Politics of Persepolis

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“If I have one message to give to the secular American people, it’s that the world is not divided into countries. The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk together and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same.”

-Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is a graphic novel that was written and illustrated by Marjane Satrapi. It illustrates the life of a semi-fictional character, Marji, whom is actually based on Satrapi herself. Written partially as a memoir from Satrapi’s experiences during the Iranian revolution, this novel explores conflict between the East and the West in an admirable way. Persepolis serves to communicate the overarching theme that real human experience exists within abstract ideas- specifically, the ideological conflict between the West and the East. Satrapi designs her pages in a way that allows the reader to identify with the main character, Marji, as well as the experiences she undergoes. That is, in reading Persepolis, one gains an understanding of Marji that transcends the experience into which she has been typified. Satrapi’s story and art serve to express the realness of human experience within the East-West dichotomy by conveying relatable themes without falling prey to sensationalism or “othering”. Gillian Whitlock explains the “othering” that takes place within the “veiled best seller”:

“We are often blind to the more banal forms that deliver stories shaped by the colonial present, and veiled best-sellers are a case in point: they reproduce haunting and exotic oriental fantasies and engage our consent to trespass without shame.” -Gillian Whitlock

This perpetuation of “othering” that is so often found in the “veiled best seller” often hinders the reader’s ability to recognize the more mundane and familiar experiences that characterize the identities of those we are reading about. And, as Satrapi puts it, these experiences help us to see that many of the people we perceive as irreconcilably different, are more than capable of relating to each other on similar terms. As Sue Tait says, “mass mediated suffering tends to render audiences as passive consumers” (1225), thereby hindering their ability to bear witness, as mass mediated suffering lacks an explanation of why a traumatic event has occurred and what kind of action the consumer can take in response (1225). By avoiding “othering” (which is evident in many autobiographies distributed in Western book markets), Persepolis allows the reader to bear witness in the full sense of the term, by increasing the readers proximity and relation to those who are suffering. This stops the reader from viewing  suffering in the East as a distant or extraordinary phenomenon of which there is no clear explanation or cause. And in doing so, Persepolis also prevents the reader from viewing Marji’s pain as something that we are not accountable for, or able to respond to. One reason among many as to why Persepolis has received such widespread acclaim, has to do with the fact that it breaks the mould of the “veiled best seller” in such a meaningful way.