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Marjane Satrapi: 'I Will Always Be Iranian'

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003).

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003).

Marjane Satrapi was born in 1969 in Rasht, Iran, and currently lives in Paris. She has written several children’s books and her commentary and comics appear in newspapers and magazines around the world, including The New York Times and The New Yorker. She is the author of the internationally best-selling and award-winning comic book autobiography in two parts, Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003) and Persepolis 2 (Pantheon, 2004). Embroideries was published in April 2005 by Pantheon.

Asia Society's interview with Marjane Satrapi was conducted by phone, with Satrapi in Paris.

How did you come to be interested in the form of the graphic novel? Are there other authors working in the same genre from whom you take your inspiration?

No, to tell you the truth, that was just a coincidence. I was not really a comic reader at all. In Iran, there really isn't a culture for this sort of thing, although of course there are illustrations and comic strips, but never a whole book just of comics, so I never read any such thing. In my childhood it was just Tintin, but I thought always that Tintin was extremely boring, so I was not interested in reading that!

When I came to Paris it was really by coincidence that I found a place in a studio unit with a couple of artists. I wanted the place since it is just impossible to sit at your home and work. So I went there, and all these people were cartoonists, and they were telling me about comics, and encouraging me to try making cartoons as well. They said it's a very long procedure, making comics, you have to draw all these frames, and everybody has to look the same from one frame to the next, and it's a whole mess to be able to make nice comics, actually. But I didn't want to do that, because I didn't think that I had the patience to wait eight, nine months, or a year before I can say a book is finished. But I always thought the image and the text, writing and imaging, that there is no separation between them. For me thinking with images is extremely normal. Then I discovered what comics were, and actually the fact was that this was really the medium that fit me the best because I love to write and I love to draw and so it really was the best for me. From the second I made the first page I knew this is what I should be doing.

When you start drawing and writing, do you have an audience in mind either in Iran or France or elsewhere?

No, I don't care really. I do care when the book is published, because as you may have noticed, in the word 'publish' you have the word 'public'. So once the book is out then of course I'm interested to know if people like it or if they don't like it. It's normal. Of course I don't write only for myself. Everybody who pretends that they write for themselves is just bullshitting, it doesn't exist. Of course writing is something extremely narcissistic, you want to be loved, and everybody has to read you, and they have to applaud you, and then they have to pay for your book and all of that. But at the time that I'm writing and drawing, it's really not for an audience. I mostly think when I make jokes, for example, I mostly think about one friend, and I say to myself, if I make this joke, I will make him laugh.

But at the same time I should that there is something extremely pedagogical about Persepolis. For me there were so many misunderstandings and so many mistakes concerning my country that I wanted to tell the story in a way that people would understand it better. So then I had to take that also as one of the parameters while I was writing because I didn't want to write a book that only me, myself, I would understand. This book was really a shout, like, "Please, come on, I will tell you how it was!" It is not because the regime is a dictatorship that the whole people of the country are crazy and all of that. And that was it. But every time I'm making humor or a joke, I always have a friend in mind... you always love to impress your friends.

A number of critics have pointed to the differences between Persepolis and Persepolis 2. How would you characterize these differences both in terms of content and form?

Well the difference between the drawing in a comic and a normal illustration is that in the comics you have the notion of moving, of movement. In comics the drawing is part of the writing, it's not that you write something and then you make a little illustration to just repeat what you have already said. So it is another reading, in a way. Whatever you don't draw you write, and vice versa. So the notion of movement is very important.

But once I started Persepolis, I was not able to make very much movement because of the fact that when I was studying in Iran, we didn't have so much of an anatomical model, and we couldn't draw so much of the human being. So I had lots of lack. After waiting twenty more years finally I am now able to draw a decent knee or a decent arm! But before, I thought I will take my lack and I will make a style. Actually this style fitted very well with this story because I start as a child. So my drawing is very childish, but not because I wanted it to be childish, but because I couldn't do better! And I thank god it went well. But of course the more you draw, the better you draw. I always try to draw what I cannot draw because repeating what I already know doesn't interest me at all. So this style evolves.

Also between the first and the second book, of course there is a big difference, because in the first book I am a child. She is a child that things happen to, she is responsible of nothing, she is just considering the world that is around her. I am cute in the first book. In the second book I'm not cute at all. First of all, I'm an adolescent, and no adolescent is cute. When you are full of hormones, how cute can you be? And then in Persepolis 2 I'm a young lady, full of doubt with no self confidence, and on top of all that, I'm not a victim anymore, I'm not the one that things happen to, I'm producing the things myself. So of course the relationship that you have with the Marji in the first book and the second book cannot be the same. In the first book you're absolutely charmed by this little child, in the second book there is nothing to be charmed about. So of course it changed. But it's about life. I was not going to go on forever pretending I was cute. That is like these old ladies who still pretend that they're small girls. It's just pathetic.

Your forthcoming book, Embroideries, about your grandmother, is also set in Iran. How do you explain your continued affinity to Iran, a country you left so many years ago?

Well, first of all, it's not so many years ago, because really I left Iran eleven years ago. In between I was, for a bit, in Austria but the fact is that the real time I left was in September 1994. I was twenty-four. And I finished my university in Iran, I got married, and I got divorced, and I had a whole life there before. This is the first thing.

The second thing is that I have a very good intellectual understanding of France. I have learned French literature at the same time that I have learned Persian literature. But my understanding of France will never be as deep as the understanding of the French of his or her own country. Because of the fact that, in this case, you have to have almost, how can I say that, a genetical memory of a place. For example, my grandmother never told me, "Oh you know, Monsieur Marcel, in the fifties, why, he was selling us Camembert." No, she didn't talk about any Monsieur Marcel. Probably she talked about someone called Ahmad, and he was maybe selling another kind of cheese. And this is something that even if I want to, I will never be as good at as the French. This is the second thing.

The third thing is that there are things that also only mean something in Persian. For example, in my latest book that hasn't come out in America yet, it's called Poulet aux prunes, the guy goes in a shop, and this guy, he's selling fur jackets, and music instruments, and opium, and all of that. Can you show me a shop in France where you can buy honey and opium and music instruments? That doesn't exist either.

So there are all these things. For example, once in a while I say an expression, and this expression in the mouth of an Iranian sounds completely normal. If a woman's name is Isabelle, you don't believe for one second that she is going to say that. And before everything, for me to be able to write the story, I have to believe in my own story. When I write Juliet and Jerome and David, I know them, but I don't know how their parents were, I don't know how their grandparents were, I don't know how their aunts and uncles were.

So my understanding of Western society will always be an intellectual understanding because I have made an effort to know it, I'm not born in it. Myself, I am not made with this culture. I have always said that as an example, one of my most favorite writers is Kundera. And Kundera, when he writes his stories, and they are set in Prague, and people, their name is Milos, and they are eating all sorts of, I don't know, goulash and all of that, I believe him completely, I know he is telling me the right thing. The only story that he wrote that happens in Paris, it's a very beautiful story, it's nice, it's well written, but there's something wrong. And I cannot believe in the story. It's like if he's putting on a jacket, the jacket is very nice, but it's not the right size. It's either one size too small or too big, you don't know. But it's not a jacket just made for him. For me, my stories are made for me. And I think: What can I teach to Europeans about themselves that they wouldn't know better than me? But I know I can bring them other stories. I can bring them something that they don't know about.

First of all, this is more interesting for them, but before everything, it's much more interesting because you write about the things that you like, and the people that I like are Iranians. My affection is Iranian. And it will always be Iranian. My affection will never become Western. Never. If I had left Iran when I was seven years old it would be something different. But basically, I was twenty four, I will always be Iranian, I was made in Iran, if you see what I mean. So it will never change. The fact is that since five years I don't go back to my country, and it puts me in a very strange relationship with my country, because if you don't go back to your country because you don't want to, it's something else. If you are scared to go back to your country, it is different. So for me, this not being able to go to my country makes me love it much more. Because for me, as all exiled people, how can you project yourself in the future when your past is not close to you? My past is not close to me. My past is stolen from me. My past is somewhere else. And I don't have any hand on it. I have all my friends that are French, I can speak about lots of stuff with them, but then it is completely another half of my life that I cannot share with them. And the past is not near me, so I don't have any references to lean on to be able to project myself into the future. So the only thing I can do, like many other exiled people, is to go back to the past. Because if you have no past, then you have no future.

Have any of your books been translated into Persian?

My children's book. It has not been published in America, but it is called The Dragon Ajdar, because ajdar in Persian means dragon. So this is a story, a fairy tale about a big earthquake, and a king who sends a little girl to the center of the earth to find out why the earthquake happens, and the girl finds out that it is a dragon who is the guardian of the earth. The dragon says that people, by making holes that are too big have broken his back, and he just moved to try to make himself more comfortable - the book has ecological themes - and this made an earthquake. But the little girl learns a lot and has many different experiences on her way to find the dragon. So this one has been translated, because there is no political or sexual message in it.

Did you translate it yourself?

Oh no, an Iranian woman did it, and I like very much her translation. Because I made rhymes in French, and to be able to find the same rhymes in Persian, it's better that someone who knows translation like that should do it. She is very good. Translation is very difficult.

But Persepolis and Embroideries have not been translated into Persian?

No. I have to say something though: last year when I was in America, people told me that they have seen an example of Persepolis translated into Persian. I do not know to what extent this is true. But the notion of copyright in my country is extremely vague, it doesn't mean so much to anyone. If they want to do it, they will do it and they won't ask for my permission to do it. So I don't know really.

How do you think your portrayal of the veil in Persepolis 1 in particular played into debates in France regarding the prohibition of the veil?

Oh, they wanted so much to include me in the debate about the veil and Muslim women, and how much I have suffered about the veil, etc., etc. I have always said that I have nothing against the veil. I have something against being forced to wear a veil. During the Shah's time, even in the city of Tehran, sometimes you went down from the south of Tehran (the poor area) to the north of Tehran (which is very rich) the more you would see women with scarves, with chadors and this kind of thing. But at this time we still had the choice either to wear it or not to wear it. And this was all fine. For me, the fact that it has become a law, that they push you to wear something on your head, this causes me a problem. But I'm not in the head of someone who is religious, and I do not, I cannot, judge, and I do not want to give others the permission to judge either. Never. So, for me, prohibiting the veil and forcing it is the same. You cannot just go and tell people what they should and should not do.

The other thing is that these girls, they are fifteen and sixteen, and the veil has become a symbol of rebellion here in France, which is really ironical. These girls are born here, three generations are here, yet everybody calls her an "Arab." I mean, if there is a good football player, then they are French! But as soon as they are poor, they are Arabs. Nobody forgets about the fact that they are Arabs. So, it's all of these things. Nobody wanted to point to the real problems and the real problem was that. So of course I was completely against that. As a matter of fact, France came with this idea that France is secular, and for a secular society, and for secularism, the veil is not possible. But what about when the Pope died, and everyone was mourning? And everyone was saying, "The Pope, what a nice man, what a wonderful man" but for Christ's sake, this Pope, he has gone to Africa, and he has said to people not to use contraception, and fifty percent of Africa, they have AIDS. This guy, he is a killer, and he is an asshole. They say: he has made the revolution. What kind of revolution has he made that I don't know about? And then they say he's a man of peace. Come on, he can sit in his church and he's not going to say to people, go out and kill yourself. I mean, he is just doing his duty. So when they talk about secularism, then they should look at themselves.

From what you say, it seems as though "secularism" means something different when applied to Christian contexts (like France or the US).

Yes, exactly. Secularism, that means that you're Christian, and you're a Christian believer, and you read the Bible, and then you go to the Church, and then you're anti-abortion, and you're anti-this, and then you are extremely secular. Come on! What the hell, I just don't agree with all this. You cannot talk about secularism only every time it concerns the Muslim world, and for the rest of the world never. What does that mean? And also look at the expression that they are using: "Muslim countries". What does it mean, "Muslim countries"? Muslim countries, they go from Morocco to Indonesia. They go from Bosnia to Somalia. A particular country that they say is "Muslim" is already anti-secularism. Why? Because if you say that, it means the only thing that defines the culture of a society is its religion. So, where is the secularism?

Maybe we should also start saying "Christian countries." And we can say this is "Christian" art. I can draw flowers, and they will say it's "Islamic" art! No matter what you do, if you are a Muslim, that is what you are defined by, it's absurd. You are not constructing a mosque, you are not making this work Islamic, it is not Muslim art, it is art. Also in art, when they talk about us, it's either The Thousand and One Nights, or it's terrorism. They don't have anything in between. They cannot say that, between terrorism and The Thousand and One Nights nothing happened, there was nothing. Other things may happen, just may. But even this word "may" has disappeared. We are living in a very sick time, actually.

And during the veil debates in France, they just wanted to use me as a witness saying, "Look at these Iranian women, they have suffered so much." And that was very funny, because all the Iranian people, they were against this law! From Shirin Ebadi to me, to all these people, all of us, we were against this law, because we know how it is when they force you to do something. So when they force you not to do it, they force you all the same.

Did you speak in public on this issue, either on radio or television?

No, I refused completely, because the level of the debate was so low, the level of the debate was completely absurd. They were comparing the veil with the thong! They were saying "The veil or the thong?" So from this you can just imagine the kind of debate they were having. And for me, it is clear they are insulting people's beliefs, and I want nothing to do with that. And these sick feminists, they believe that since they have shown their legs and their breasts, they are very free. The idea that they look down at these women just because they're putting a veil on their head, it is just too much, and I didn't want to participate in that at all. It would make me feel dirty, really.

So I refused from the first day. Also my position is not an easy position because at the same time, I am against forcing people to wear the veil, I am also against forcing them not to. In the actual world, you have to have a very precise idea, because the world is made out of black and white and bad and good, and if you want to make the story just a little bit more complicated it doesn't please anyone. They want to use me for five minutes, putting me on the TV, and of course they will cut you at the moment you have to say something. So I don't want to be used for these things. I refused. You know how it is, the media, because they want me to be against the veil, that is all they would want me to say and then whatever I say will be quoted out of context or just cut out. So no, I didn't do it.

In other contexts you have compared the fanaticism of George Bush with the fanaticism of the Islamist regime in Iran. Do you think the two are equal in terms of the power of their rhetoric or actions?

For Christ's sake, I mean, they're using the same words. The Iranian government says you have to read the Qu'ran, and Bush says you should read the Bible! The Iranian government says they're going to fight evil, and the US is fighting evil, too. Both of them, they're convinced God is behind them. So the terminology that they are using is the same, but at least everybody knows about the regime of Iran. First of all, Iran is a small country, compared to the United States, with no power and everybody in the world has a vague idea about what it is about. What is extremely scary is that the president of democratic America speaks in the same language. How is it a democracy then? Also this idea that they have about Muslims: if you don't have any veil, then you are not a Muslim woman. If you drink alcohol, you are not a Muslim. If you don't have a beard on your face, you are not a Muslim man. In real Muslim countries, people, they drink, they don't have any beard, they don't have any veil, and they still consider themselves Muslim. So these people have the same logic as bin Laden, he is the one who says you are not a Muslim because you don't do these things. So what is the difference between them and bin Laden? They are just as fundamentalist as bin Laden is. So what is the difference? For me it is difficult because yes, I come from this country, from Iran, and nobody is going to tell me what I am or what I am not. I am not a Westerner, I am an Iranian, and I'm very proud of being Iranian. Because I don't have any veil, and I am not suffering, they will tell me that I am not Iranian, but a Westerner. I am not a Westerner. I am a free Iranian woman, and proud of being one.

Most recently, how did you respond when there was widespread speculation that the US or Israel may launch targeted military strikes against Iran's nuclear installations?

Well, my own position is, again, very difficult. Because if you say, well, Iran has to have nuclear weapons, then they will tell you, OK, then you are for fanaticism. If you say Iran shouldn't have nuclear weapons, then you are for George Bush. It's a fact, Iran is a country that has no neighbor as its friend. We are also surrounded by states with nuclear capability: Pakistan has nuclear weapons, India has nuclear weapons, Israel has nuclear weapons. Also I don't know to what extent it is true, because if they are as convinced that Iran has nuclear weapons as they were that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, then we're really, really in trouble. This is the first thing.

Also the Iranians can see that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, so the US cannot say anything to Pakistan. North Korea, they have nuclear weapons, so they cannot say anything to North Korea. So having nuclear weapons is a way for a government to have its freedom also. But at the same time, I just always have to remind people of this that the only country in the world that has used their nuclear weapon is the United States of America itself. So what are they talking about? They are giving a moral lesson to everybody, saying no nuclear weapons for anyone. But in fact nobody has to have nuclear weapons, including the United States. Why is it that the United States of America can have a nuclear weapon when they are responsible for Hiroshima? They have used nuclear material even in Iraq, so how can they justify having nuclear weapons themselves? This uranium stuff they have used in Iraq, and the children there are born with all sorts of diseases. Who the hell are they to give moral lessons to the rest of the world?

Given everything you have spoken of here and in other contexts, do you think your future work might become more overtly political?

All my stories are always a little bit political. In the book that I am writing now, my paternal grandfather has a small moustache like Hitler. He did have one, not because he was an anti-Semite, nothing like that. The fact was that at the time, the biggest enemy of countries like Iran were the British, they were fucking up the whole region. So Germany was against Britain, so Germany was our friend, in a way: the enemy of your enemy is your friend.

Also in the West they are absolutely convinced that the Second World War was a big deal in the West, so it must have been a big deal for the whole world. It is not. The Second World War was not a big deal for us. You have to understand that. All these white people from America to Europe, in all are about six hundred million, that is ten percent of the population of the world. They are not going to make us believe that the problem of ten percent of the people in the whole world is the problem of one hundred percent. But that is white narcissism, it's we and us and our problems as the only problems, the biggest problems in the world. So they make the projection of whatever problem they have, and they project this on us, and they judge us by the projection of the problem on us! I'm not going to say to people in France, the '80s, they were just awful. Even in France it was just awful, because they were killing political prisoners in Iran, and we have had a war. After the war of Korea, the Iran-Iraq war was the biggest war, but who knows or cares about that? There were more than a million people who died in this war. Nobody talks about that. And what about the fact that at the time, during the war with Iraq, the whole West, without asking themselves any questions, all of them were supporting Saddam? What the hell?

So could you tell me a little bit about the work that you are doing now?

I am working on a scenario for a new book. I am making an animation movie of the two volumes of Persepolis. We are making an animation movie in black and white, and for the first time in my life, I am going to work with other people! That is the thing that scares me the most, because then it doesn't only depend on me. This is a hundred people, it depends also on them.

And is it a French production?

Yes, this is a French production, absolutely, and we're making it in Paris. So I am working on that, and then I am going to go to Barcelona to make a mural for the Center of Contemporary Art over there. I make posters, I make drawings for newspapers and magazines. But the two big projects, actually, would be the movie and the new book.

Also there are a lot of book tours. Persepolis is translated into 17 or 18 languages, and each time it is translated, people want me to go there, and I cannot go to all the countries, of course. But I have to do a little bit every time.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.