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A life in graphic detail

Iranian exile's memoirs draw readers into her experience

She starts with an apology. "I've never learned any English," Marjane Satrapi tells an audience of 200 gathered in the third-floor conference room of Simmons College. "My second language is French." What the 34-year-old author doesn't need to say is that her first language is Farsi and that her home country is Iran. The fans gathered at the school have already read last year's "Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood," her graphic novel-cum-memoir that explores in black-and-white images her life from age 9 to the moment her worried parents sent their teenager to study in Vienna to escape the drama of Iran's revolution. Now the Simmons crowd wants to hear her talk about "Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return," released last month, which offers intimate details about Satrapi's tumultuous experiences in Austria -- drugs, homelessness, a suicide attempt -- and her ultimate return home. No, English is not her first or second language, but she expresses herself well enough to leave the crowd laughing and scrambling to get its books signed.

Satrapi is one of the new stars of the graphic novel genre. Think of her creations as a grown-up version of the comic book. "The readership tends to skew a little older, late 20s," says Jonah Weiland, who operates Comic Book Resources, a website filled with news about the comic world. "It's more female-friendly than the typical monthly comic book. Generally graphic novels have a broader appeal. Their stories aren't crafted for 16-year-old boys."

The genre traces its roots to 1986, the year Art Spiegelman used cartoon images of mice and cats to tell the story of the Holocaust in "Maus." "Ghost World," "From Hell," "The Road to Perdition," and "American Splendor" are some of the titles that made the journey from graphic novel to film. Next up? Director Robert Rodriguez adapts Frank Miller's graphic novel "Sin City" with Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba in starring roles.

Lately an increasing number of ethnic voices are
joining the graphic novel fray. Aaron McGruder, creator of the comic strip "The Boondocks," released his socio-political satire "Birth of a Nation" this summer. The new series "Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan"
tells the story of Sudan's orphans in comic-book form. Ho Che Anderson's three-volume "King" is an illustrated biography of the slain civil rights leader. "It's become an acceptable medium for discussing serious matters," says Hamid Naficy, a professor of film and media studies at Rice University. In the case of Satrapi's "Persepolis" books, he says, the images "provide kind of a visual supplement to the words that makes it easier for people -- foreigners and whatnot -- to imagine what she's talking about." But Naficy adds, "In some ways ("Persepolis") plays into the stereotype of Iran as a veiled nation."

The glowing words that accompanied Satrapi's first graphic novel outing have turned into mixed reviews for "Persepolis 2." Florida's St. Petersburg Times struck a blow to the book and the genre when it suggested "it might be difficult to tell (internally emotional stories) using pictures and inch-long bits of text." But Satrapi's success can't be denied. The "Persepolis" series has sold almost a half million copies worldwide. It ascended to No. 17 on The New York Times's hardcover nonfiction bestseller list. Today about 160 colleges and high schools in the United States use "Persepolis" for gender or political science classes.

Political is personal
That fame didn't stop Satrapi from experiencing a torturous entrance into this country when she arrived earlier this month from France, where she has lived since leaving Iran in 1994. The author, who still possesses her Iranian passport, was held for questioning for more than two hours at New York's JFK airport. "They were saying I had to have an (exit) stamp in my passport from the last time I was here," she says, recounting the tale in the lobby of her downtown Boston hotel the day after the Simmons College reading.

The official called her a liar, she says. She explained that she was an invited guest. They took her fingerprints. "Apparently my fingerprints are not good enough," she says, rubbing the tips of her offending appendages. "They accused me of having put something on my fingers." The badgering escalated until it reached a point where Satrapi thought, "Either I'd have to slap him or do something." She started crying. The official told her, "Oh lady, you don't need to cry." Satrapi replied: "I know I don't need to cry -- you pushed me to cry. Two different things."

The experience and how she handled it say a lot about the author. She's uncompromising and blunt, but there's something charming and humble about her that takes the edge off her words. She arrives in the hotel lobby funkily dressed in a brown jacket, orange T-shirt, jeans skirt, and towering black suede platform shoes. Just like in her graphic novels, you see the black dot of a birthmark on the right side of her nose. She uses Jackie-O-style sunglasses as a headband to keep her lush, dark hair out of her face.

Satrapi doesn't invite the reporter up to the hotel room where she and her husband are staying. His name? "I wouldn't say," she says. So much of her private life is poured into her graphic novels that she wants to keep something for herself. Anyway, the 32-year-old Swede is publicity-shy. "He's always hidden in back," says Satrapi. "He doesn't want to be in the photos."

Upon finding a quiet spot in the hotel lobby, Satrapi immediately launches into a riff about how difficult the hotel makes it for smokers.

Reporter: "It's for your health."

Satrapi: "If they had to forbid everything that's bad for the health they shouldn't permit lots of things."

The pain of this country's no-smoking laws is a recurring subject for her. She also devotes a lot of time to criticizing President Bush. During the reading she talks about some panels in "Persepolis 2" that take place after she returns to Iran and becomes accustomed to its strict laws. One day, in a panic during a street raid by officials, she accuses an innocent man of saying something indecent to her. Those words forced officials to focus on the alleged offender rather than the illegal lipstick Satrapi had slathered on her lips to please her boyfriend.

"When you are scared you don't think anymore," she told the Simmons audience, explaining her actions. Then she relates the experience to present-day America, where, she says, the current Bush administration has "scared people so much that they've lost any sense of criticism."

Those are dangerous words in a time when Whoopi Goldberg loses a Slim-Fast spokesperson job for criticizing Bush. Leave it to Anjali Singh, the Vintage Books editor who translated Satrapi's graphic novels from French to English for Pantheon Books, to act as explicator and peacemaker for Satrapi. "She has very strong politics," Singh says, "but her message is about the universality of cultures. . . . The message she wants to get across is, `We're all human beings, and we all have choices to make.' " In this way, Satrapi makes the political personal.

That is why Satrapi seems slightly confused when she's asked about the limits of the graphic-novel form and whether the medium can adequately capture the homesickness, displacement, and isolation that she experiences in the first half of "Persepolis 2." First she brushes away the criticism, because she thinks that comes with the release of any second book. "They discovered the first one," says Satrapi, "and then the second one they don't have anything anymore to discover."

Then she suggests that the problems in "Persepolis 2" reflect her own faults as an artist and writer. "Maybe I haven't been successful," Satrapi says. "That is one thing. But saying that the graphic novel is not able to do that is absolutely false because . . . there are so many graphic novels that talk about internal feeling."

Preserving the past
Satrapi is one of a growing number of first- and second-generation Iranian women using the memoir form to tell stories about their experiences growing up in Iran, says Naficy. Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran," currently resides at No. 2 on The New York Times's paperback nonfiction bestseller list. It's no coincidence that these exiled women chose this form of storytelling. They write memoirs, says Naficy, because they "couldn't go back, so they imagined what it was like in Iran. . . . By writing they wanted to preserve something of what had been destroyed -- and also understand history."

Even the name Satrapi chose for her graphic novels offers an insight into history. "Persepolis" is the ancient Greek name for Iran that literally means "city of Persians." In Satrapi's mind, most people's perceptions of Iran start the year of its revolution -- 1979, when radical students took 52 members of the US embassy in Iran hostage. She chose the title to let readers know that thousands of years of experiences inform the present-day situation. But the word "Persepolis" also alludes to a calmer time in Iranian history, says Naficy. "It's before the destruction and invasion of Iran in the 7th century. So a lot of Iranians have harked back on the history of Iran before Arabs and Muslims invaded the area."

Articles that accompanied Satrapi's first visit to the States last year never failed to mention that she comes from a family that descends from Iranian kings. Satrapi, who describes her parents in the first volume of "Persepolis" as "caviar leftists," eagerly sets the record straight.

"Listen, my family is not the elite," she says. "No, no, no, no, no." A better description is middle class or perhaps upper middle class, she says. Then she concedes that since the middle class has disappeared in today's Iran, her parents probably do reside in the elite section of the class map.

As for her mother being the great-granddaughter of King Nasseredin Shah, a member of Iran's Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1779 until 1925? Yes, it's true, says Satrapi. "But you have to know the kings of the Qajar dynasty, they had hundreds of wives. They made thousands of kids. If you multiply these kids by generation you have, I don't know, 10-15,000 princes [and princesses]. There's nothing extremely special about that."

Growing up, Satrapi always drew. In "Persepolis 2," she remembers making caricatures of her teachers as a child in Iran. When she attended school in Vienna one of her first assignments was to write a book report. Problem was, she hadn't studied French in three years since the Iranian school where she studied the language shut down after the revolution. Satrapi decided to draw her report. "She gave me the best grade," she says of her teacher. "She made me become a writer because what she told me was, `You have understood everything; now you have to learn how to write it.' "

Still Satrapi initially resisted the call of graphic novels. She didn't believe she had the "obsessiveness" needed to create the perfect pairing of images and words that makes this work effective. It took her four years, for example, to finish the "Persepolis" titles. Instead, she tried to become a children's book writer. At the reading she says she received 180 rejections. It sounds like a joke.

"That was not a joke," she says. "Nobody wanted my projects." At least not until "Persepolis" became a success. Now she's the proud author and illustrator of two children's books.

Prepare for many more years of adult output as well. This time Satrapi will look beyond her own story to find inspiration in the experiences of family and friends.

"You will see when I have died," says Satrapi, "that this will be a very big story that will start, I don't know, in 1900 and will finish up, I don't know, in the year 2030 or 2040, when I die, that will cover all these stories of people I have heard [about] and people I will hear about."

Up next is "Embroideries," a graphic novel featuring hilarious stories about Iranian women and their sexuality, set for release next summer. It takes Satrapi back to a time when she would listen in as her grandmother gathered with girlfriends to chat about adult matters in the living room.

"Of course," says Satrapi, "you put three women in the same place, and what do they talk about?" 

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