expressed in deceptively simple black-and-white drawings the broken heart and crushed hope of a people." One slightly dissenting comment came from Joy Press, writing in the Village Voice, who found Satrapi's youthful, innocent voice powerful but complained that the book did not reach the emotional depth of Maus and that its summaries of Iranian history were cute but not insightful. "Satrapi keeps us at arm's length, so that we never feel fully involved in this girl's intellectual and moral transformation," Press wrote.

The sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, was published in the United States in 2004. Nawotka of People declared it "the most original coming-of-age story from the Middle East yet." It told the story of Satrapi's years in Austria and her return to Iran at 18, showing Iran through the new eyes she had when she returned, not just struggling against life under a fundamentalist regime, but also facing the suffering the war with Iraq had caused. In the sequel, she and her college friends found small ways to rebel. In art class, they had to draw women in head-to-toe chadors, and when she was sketching a clothed male model, she was scolded for staring at him too much. In private, she and her friends dressed up, wore makeup, and dated, which gave them bad reputations among their more conservative classmates. Many Iranians react to the religious police's regulation of behavior by living double lives, she said. "You know in the school you have to behave in a way, and in your home another way," she told Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah of the Chicago Tribune. "You get older, and then you have to behave in some way in the street and in some other way in your home. That makes you become an extremely multipersonality person."

The simple style of Satrapi's art helped make her books accessible. "Satrapi's bold black-and-white drawings manage to be both highly graphic and almost cute," wrote book reviewer Karen Sandstrom in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Dynamic and cleanlined, they tend to reflect the text more often than complement or build upon it, yet Satrapi can't be accused of being too literal. Especially in scenes that revolve around military action or the most political aspects of the story, the artwork evokes the rhythmic, repetitive imagery common to Jazz Age art in the West."

Satrapi, who lives in France, writes her books in French, and they are published in France first, then translated and released in other countries later. Because her first book was released in the United States in 2003, the year that country went to war in Iraq and two years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, her American book tours were politically charged. She was detained and interrogated when entering the United States and often criticized the war and U.S. President George W. Bush. In interviews and cartoon commentaries in American publications, Satrapi said Bush reminded her of the religious fundamentalists in power in Iran and questioned whether Bush was really opposed to the Iranian government because he wanted American access to Iran's oil, not because of its reported attempts to build nuclear weapons.

Yet Satrapi also expressed surprise and gratitude at how well American audiences received her. "I have myself been judged by the government of my country, so I would never judge people by their countries," she told Connie Ogle of the Miami Herald. "She has discovered that strong and sometimes uncomfortable political convictions delivered in word bubbles by round-eyed cartoon characters can be easier to swallow than words alone," commented Bahrampour, writing for the Washington Post. In 2005, Satrapi spoke at the West Point military academy in the United States, where Persepolis was required reading. She described the experience in a commentary published in the New York Times in comic strip form. She was afraid the cadets would react angrily to her speech, in which she said she was against the war in Iraq. ("Democracy is not a present you give to people by bombing them," she quoted herself as saying.) Instead, the cadets she spoke to after the speech were open-minded about her point of view; one called her story inspiring.

Satrapi also spoke out about politics in her new home, France. When the French government decided to ban Muslim girls from wearing veils in public school, in an attempt to keep the schools strictly secular, Satrapi wrote in the British newspaper the Guardian that even though she was very much opposed to the veil, she felt that forbidding girls from wearing veils was just as repressive as forcing them to wear them. As for her native country, Satrapi stopped visiting Iran after her first book was published, concerned that her criticism of the regime might make it unsafe for her there.

Satrapi followed up her autobiographical stories with the book Embroideries, published in the United States in 2005. It is a frank account of a long conversation in Tehran with her mother, aunt, and grandmother and their friends about men, love, and sex. Many reviewers commented on how the women's candid talk contrasted with Western assumptions that Iran must be a sexually repressed society. Though religious police try to regulate the romantic lives of single Iranians, Embroideries shows that women speak frankly behind closed doors, and married women especially show little embarrassment about talking about sexual matters.

Satrapi is married to a Swedish man. She has also authored the French children's books Adjar and Le Soupir. Her next book for adults, Chicken with Plums, about her great-uncle, a musician, who tells his life story in the last few days before he dies, was published in France in 2004 and was scheduled to be published in the United States in the fall of 2006. As 2006 began, according to her agent's website, she was working on adapting Persepolis into an animated film.

Selected writings

Sagesses et malices de la Perse (with I. Ouali and N. Motalg), Albin Michel, 2001.

Adjar, Nathan Jeunesse, 2002.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Pantheon, 2003 (published in France as Persepolis Tome 1 and Persepolis Tome 2 by L'Association, 2000 and 2001).

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, Pantheon, 2004 (published in France as Persepolis Tome 3 and Persepolis Tome 4 by L'Association, 2002 and 2003).

Le Soupir, Breal, 2004.

Embroideries, Pantheon, 2005 (published in France by L'Association, 2003).

Chicken with Plums, L'Association, 2004 (forthcoming in the United States from Pantheon, 2006).



Chicago Tribune, May 11, 2003; October 10, 2004, p. Q3; June 22, 2005.

Guardian, December 12, 2003.

Miami Herald, October 9, 2004, p. 1E.

New York Times, May 21, 2003, p. E1; May 28, 2005.

People, September 6, 2004, p. 53.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), August 29, 2004, p. J12.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 29, 2004, p. M1; October 2, 2004, p. E1.

Seattle Weekly, September 8, 2004.

Village Voice, May 2, 2003.

Washington Post, November 28, 2004, p. T4.


"Author Biography," Pantheon Graphic Novels, (February 25, 2006).

"Authors: Marjane Satrapi," Random House, (February 25, 2006).

"Marjane Satrapi," Clair de Bulle, http://clair (March 3, 2006).

"Marjane Satrapi: On Writing Persepolis," Pantheon Graphic Novels, (February 25, 2006).

"Marjane Satrapi Returns,", http:// (February 25, 2006).

"Marjane Satrapi," Stephen Barclay Agency, (February 25, 2006).