- Estranging the Familiar:"East" and "West" in Satrapi’s Persepolis1
Persepolis: The Story of A Childhood (2003) is Marjane Satrapi's highly acclaimed coming-of-age story set in revolutionary Iran. It is part of a new wave of autobiographical writing by diasporic Iranian women, which includes such authors as Tara Bahrampour (To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America, 2000), Gelareh Assayesh (Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America, 2002), Firoozeh Dumas (Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America, 2003), Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, 2003), Roya Hakakian (Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, 2004), and Azadeh Moaveni (Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran, 2005), not to mention Satrapi's own sequel Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (2004), and Embroideries (2005). These women are using the autobiographical form, one virtually unheard of for Iranian women authors until recently, to help them come to terms with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and their new lives in the diaspora. As a means of mapping out the complexities and contingencies of identity, autobiography has been accorded a privileged status in postcolonial and diasporic contexts, and these texts can be viewed as part of this recent trend.2 However, the use of the autobiographical genre has traditionally been discouraged in [End Page 223] Iran, particularly for women. As Farzaneh Milani and Afsaneh Najmabadi have observed, autobiographical stories have been perceived as a form of metaphorical unveiling as indecorous as physical unveiling.3
Nonetheless, diasporic Iranian women writers have recently been using the genre to challenge the stereotype of the self-effacing, modest Iranian woman and to write themselves back into the history of the nation. Where Persepolis differs from these other Iranian diasporic autobiographies is in its use of a child narrator and of another Western form, the comic book. This unique combination produces a text that regularly juxtaposes the familiar with the alien. At the moment that the text promises the comfort of stable meaning, it effects a slippage that subverts expectations and undermines its promises. These slippages take on a potent political charge in the context of a long-standing and fraught history of Middle Eastern (particularly Iranian) and Western (particularly American) relations. Satrapi's text offers a significant intervention in this highly polarized era of East/West relations. Her text plays the increasingly mobilized stereotypes of the Islamic Republic as oppressive and backward against the Western conviction over its own progressive liberalism in ways that contest both of these scripts.
The 2003 English edition of Persepolis (translated from the French) has attracted a degree of attention that does not compare to the reception of other recent books by diasporic Iranian women, with the exception of Azar Nafisi's bestselling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Reading Lolita is, in many ways, the antithesis of Persepolis. While Persepolis defies easy categorization, Lolita places itself squarely within a conservative, canonical Western literary critical tradition. 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. While Persepolis challenges [End Page 224] Western preconceptions of Iran and Iranian women, Lolita merely reinforces them. The following passage is characteristic of Nafisi's style of representation. In it, she imagines one of her female students making the trip home from their clandestine literature class in the author's house. The young woman, Sanaz, veils herself and her demeanour changes from spirited to downtrodden:
You might notice that her gait and her gestures have changed. It is in her best interest not to be seen, not to be heard or noticed. She doesn't walk upright, but bends her head towards the ground and doesn't look at passersby…. You might well ask, What is Sanaz thinking as she walks the streets of Tehran? How much does this experience affect her? … Does she feel humiliated by the new...