[In this edition of Field Notes, we publish the MAT research project of Wilberforce Strand. Wilberforce is a literature student in the Bard MAT program and is currently student-teaching at Kingston High School in Kingston, NY. The MAT research project in literature includes lesson plans, an annotated bibliography, and a critical essay, all focused on a text that is commonly taught in the New York public schools. Wilberforce writes about Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.]
Lesson Number: 1
Students will know that Satrapi’s unique graphic novel both supports and subverts common comics tropes, and that she has reasons for engaging in, or not engaging in, these tropes. Students will also get an opportunity to work on free writing.
Students will have finished reading the entirety of Persepolis. They will also be familiar with free writes.
Students will need a copy of Persepolis, their notebooks, and pen/cils.
Teachers will need the same items, along with a black/whiteboard, and chalk/markers.
- Students will write a quick list free write to the question, “What do you expect of a comic book? What might be some defining characteristics of comics in general?” (5 mins).
- The teacher will then ask the class to provide elements from their lists, and write each of these up on the board, forming a class list. (8 mins)
- The teacher will go down the list on the board, and for each item they will ask, “Does this fit with Persepolis? How? Why might Satrapi have chosen to support or subvert that particular comics trope?” (20 mins)
- Students will choose one item from the list and write their own response to the latter question, “Why might Satrapi have chosen to support or subvert that particular comics trope? Why do you think that?” The teacher will circulate around the room and offer advice to any students who might need it. This piece will be collected as the students exit the room. (7 mins)
During the elements involving writing, the teacher could easily act as guide or scribe for any students who might have a hard time getting their thoughts down on paper.
During the discussion aspects, assessment will involve the teacher paying attention to who is contributing, and who is not. They should also go out of their way to include students in the conversation who may be more hesitant to do so by asking them to supply aspects from their list. The final written response will be collected and used as a more formal assessment of the student’s understanding of the lesson’s focus. Because the items have just been discussed in class by the time this is written, the teacher will look for a more in-depth analysis of the comics trope than what has already been covered in class discussion. It is also important that the students not only answers the first question, but also answers the second (that is, explains their reasoning behind their first answer).
Lesson Number: 2
Students will know possible reasons why Satrapi would use the comics form, and not a different form, to tell her story. Students will also get an opportunity to work on free writing.
Students will have finished reading the entirety of Persepolis. They will also be familiar with free writes.
Students will need a copy of Persepolis, their notebooks, and pen/cils.
Teachers will need the same items, along with a black/whiteboard, and chalk/markers.
- Students will write a free write to the question, “Why might Satrapi employ this particular genre to talk about this subject material?” (3 mins).
- The teacher will then ask for volunteers to share their answers. (3 mins)
- The teacher will ask the students to turn to the diptych on page 102, the page depicting young soldiers exploding on the battlefield in the upper panel and Marji and her friends dancing in the lower panel. The teacher will first ask, “What do you notice?” and get some responses to this question. Then they will move into questions along the lines of “Why would Satrapi choose to present this scene in this visual way? What might be lost (or gained) had she decided to tell her story in a more traditional prose form?” The teacher will begin to form a discussion around student reponses. (12 mins)
- Students will form groups of three or four, find a similarly graphics-heavy page of the text (pages 15, 42, 61, 71, 77, 89, 95, 235, 245, 250, 281, 290, 305, 309, and 329 could all be potential options) and discuss these same questions, “Why would Satrapi choose to present this scene in this visual way? What might be lost (or gained) from this passage if she had decided to tell her story in a more traditional prose form?” in regards to their particular page or image. (12 mins)
- Each group will share what they discussed. (5 mins)
- The teacher will ask the students to write a focused free write to the prompt, “Based on what you’ve heard from the different groups, why do you think Satrapi might have utilized the graphic novel form to tell her story?” This will be collected as the students leave the room.
During the elements involving writing, the teacher could easily act as guide or scribe for any students who might have a hard time getting their thoughts down on paper, and the mixture of full-class and small-group work would provide students with different discussion preferences different opportunities to discuss the work.
Assessment here will require the teacher to carefully pay attention to the full-class discussion, and then to walk around the classroom and listen in on/offer advice or suggestions to the small-group discussions. The final free write will serve as an assessment of each student’s engagement in the class’s discussion and their understanding of Satrapi’s aims in regards to her choice of medium. An effective answer to this final question would include thoughtful ideas and analysis from the student (to track engagement with the text), but would also include ideas presented by the other groups (to track engagement in class).
Lesson Number: 3
Students will know that Satrapi criticizes both Western views of the East and Eastern views of the West, forming her own humanistic point of view.
Students will have read the entirety of Persepolis. They will be familiar with free writing.
Students will need notebooks, pens/pencils, and a copy of Persepolis.
The teacher will need the same items, along with a black/whiteboard and chalk/markers.
- The teacher will ask the students to free write in response to the prompt, “How does Satrapi present the ways in which the West views Iran in the text? Make sure to use textual evidence to support your claim.” If any students are having trouble finding evidence in the text, provide them with the page numbers 166, 173, 177, 195, and 220 as hints. (5 mins)
- The teacher will ask students to share their findings, and make a list of these elements on the board. (7 mins)
- Similarly, the teacher will ask the students to write to the prompt, “How does Satrapi present the ways in which Iran (or the East) views the West in the text? Again, make sure you include textual evidence.” Again, provide students who are having trouble with the page numbers 73, 93, 133, 143, 156, and 193 as hints. (5 mins)
- The teacher will again ask for students to share, making a list of these elements on the board as well. (7 mins)
- The teacher will then ask the students to write in response to the prompt, “So, then, based on these two lists, is Satrapi pro-West or pro-East? Does she agree with either of these two points of view? Where do her opinions or aims fall?” (5 mins)
- The teacher will then ask for volunteers to share their answers, and build a discussion out of these responses to this admittedly trick question. (11 mins)
Because the lesson revolves around writing, students who have a harder time getting their thoughts out on paper could be assisted by the teacher acting as scribe.
Assessment in this lesson will revolve around making sure to call on different students to get their answers to the different prompts, thereby ensuring the participation and understanding of all.
Lesson Number: 4
Students will know that Satrapi’s text seeks to deepen Western understandings of Iran.
Students will have read the entirety of Persepolis. They will be familiar with free writing. They will also be familiar with the concept of the ‘other’.
Students will need notebooks, pens/pencils, and a copy of Persepolis.
The teacher will need the same items, along with a black/whiteboard and chalk/markers.
- At the beginning of class, the board will show the definition of transversalism. “Transversalism: the process by which people designated as enemies or others form new understandings of each other.” The teacher will make sure that the class understands this definition by asking a volunteer to re-state it in their own words. (5 mins)
- Students will write in response to the prompt, “Does Persepolis engage in transversalism? How?” (5 mins)
- The teacher will ask for volunteers to share their answers, fostering a discussion around the idea of the ‘other’. (10 mins)
- The teacher will say, “Now let’s get a little more specific.” They will give a list of focuses from the book on the board, including Islam, gender, war, and Iranian history. The students will be divided into these categories by interest. They will then be asked to discuss and answer the following questions: “1. What are typical Western views of that aspect of Iran or the Middle East? 2. How does Satrapi seek to disrupt those understandings? Make sure to find at least five examples of textual evidence for the latter question.” Students will discuss and write down their answers in preparation for sharing those responses in the following lesson. (20 mins)
Small group discussion can help students who feel less comfortable sharing in a full-class setting share their ideas.
The teacher will assess informally through listening in on small-group discussion.
Lesson Number: 5
Students will know that Satrapi’s text seeks to deepen Western understandings of Iran. They will also get an opportunity to compare and contrast a scene from the film version of Persepolis with the book.
Students will have read the entirety of Persepolis. They will be familiar with free writing. They also will have participated in the small-group discussion from the lesson before.
Students will need notebooks, pens/pencils, and a copy of Persepolis.
The teacher will need the same items, along with a black/whiteboard, chalk/markers, the link to the segment from the film version (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1LPToZPf5c), and a projector.
- Class will begin with each of the four groups sharing their findings from the previous lesson. If the groups leave out their textual evidence, the teacher will make sure to foreground the importance of that evidence. After each group, the teacher will ask if any other students from at the other groups have any input on that particular aspect of the text. (20 mins)
- The teacher will say, “Now we are going to switch gears and take a look at the film version of Persepolis. The film was also made by Marjane Satrapi, though it is different. We will take a look at one scene, the scene in which Marji is stopped by the female Guardians of the Revolution because of her new Western clothing. As we watch, make sure to follow along in the book (pages132-134) so that we can compare and contrast the two.” Show the clip. (5 mins)
- The teacher will first ask, “What do you notice?” After a few volunteers, they will ask, “What similarities do we see between the two?” After a few more volunteers, they will ask, “And what about the differences?” A few more volunteers will answer, and the teacher will help to foster a short discussion on the two versions of the scene. Finally, the teacher will make sure to tell the students to keep these ideas in mind for the following lesson on film versus text versions of Persepolis. (15 mins)
Looking at a film version of the story will enable more visually-inclined students to enter into the conversation in a new way.
The teacher will assess based on careful listening to the students’ pseudo-presentations, and to their responses to the film clip.
Lesson Plan Rationale
In my lessons on Persepolis I attempt to draw from my external sources to create something that would be workable for many different classes and environments.
My focus on the book’s graphic medium comes from the simple fact that treating graphic novels as serious literature is still a fairly new and unexplored concept. Often viewed as a juvenile form of storytelling, or at least a relatively unknown one, the graphic novel deserves a form-based discussion that might be less necessary with a more traditional prose text. As a long time fan of the medium myself, I hope to engender such an interest in my students. This requires investigating the aspects of a graphic novel that set it apart from more traditional forms, and asking the question, ‘What can we get from a graphic novel that no other form can easily give us?’ Because these lessons take place after the students have read Persepolis, this would have to be addressed earlier in the unit, possibly even the first or second day of reading the text. These earlier lessons might include advice on how to read comics effectively, and how to analyze image and text together. But after finishing the book, thereby acquiring a more complete idea of it, the students are at a place in which they are more qualified to talk about the form, or at least Satrapi’s version of the form. Focusing in on different visual passages and drawing connections between these enables the students to see the power of the combination of image and text. This visual focus also enables readers who may be more skilled in visual analysis, or those who read comic books and have been told in the past that that ‘isn’t real literature,’ that their skills are valuable in the literature classroom as well.
The other main focus of my lessons centers around transversalism, the more content-based element of my project. This, of course, was inspired by Botshon and Plastas’ writing on teaching Persepolis, and the ways in which transversal thinking is championed by the text itself. I imagine the concept of the ‘other’ would have been discussed earlier in the unit, perhaps when reading about Marji’s experiences in Europe (For more information on this concept, I would look into Edward Said’s Orientalism). To maximize the effectiveness of the text and these lessons, I imagine giving background information on the 1979 Islamic Revolution before students begin the book. Similarly, before beginning the book, I would have the students list their own knowledge or assumptions about Iran so that we could track which of those hold true and which are less factual. However, I introduce the concept of transversalism along with its definition after the students have completed the book. I think that this would enable the students to address their position as American readers, and thereby reinvent their reading of the text, after they have read it through one time and gotten a sense of their ideas about the text before this direct awareness. Being aware of the idea itself can transform an initial reading into something more complex. However, I value the different viewpoints and interests of different students, so when analyzing different subjects of the book from our Western point of view (Islam, gender, war, and Iranian history), I would have them divide up by interest.
I also include a bit on analyzing the film version of Persepolis, and comparing the film and the graphic novel, a bit on which I would expand if I were to build a full-length unit around these five lessons. I think this relates back to investigating the strengths and weaknesses of the graphic novel form, and the film would act as another version with which to analyze that. I see all three of these focuses coming together in the unwritten lessons that follow these five, in a larger discussion of the way form and content interact.
“They don’t know anything of our centuries-old culture”: Rethinking American Assumptions of the Middle East with the Help of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis
On January 29th, 2002, in his State of the Union Address, U.S. President George W. Bush infamously described Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as members of an ‘axis of evil.’ This phrase is often read as a strategy meant to rally the United States toward war in the Middle East and promote insecurity in the post-9/11 landscape. Indeed, according to Lisa Botshon and Melinda Plastas, two teachers writing in 2010, this kind of tactic has had lasting effects. “Recent polls indicate that a significant percentage of our nation’s citizens feel less ‘secure’ than they did before 9/11[…]one of the main factors contributing to Americans’ unease is their sense of Middle Easterners’ profound otherness[…]and the possibility that there are whole countries churning out terrorists to destroy the United States,” they write. The term ‘otherness,’ or ‘othering,’ describes the way in which one group of people (in this case, the U.S., or the West) creates constructions of another group (the Middle East) that are, by definition, precise opposites of the ways in which the original group views itself, thereby reducing the second group to a simple, unknowable ‘other.’ For instance, when Botshon and Plastas announce that they will be reading the book Persepolis, an Iranian’s graphic memoir, in their classes, they report that their students “often anticipate that this project will be a difficult challenge; after all, what could a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’ have to say of importance to them?” (5). This shows the lasting effectiveness of Bush’s ‘othering’ strategy. But Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis, was driven by Bush’s statement in an opposite direction, and as she said in a 2008 interview, “[…]when you call a whole country ‘axis of evil,’ or fanatics, or terrorists or whatever, after a while people forget that these are people you are talking about, they are human beings” (Ghadishah). And a reminder of this fact is her aim. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi seeks to humanize a demonized people by getting Western readers to re-think their ‘othering’ assumptions. This process is aided by both her own experience of education presented in the text, and through the text’s educative properties.
One of the most iconic images of any Islamic country, at least from the West’s perspective, is that of the veiled woman. Satrapi introduces us to this image in her very first panel, in which she is depicted as a child, wearing a black veil. In the second caption, she depicts her classmates in a class photo; they, too, all wear veils. In Satrapi’s minimalist black and white style, their black hair, though uniquely styled, blends into their black veils. This is meant to initially indicate, perhaps, to a Western reader, that this veil has become a part of their body, a physical reminder of their culture. But this indication is meant to trick a Western reader, and the third and fourth panels on the first page give the first of many Iranian history lessons in the text, explaining that the veil had only become obligatory that year, following the 1979 revolution that would later be called ‘The Islamic Revolution.’ The final panel on the page completely throws off the assumption that these veils had become a normalized part of these girls’ lives, as they are comedically shown using their veils as jump-ropes, bridles for playing ‘horsey’, or simply refusing to wear them because “it’s too hot out!” (3). Though these girls are growing up in a newly Islamic country, they are still just that: girls. As Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley put it in their 2005 article, “[In the first panel] Marji is separate, marginalized, veiled, and radically other; at the same time, she is a universal cartoonish figure of a child to whom presumably everyone can relate. Thus,[…]the reader’s moments of identification are destabilized by disidentification” (230-231). In other words, while Marji’s clothes establish her ‘otherness’, Satrapi’s illustrated version of her younger self can be widely relatable, as she allows for the reader to see their childhood selves in Marji’s nonspecific ‘cartoonishness’. This shows Satrapi’s commitment to portraying the complexity of Iranian identity to Westerners.
Given the fact that the veil only became obligatory for Marji when she was ten, this also reflects the shifting gender norms that accompany a shifting society. By the third page, Satrapi tells the reader that “everywhere in the streets there were demonstrations for and against the veil” (5). The panel holding this caption depicts two groups of women: on the left, four women in full black veils chant, “The veil! The veil!” while on the right, four women in tight, white shirts chant, “Freedom! Freedom!” (5). The veiled women’s bodies blend together, again as a result of the black and white color scheme, indicating a group or cultural mentality, while the lines separating the unveiled women are clear and each one has a unique hairstyle, indicating their individuality. This again challenges the Western notion of Islamic women, who are often viewed, as Botshon and Plastas put it, “as silent victims, lacking agency and any discernible past[…]By presenting Iranian gender rules as complex, changeable, and located in time, [Satrapi] invites readers to loosen their attachment to the politicized narrative of Iranian female passivity and victimhood” (10). These women, even those that demonstrate for the veil, have total agency in this panel as they fight for what they believe to be right.
Although the veil becomes a requirement for Iranian women, their agency evolves throughout the book. By the end, when Marji is an adult, she learns that “wearing the veil was a real science,” and that one could make a “special fold” that allowed tufts of hair to be seen from the front, but not in profile. “Year by year,” she says, “women were winning an eighth of an inch of hair and losing an eighth of an inch of veil” (293). Far from being static, as a Western reader might assume, Satrapi reveals that Islamic culture, at least in Iran, can shift. In fact, the veil, a symbol viewed by the West as the epitome of Islamic womanhood, is the very vehicle by which those woman can assert their agency and effect change, albeit gradually. Satrapi writes, “Showing your hair or putting on makeup logically became acts of rebellion” (302). In his 2011 article, Typhaine Leservot explains this phenomenon through a discussion of the Iranian government’s form of occidentalism, or ‘othering’ the West, in the text. As the Islamic regime is strictly anti-Western, “any behavior that is deemed non-Islamic [is] therefore necessarily western,” meaning that “showing one’s wrist or ankle, laughing loudly, even wearing makeup,” while not intrinsically Western or political, become so. Even in the face of such a powerful regime, women still have agency, even if it isn’t the more overt form found in Western countries.
Many Westerners view the Middle East as being populated completely by impoverished people. But to challenge this assumption, Satrapi highlights Marji’s experience of economic privilege, as her family is fairly well-off. Her parents encourage her from a young age to educate herself, and so she is constantly reading. One important book in her development is a comic book on Marx and dialectical materialism. Part of her is aware of her privilege, and she feels ashamed sitting in her father’s Cadillac. “The reason for my shame and for the revolution is the same: the difference between social classes,” she says, proudly (33). However, these Marxist tenets clash with the strict society she lives in. In one vignette, she helps the family maid, Mehri, communicate with a neighborhood boy whom Mehri has a crush on. When Marji’s father finds out, he forbids Marji from continuing and tells her, “You must understand that their love was impossible[…]in this country you must stay within your own social class” (37). Young Marji cannot understand the intricacies of her economic reality, and so responds stubbornly, “Dad, are you for or against social classes?!” (37). On one level, Marji interacts regularly with her own financial privilege, a privilege that Western readers might assume a girl in Iran would not have.
But another part of her is unaware just how far that privilege goes. Marji learns that young boys from the poorer areas of Tehran are given keys at school and told that “if they went to war and were lucky enough to die, [those keys] would get them into heaven” (99). This knowledge is followed by one of the most iconic pages in Persepolis. The page has two panels, and the larger, upper one depicts shadowy, faceless figures with keys around their necks being exploded by mines, their bodies twisted in the air. Underneath this, a smaller panel depicts Marji and her friends dancing, with a caption stating, “Meanwhile, I got to go to my first party. Not only did my mom let me go, she also knitted me a sweater full of holes and made me a necklace with chains and nails. Punk rock was in” (102). The child soldiers’ contorted bodies mirror the raucous dancing of the party-goers, their key necklaces reflect Marji’s punk accessory, and their implied shrapnel wounds are reflections of her ‘sweater full of holes.’ As Naghibi and O’Malley write, “The effect of the comparison of scenes—necessitated by their arrangement on the page—is a profound indictment; far from being a political gesture, Marji and her friends’ consumption of punk subculture becomes a shallow indulgence of privilege” (240).
Leservot argues that this page is just one of many reminders in Persepolis of the “contrast between[…]two Irans, the westernized elite and middle-class, and the fundamentalist poor,” a contrast of which many Westerners are not even aware. His argument revolves around the idea that the Iranian upper- and middle-class construct a form of the West in their lives for different purposes at different parts of the text. Ironically, as above with the use of makeup as rebellion, the government’s strict ideologies inadvertently caused these constructions: “Just as the regime forced the Iranian poor into acting as Fundamentalists, promising them paradise for de-mining war fields, it also indirectly fostered a particular westernization of the elite and middle-class” (Leservot 123). At this stage, the West and its culture is a means of escape. “[Marji] has been seduced by a homogenous West, which she has carefully constructed so as to escape the realities of her own country.[…]she takes refuge in the superficial fun of western popular culture” (Leservot 123). It is poignant that this particular piece of Western pop culture is punk rock specifically, as Satrapi seems to mock the performative violence of punk culture by placing it next to actual, unconscionable violence.
Marji’s interest in Western culture, or the version of Western culture she constructs, continues as she gets older. In one particular vignette, her parents take a trip to Turkey and smuggle a denim jacket, a pin of Michael Jackson, a pair of Nikes, and two posters back for Marji. The posters are of Iron Maiden and Kim Wilde. A big fan of Wilde, Marji later goes out to buy one of her tapes on the black market, fully decked out in her new jacket, pin, and Nikes. On her way home, she is stopped by two members of the women’s branch of the Guardians of the Revolution, a group formed to put Iranian women “back on the straight and narrow by explaining the duties of Muslim women” (133). They threaten to take her to their headquarters, and Marji knows that if that happens she could be held indefinitely and even whipped. So, she lies. She tells them that the man on her button is Malcolm X and not Michael Jackson, and that she wears Nikes to play basketball on her school’s team. Finally, in desperation, she tells them that if she is late, her stepmother will burn her with an iron or even send her to an orphanage. They let her go, and Marji returns home, puts on her Kim Wilde tape, and starts singing along, “We’re the kids in America, whoao!” (134). A Western reading of this vignette might use Western codes of youth rebellion to understand it. She gets in trouble because she emulates Western fashion, but also her familiarity with Western figures gives her a way out when she claims that her pin depicts Malcolm X, “the leader of black Muslims in America,” even if this strategy doesn’t work. This reading suggests that the West always provides the way to freedom. As Naghibi and O’Malley write, “Ironically, Marji’s tame, by Western standards, teenage rebellion is transformed, for Western readers, into a profound statement of resistance and individualism in the menacing face of a totalitarian, fundamentalist Islamic theocracy” (238). Satrapi encourages the Western reader to identify with rebellion as a part of coming of age, but she also highlights the different ways power circulates depending on one’s location, class, religion, and gender. Marji’s rebellion, here and elsewhere in the text, is not simply the teenage rebellion of the United States, though it may appear that way to a Western reader. Botshon and Plastas speak to this when they write, “While American readers may appreciate Marji’s rebellion, they also must realize the great danger in which she places herself by wearing her jacket and Michael Jackson pin on the streets of Tehran” (7). To get the opportunity to experience just a small piece of Western culture, and rebel against the strict islamic government in the process, Marji willingly jeopardizes her own physical safety. This would rarely be an issue for rebellious Western teenagers, but it is Marji’s unavoidable reality. The song choice at the end of the chapter is a heavily ironic one, then, because what she has just experienced makes clear that she is definitely not a kid in America.
Earlier in this chapter, Satrapi uses visual elements to support, then subvert, the cross-cultural similarity implied by the shared consumption of American pop music, again challenging the reader to look beyond their own assumptions. The title of the chapter, “Kim Wilde,” is accompanied by the image of the light-colored eye, eyebrow, and hair of a woman we can only assume to be Wilde herself. This links the chapter back to the first chapter, “The Veil,” as this chapter’s heading image also depicts the eye and eyebrow of a woman from the same angle, although this woman wears a headscarf. While this image is black on white, as with most of the book, the image of Wilde’s eye is white on black, as it depicts her light-colored hair and probably blue eye. The two are visually similar, perhaps suggesting a commonality between a veiled Muslim woman and the secular rock star. But the colors are the exact opposite, highlighting their difference. Later, Marji stands in front of the Wilde poster she has just hung up and imitates the singer’s body position. This seeming similarity between the two is again also marked by difference, because Marji’s hair and top are dark while Wilde’s are light. Also, because Marji faces the poster, her stance and Wilde’s are mirror images of each other, a mirror image being the same but also the exact opposite. This chapter might lend itself to a reading of the text that foregrounds Western aesthetics and tastes as universal. However, the connection to Marji’s mirror stance and the image accompanying “The Veil,” subverts this reading by stressing difference and cultural specificity.
Satrapi’s choice of the graphic novel as a medium allows her to continue to challenge the reader to look past their assumptions about Iranian culture. As Naghibi and O’Malley put it, “The ‘cartooniness’ of her drawings encourages the reader to see herself in Marji, to see the self in the other, to erase all differences in a gesture of ‘cultural understanding’” (228-229). This provides a Western reader with a way into the story, even though its content is often alien both to Western culture and to Western constructions of Iranian culture. But erasing cultural differences is not her main aim in using a ‘cartoony’ style, and Naghibi and O’Malley go further to offer the claim that, “by adopting a naïve, childlike drawing style, [and] working in a medium associated primarily with either low-brow or juvenile readers and narratives, she effectively ‘camouflages’ the complex politics of identity and nation Marji’s story raises in the guise of simplicity and universal accessibility” (234). Furthermore, the minimalistic, black and white, drawn images allow for more freedom in terms of representing the regular violence of the text, such as the child soldiers being exploded by landmines. As Satrapi herself says, “I cannot take the idea of a man cut into pieces and just write it.[…]It would not be anything but cynical. That’s why I drew it. People are not ready to read a book about all the misery of the Third World, and I don’t blame them” (qtd. in Botshon and Plastas, 7). Satrapi’s artistic style gives readers the opportunity to investigate their own ideas and assumptions about Iranian culture without being too blatantly critical of them, and also presents a common elements of that culture, violence, in an accessible and safer manner.
When Marji is a teenager, her parents decide to send her to a French school in Austria, and it is in this section that Satrapi challenges Western constructions of Iran the most. Though most students at her Viennese school seem uninterested in becoming her friend, she eventually makes a friend named Julie who then introduces Marji to her own group of friends. When she meets one friend, Momo, Julie says, “This is Marjane. She’s Iranian. She’s known war,” to which Momo replies, “War?!” and “You’ve already seen lots of dead people?” Her new friends are very interested in philosophy, specifically philosophy about death, so her experiences excite them and she is quickly welcomed into the group. While Marji is excited to be accepted, the reader can see that their interest in her is not because of who she is, but rather because “she’s known war,” a phrase they often repeat (166). She is, to them, more of an exotic commodity than a friend. This, unfortunately, is one of the more positive experiences that Marji has in Austria. Many people she meets have assumptions about either her country of origin or her skin color. When she eats straight from the pan in the nun’s home she temporarily stays in, a nun tells her, “It’s true what they say about Iranians. They have no education” (177). When a man hits on her at a bar, she tells him that she is French, because, as she puts it, “At the time, Iran was the epitome of evil and to be Iranian was a heavy burden to bear. It was easier to lie than to assume that burden” (195). An old man on a bus calls her a “dirty foreigner” and tells her to “get out!” (220). And lastly, when she goes to the home of her boyfriend, his mother accuses her of “taking advantage of [her son] and his situation to obtain an Austrian passport,” accuses her of being a “witch,” and screams at her, like the man on the bus, to “get out!” (220). This instance is the most surprising to Marji, because although she had tried to write off what happened on the bus as “just the reaction of a nasty old man,” she is shocked that someone she actually knows would treat her this unkindly (220). In this section, Satrapi asks the Western reader to acknowledge this, then re-evaluate their own relationships with, and treatment of, people from other cultures. Later, back in Iran, Marji notes that “in the West you can collapse in the street and no one will give you a hand,” so, though a Western reader might assume that Western culture would be more ‘civilized’ than that of Iran, these episodes Marji experiences in Europe might indicate a more complex distinction.
For Leservot, Marji’s experience in Europe marks a turning point in his argument about Marji’s constructions of the West in the text. While Marji was previously shown to enjoy reading Western philosophy, such as Marx, and listening to Western music, such as Kim Wilde, Leservot argues that once in Europe, Marji realizes that the version of the West she has constructed for herself, a version unchallenged by reality, is in sharp contrast with her experiences in the actual West. Leservot zooms in on one particular moment, her first Austrian party. She is excited about the party until it comes, and in a full-page panel depicting the scene of the party, she sits alone, wide-eyed and obviously uncomfortable while others lie around smoking, laughing, and kissing. As Satrapi writes in the two captions surrounding the panel, “The party was not what I imagined. In Iran, at parties, everyone would dance and eat. In Vienna, people preferred to lie around and smoke. And then, I was turned off by all these public displays of affection. What do you expect, I came from a traditionalist country” (185). Leservot points out that, “When a regime forbids you from using any western product[…], transgressing these rules mean[s] acquiring western objects on the black market, further reducing western culture to clichéd products of consumption while preventing any real understanding of how people (not objects) interact in western culture” (125). Marji is puzzled by her new surroundings because the Iranian government has made it difficult for Iranians to interact with the West other than through objects. Satrapi encourages the Western reader to take advantage of the fact that they have no such limitations.
When Marji returns to Iran, she has a newfound sense of the West that she brings with her into her art. She wants to attend art school, but first she must pass the National Exam. In the drawing segment, she creates a reworking of Michelangelo’s “La Pietà” in which Mary is replaced by a grieving mother and Jesus is replaced by the body of an Iranian soldier, a ‘martyr.’ She adorns the top of the picture with images of tulips, which she explains in a footnote was because, “It’s said that red tulips grow from the blood of martyrs” (281). This is yet another example of how Satrapi challenges the Western reader. As Naghibi and O’Malley write, “This is a remarkable example of the shifting significations in Satrapi’s texts: the assumptions of recognition and familiarity experienced by a Western reader are constantly undermined by the interjection of culturally specific and unfamiliar references” (230). This drawing, along with the Iranian mythology-themed amusement park she designs later, is an example of how she feels changed by her experiences in the West. This change effects a depression, and she says, “My calamity could be summarized in one sentence: I was nothing. I was a Westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West. I had no identity. I didn’t even know anymore why I was living” (272). She feels like a mix of different cultures, and her art reflects that. Leservot even argues that she uses this slightly Western-inspired art “to survive mentally and socially in her country as well as to subvert governmental propaganda” (128). Marji’s art combines Western influences, such as Christ and gaudy amusement parks, and Iranian influences, such as tulips and Persian mythology, and so Satrapi challenges the Western view that the West and the East, as ‘othering’ decrees, are exact and complete opposites.
Education is a major and important aspect of Marji’s life in Persepolis, and Satrapi uses this to again challenge Western ideas of Middle Eastern womanhood, namely, that Middle Eastern women are always uneducated. This Western assumption is even directly reproduced in the text in the cruel words from the nun, discussed above, who states that Marji’s table manners have confirmed her assumption that Iranians “have no education” (177). However, in Marji’s life, this could not be further from the truth. As a result of her parents’ philosophical interests, Marji gets absorbed into the world of reading at an early age, as stated above, and this becomes a commonality between every stage of her life. When it is announced on TV that the Ministry of Education will be closing all schools and universities temporarily so that the “decadent” educational system and school texts can be “revised to ensure that our children are not led astray from the true path of Islam,” Marji’s mother erupts with a loud “Oh no!” (73). When her mother later finds out that Marji has skipped school to spend time with her friends, she exclaims, “Now is the time for learning. You have your whole life to have fun! What are you going to be when you grow up? In this country you have to know everything better than anyone else if you’re going to survive!!” (113). Her parents heavily foreground education, and this shapes Marji’s growth as she passes through the equivalent of elementary school in Iran, the equivalent of high school in Austria, and art school upon her return to her home country. The availability of schooling for Marji is, of course, aided by her family’s higher economic status, but this still challenges Western beliefs about women in Islamic countries.
The theme of education takes on a new dimension for the Western reader, in that Satrapi uses the text itself to educate those readers on the realities of Iranian life. When asked about her aims in writing Persepolis, Satrapi answered that “I wanted to put a few things straight.[…]When I arrived in France [her current country of residence], I met many people who expected me to speak Arabic. So many Europeans do not know that difference between Arabs and Iranians. They don’t know anything of our centuries-old culture” (qtd. in Botshon and Plastas, 3). She uses many different opportunities throughout the book to teach the reader about the complexity of that ‘centuries-old culture,’ explaining through the historical background-based introduction, various monologues, family stories, and illustrations that Western discussions of Iran that mostly connect her “old and great civilization” to “fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terror,” are “far from the truth” (Introduction). Botshon and Plastas, in their Persepolis teaching notes, identify this aspect of the text as transversalism, a term conceived of by Italian feminists meaning, “the process by which people designated as enemies or others form new understandings of each other” (2). Persepolis allows the Western reader to go about that process and enables them, as one student of the two teachers puts it, “to re-think [their] ideas of people, particularly Iranians,” and to learn that “what we [see] in the media […isn’t] completely true” (Botshon and Plastas 7).
Because of this aspect, Persepolis practically begs to be taught in the modern classroom. Botshon and Plastas find that teaching the book “offers the potential to begin to disrupt U.S. audiences’ one-dimensional image of Iran and Iranian women[…]encourag[ing] students to skirt the wall of intolerance and participate in a more complex conversation about Iranian history, U.S. politics, and the gendered interstices of war” (12). This complexity is precisely what Satrapi is after, and Perin Gurel speaks to this point in her notes on teaching Islam and transnational feminism. Gurel argues that an educator teaching about those two items in tandem “should strive to do three things: historicize feminism, historicize Islam, and highlight the complexities of representation” (67). First, instead of only presenting the historical successes and positive sides of feminism, an educator should also present what the author calls “crises” of Western/white feminism, especially its insistence on the unifying aspect of gender alone, disregarding race and class. Marji learns about her class in regards to womanhood in the vignette about her family maid, which ends with the intriguing phrase, “We were not in the same social class but at least we were in the same bed” (37). This shows Marji dealing with the juxtaposition of her personal connection to, and cultural separation from, her close friend and maid. Secondly, instead of only presenting the negative aspects of being a woman in Islamic countries, an educator should investigate the role women play in contemporary Islamic movements. As discussed above, the way Satrapi presents this role involves much more agency than a Westerner might assume, and makes clear that Iranian women fight for what they believe in. Thirdly, the educator must present the “complexities of representation” of both Islam and feminism. In Satrapi’s text, no two Muslims are the same, no two Iranians are the same, no two Austrians are the same, no two men are the same, no two women are the same; they are all complex renderings of believable people, operating in and out of these greater schemas and still maintaining an individuality. With the help of Satrapi, the Western reader can take in the complicated existences of these well-realized characters, instead of planting them firmly in one religious, ethnic, gendered camp or the other. Gurel claims that “[…]Persepolis is a […] nuanced text that does not give Western colonialism a free pass, even though it powerfully narrates the tragic consequences of extremism in post-revolutionary Iran,” and it is in this liminal space between Western and Iranian views that Satrapi acts as an educator herself, helping Westerners take a look at their previously-held beliefs in a new light.
In a 2005 blog post on the New York Times website, Satrapi describes her first experience visiting the U.S. in 2003 to promote Persepolis. Lack of French support for the war on terror meant that France, Satrapi’s country of residence, “was an unofficial member of the axis of evil. At least that’s what I thought: day in and day out, French TV and newspapers were talking about Americans changing the name of ‘French fries’ to ‘freedom fries,’ about the boycott of French products and Americans emptying expensive bottles of French wine in the street” (Satrapi). As with Americans’ view of Iran, the French view of the U.S. was twisted by the media. And this worked both ways, as Satrapi describes an experience during her own book signing in New York at which a woman asked, “Can you explain to us why the French hate us so much?” (Satrapi). Oversimplified, ‘othering’ understandings of each other’s culture, driven by the media, led to fear and confusion on both sides. Experiencing both places, however, and interacting with the actual people, instead of a construction of them, allowed Satrapi a unique way into the situation, and she was able to see that both assumptions were simplistic. She tells the woman at her reading that it is Bush’s policies, not the American people themselves, that the French had an issue with, and at a New York restaurant she was surprised to see that with her steak she “was served these famous French fries and a glass of Bordeaux” (Satrapi). ‘Othering’ affects all cross-cultural relationships, and Satrapi seeks to combat this reality in Persepolis. She gives people unfamiliar with the realities of Iran, primarily Westerners, an opportunity to think transversally, challenge their cultural assumptions, and educate themselves on the shared humanity of people across the globe.
Botshon, Lisa, and Melinda Plastas. “Homeland In/Security: A Discussion and Workshop on Teaching Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 20, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–14. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/femteacher.20.1.0001.
While the teaching notes from Perin are centered around teaching transnational feminism and suggesting Persepolis as a possible resource, Botshon and Plastas’ piece is focused on teaching Persepolis itself, and the benefits seen in their classrooms resulting from such a choice. They teach the book for two reasons, the first being the fact that “it provides a creative venue for classroom discussions about nation, citizenship, gender, and war,” and the second being the fact that the book “offers a transversal space in which students can question Western notions about the Middle East” (2). Leading their students towards transversal thinking, in terms of gender and nationality, is their main focus throughout the essay. They first address teaching the book in a post-9/11 classroom and the benefits it holds for such a situation, then move on to discuss the ways in which the book allows their students to discuss the oft-ignored topic of the ways that war is gendered.
Their argument to teach Persepolis in the classroom is absolutely a sound one (though perhaps I could be biased on that front). By combining analysis of particular sections of the book and student responses to said sections, Botshon and Plastas weave an argument guided by ideas and evidence from the classroom. Though touching on some theory, especially when it comes to transverse thinking, the entire argument is grounded by quotes from actual students, making it a very effective argument indeed.
This piece is a great companion to Gurel’s piece on teaching transnational feminism, as it takes the ideas and brings them into the classroom itself. Its nitty-gritty student response details will bring the latter half of my argument, the part about the book’s solution to cultural close-mindedness being education, to life. The article will connect the more theoretical pieces to the very real classroom.
Ghadishah, Arash. “Questions for Marjane Satrapi.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 22 Feb. 2008, abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=4332648&page=1. Accessed 17 Jan. 2018.
In this interview given shortly before the 2008 Academy Awards, at which the film version of Persepolis was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Satrapi discusses her reasons for writing her book and her concerns regarding her newfound fame. She focuses on the concept of humanizing her people, and keeping the West from continuing to view Iranians as “abstract concepts,” rather than human beings.
Though it does not carry a single argument, the personal nature of interview allows Satrapi to communicate her point, that of humanizing Iranians, in way that humanizes her as both the little girl in her book and as the adult woman who now writes and directs movies. The explanation of Persepolis’ aim is very clear, and the allusion to Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” statement again places the interview, if indirectly, in the very real political landscape.
The interview, especially her stated aim of humanizing the Iranian people, fits right in with her earlier blog post and the teaching resources especially. It is rare, also, to get a real description of the aim of a written text from the author themselves, and so this interview provides a window into the mind of the artist, illuminating the text.
Gurel, Perin. “Transnational Feminism, Islam, and the Other Woman: How to Teach.” The Radical Teacher, University of Illinois Press, 1 Dec. 2009, www.jstor.org/stable/20710519.
Gurel’s article focuses on teaching transnational feminism in America, especially in regards to Islam. She describes the assumptions and simplistic claims about Islam from both the academic and personal sphere, identifying the fact that Westerners often view women in Islamic countries as powerless victims of their oppressive culture. In fact, Gurel argues, women in such situations who wish to become respected voices in the West must denounce their culture in that way as well. Essentially, Gurel champions transnational feminism and guides educators who wish to teach about women and Islam in a way that does not fall prey to such assumptions.
Gurel suggests that any such educator “should strive to do three things: historicize feminism, historicize Islam, and highlight the complexities of representation” (67). Instead of only presenting the historical successes and positive sides of feminism, an educator should also present what the author calls “crises” of Western/white feminism, both its insistence on the unifying aspect of gender alone, and its inherent connections to imperialism. Instead of only presenting the negative aspects of being a woman in Islamic countries, an educator should investigate the role women play in contemporary Islamic movements. And thirdly, an educator must present all of these differing versions and constantly highlight the complexities of representing Islamic culture in the West.
Gurel’s article is based on teaching, which will provide both good fodder for my unit plan but also provides a solid basis for my investigation into the educative aspects of Persepolis. Most importantly, however, Gurel’s article focuses on Western assumptions about the Muslim world, and, specifically, how to combat those assumptions through education.
Leservot, Typhaine. “Occidentalism: Rewriting the West in Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persépolis.’” French Forum, vol. 36, no. 1, 2011, pp. 115–130. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41306680.
Leservot’s article begins as a response to Naghibi and O’Malley’s. While he states that their claim that Satrapi challenges the oppositional relationship between East and West is convincing, Leservot believes that they take “Satrapi’s images of the West at face value” (115). His focus is the way in which Persepolis portrays the West, and how those representations, or Iranian Occidentalisms, reflect the political realities of Persepolis’ timeframe in Iranian history. He first gives an overview of the concept of Occidentalism and its historical contexts, then moves to a focused analysis of Satrapi’s text, identifying the different representations of the West in each of the book’s four sections, and analyzing the meaning of each.
Leservot’s argument could not exist without the historical background of Occidentalism that he provides in the first body section. Identifying the sheer variety of definitions that have been applied to Occidentalism makes it clear that while Orientalism has been studied heavily as a result of the lasting, visible effects of colonialism, Occidentalism is much harder to track. It is important, however, that Leservot does not dwell on the theoretical for too long, and his analysis of Occidentalisms in Satrapi’s text is the heart of the argument. This results in an examination of the book as a reflection of its history, rather that a theoretical argument on the exact definition of the term. I believe this choice was the right one, as it is much more manageable and convincing this way.
Leservot’s article saliently provides both a counterpoint to and an extension of Naghibi and O’Malley’s, confirming their hypothesis that Persepolis challenges Western notions of the East (Orientalisms) while also suggesting that the characters in the text, including Marjane, construct similarly incorrect notions of the West. He goes even further, and describes the ‘why’ of each such construction, showing the relationship between Occidentalisms and the oppressively anti-Western regime of post-revolutionary Iran. This interaction between sources would provide a richer understanding of this aspect of the text.
Naghibi, N. & O’Malley, A. “Estranging the Familiar: ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Satrapi’s Persepolis.” ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 1 no. 2, 2005, pp. 223-247. MLA International Bibliography, doi:10.1353/esc.2007.0026. Accessed 4 December 2017.
In their article, “Estranging the Familiar: ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Satrapi’s Persepolis,” Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley focus on the ways in which Persepolis presents both the West and the East, especially in regard to that presentation in the West. The authors list similar works being produced in Iran and by Iranian women, yet state that only two, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Satrapi’s Persepolis, have enjoyed renown. Persepolis’, the authors argue, comes from its constant challenging of Western views of the East, of childhood experience, and of the assumed universality of that experience, thereby ‘Estranging the Familiar’.
Naghibi and O’Malley approach their argument by first addressing the other similar text of renown, Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. The authors state that this text’s renown comes from the way it fits into Western assumptions of Iran. As they put it, “While Persepolis forces the Western reader to work hard to understand the complexities of contemporary Iranian political and social dynamics, Lolita serves up the usual fare of the oppression of Iranian women under a fundamentalist state for the uncritical consumption of Western readers” (224). The authors then move to the ways in which Satrapi challenges the Western reader through her text’s resistance to fit within any single genre, her use of both cartoonish illustration and the graphic novel format, her simple language and color palette, and the content of the text itself. Naghibi and O’Malley effectively argue that Persepolis constantly resists easy consumption by Western readers.
The article’s rich engagement with the East/West divide makes it prime material for both analysis and teaching of Persepolis. Because the authors engage with both form and content in so many different ways, they provide a solid basis for further investigation into most, if not all, aspects of the text, including the memoir form, the history and culture of Iran, the influence of both the form and history of comics on the text, and the experience of childhood. They also center much of what they argue on a concept from Gayatri Spivak that Naghibi and O’Malley paraphrase: “the radical difference of the other is defused by its absorption into the normative center, the West” (226). This idea is a rich way to get students thinking more deeply about the consumption of Eastern media from the position of Western readers.
Satrapi, Marjane. “Defending My Country.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2005, satrapi.blogs.nytimes.com/2005/11/28/defending-my-country/.
In this short blog entry from 2005, Satrapi describes her first trip to the U.S. in 2003, a portion of her tour promoting Persepolis. She outlines her initial nervousness and assumptions about what she would see, a few specific interactions while on her trip, and a related experience upon her return to France. The blog entry is also illustrated, and Satrapi uses her characteristic artistic style to illustrate her experiences in some places, and to give life to her fears in others.
Satrapi’s main focus is her own experience of assumptions held by members of one culture about another culture. She feels the she must defend Iranian and French culture to Americans, and the variety of American viewpoints to her French colleagues. Much of what she writes about here is framed by the anti-Iran and anti-France foreign policy of George W. Bush, as he had been freshly re-elected the year before the post was published. The post is not a critical one, and makes no specific argument, which makes its argument hard to assess. However, the personal nature of the piece gives us insight into the experience of Satrapi’s multicultural existence into adulthood.
Though not a critical source, Satrapi’s post gives insight into the idea of one culture’s assumptions about another’s, and how those can be combated, or, at least, questioned. Persepolis itself touches on these ideas, but bringing in a later perspective from the author herself would provide a broader investigation of these ideas, both in the world of Persepolis and in the real world. Also, the illustrations, while clearly similar to those in her book, still hold some slight variations that might be useful to analyze.