We expected Marjane Satrapi to be scary. The whispers in Time Out’s ear suggested that she doesn’t grant many interviews and that her publicist is very protective, which seldom spells ‘friendly chatterbox’. Most people know Satrapi as the writer and artist behind Persepolis, the comic series-turned-Oscar-nominated film about her experiences of growing up amid the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, and later as a teenager in Europe, having fled the regime. But Satrapi wrote Persepolis a decade ago – she’s probably sick of talking about it. Which may explain why she’s not fond of talking to journalists. ‘Yes, of course I’m sick of it,’ she says, on the phone to Time Out from her home in Paris. ‘I’ve been talking about it for a long time. Sometimes it’s extremely bothering; I get bored.
I have other works, too.’ It’s true, but nothing has spoken to quite as many people as Persepolis has – and it continues to make waves. During the unrest that followed the Iranian presidential election of 2009, a new work, Persepolis 2.0, appeared online (www.spreadpersepolis.com). Written by a pair referring to themselves only as Payman and Sina, it uses Satrapi’s drawings from the original Persepolis, but the text tells the story of those who believe that the election was rigged in favour of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the alleged favourite (and liberal reformist) Mir-Hossein Mousavi. (Many liberal Iranians used the internet to spread their message in the aftermath of the 2009 elections because the Iranian government was reportedly blocking news broadcasts to Tehran.) Still, Satrapi seems ill at ease with the idea that Persepolis could mean so much. ‘I have always resisted that, to become this icon or whatever – it’s not a role that I embrace or that I’m looking for,’ she tells us. ‘I’m not the voice of a generation, I’m not a political representative. I’m a human being that was born in a certain place and time, and I wrote an extremely subjective point of view that was my memory of that period.’
If Satrapi sounds like the irritable prima donna we’d been led to expect, that isn’t the impression we get at all. Instead, she seems genuinely confused (and, as a result, exasperated) by the attention and adulation that Persepolis has earned. When we ask whether she imagined it would be such a success, she responds: ‘Oh no, my God!’ (Satrapi is an extremely animated conversationalist, even over the phone). ‘Not only did I not think it would be a success, I never even thought anyone would want to publish it. Especially in France. You think: Who would be interested in that? Who cares?’
For the uninitiated, Persepolis is both a memoir and a coming-of-age novel that begins as Iran’s Islamic republic is instated, much to the horror of Satrapi’s socialist family. At the age of 14, her parents send her to Vienna, where she experiments with sex and drugs before returning to Tehran as an adult. She says her story is not about politics, but more how a person grows up and is shaped when events around them are ‘bigger than the individual’. But surely something like Persepolis 2.0 shows its political impact? How does she feel about its part in recent revolutionary thinking? At this, Satrapi softens, and seems to reconsider everything she has just said. ‘Flattered,’ she admits. ‘It means the work has already become a classic, and I’m just 40 years old. And maybe it touched so many people that it has become this icon. Maybe I wasn’t so wrong. It has made me much more comfortable with what I have said.’
Why would she be wrong? It’s understandable that Satrapi may struggle to fully appreciate Persepolis. The story is an attempt to comprehend herself and how she became who she is, but the work itself has produced complications. Even as a child in the comic, it’s obvious that Satrapi feels a strong connection to her country, yet she can’t return to Iran precisely because of what she has written. The government complained about the film version (first released in French and later in English, featuring the voices of Sean Penn and Iggy Pop) before it had even debuted at Cannes.
‘Iran is my country and it will always be my country,’ she says when asked how she feels about this. ‘Even though I live in France and I’m married to a Swedish man, Iran is my homeland and that will never change. Ninety-nine per cent of the time I speak English or French, but when I speak Persian, there are things I feel that I cannot feel when spoken in [another language]. My husband has learned Persian so that when he says “I love you”, he will say it in Persian, because then I really feel it.’
Being kept from Iran is painful for Satrapi, but she insists we shouldn’t feel sorry for her. ‘I live from my passion; I have a great life,’ she tells us. She is currently working on a live action film adaptation of her most recent graphic novel, Chicken with Plums. And she’s excited about EAFL, revealing her enthusiasm about the UAE as a cultural centre for the Middle East. ‘Art and literature are more important than we realise,’ she argues. ‘It’s how people connect. Take that out of a society and nothing of the civilisation would be left.’ She pauses, then confesses: ‘Other than art, I don’t believe in anything.’
A handy guide to Marjane Satrapi’s must-read graphic novels.
Originally released as a series of comics, Persepolis is now available as a single graphic novel. It documents Satrapi’s life, from her childhood amid the Islamic Revolution in Iran to a troubled adolescence away from her family in Europe.
Published by Pantheon
Satrapi plumbs her family history again in this account of arriving for tea at her grandmother’s house and hearing her female relatives tell all about their sex lives. The tragi-comic tales paint a portrait of sex and love in past and contemporary Iran.
Published by Pantheon
Chicken with Plums
Though the main character is Satrapi’s great uncle, she tells Time Out that most of the story is ‘made up’. When his wife destroys his favourite instrument, an Iranian lute, he refuses to eat and takes to his bed to die. Inside his mind as he lives out the last days of his life, we experience flashbacks, flash-forwards – and we even see Sophia Loren.
Published by Pantheon