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Unveiled, unvarnished

In Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels, stereotypes unravel as Iranian women stand their ground.

November 20, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

PERHAPS fiery, irreverent Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi was not the most orthodox choice to address the evolving young minds at West Point. After all, she is as ardent a critic of President Bush as she is of Iran's religious leaders. And a roomful of crew-cut cadets facing deployment to Iraq was not exactly Satrapi's idea of a highbrow literary audience.

But when she spoke to them earlier this year while on tour with her new book, "Embroideries," "I was very impressed," Satrapi said on a recent visit to Los Angeles. "I realized a soldier is just a 19-year-old boy. A baby. If I was 21 and had to go to a place and probably die, I wouldn't want to have doubts. These kids, they have doubts. Not all of them think it's a good idea. Not all of them want to go."

It is this ability to look across political divides and locate the humanity on the other side that has propelled Satrapi to the forefront of the long-form comic narrative known as the graphic novel. Her humanized account of Iran's 1979 revolution, told through the eyes of a little girl -- Satrapi as a child -- is now required reading at West Point.

Satrapi's highly expressive characters, rendered in stark black-and-white drawings with a woodcut feel, have put a startlingly recognizable face on the struggles of ordinary Iranians to maintain a sense of normalcy amid their country's political convulsions. More than a million people in 30 countries have read her books printed in 16 languages, her publishers at Pantheon Books say, since Satrapi debuted in 2000 with "Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood," her memoir of a youth -- she was born in November 1969 -- disrupted by the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Her growing popularity has also handed her a platform as a commentator on international affairs. Her devil-may-care frankness warms -- and occasionally, outrages -- people at her speaking engagements. Recently, she has contributed a new illustrated guest column, "An Iranian in Paris," to the New York Times website. "For many years, many people in Paris, maybe most, didn't see the immigrants as part of Paris," wrote Satrapi, who left Iran for good in 1994 and now makes Paris her home, in one column. "Now many of these immigrants are giving notice, via thousands of burning cars and smashed windows, that they are not happy with their current lot."

But as she expands her reach, Satrapi sticks to the first-person view of history that pulls her readers into the living rooms and streetscapes of her world.

"I was born in a certain place, in a certain time," Satrapi told a heavily Iranian American audience at UCLA's Royce Hall recently. "I might be unsure of many things, but I'm not unsure of what I've seen with my own eyes. This is not the story of Iran. I'm not speaking for the Iranian people. It is the story of Iran through my eyes. This was my truth."

Perhaps. But for many people, Satrapi's highly subjective witnessing of history decoded an Iran that had been crudely framed by one-dimensional news reports on the 1979 American hostage crisis and Bush's 2002 description of the country as part of an "axis of evil."

Brutally honest and blunt

IN "Persepolis," she introduces her progressive parents and a reassuring extended family that is increasingly concerned about rising religious extremism after the 1979 Iranian revolution. At first, Satrapi and other little girls lightheartedly play jump-rope with their funny new veils. But soon, their neighbors are sent off as boy "soldiers," armed only with plastic keys for entry to heaven, to the front of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, where many will be blown up clearing minefields.

In "Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return," her parents pack her off to Vienna in 1984 to get her out of the fray. Fourteen years old and desperately lonely, she ventures into drugs and attempts suicide while experiencing the usual sexual and emotional coming-of-age milestones. She returns to Iran, where at her art school the models are so heavily veiled that the students are reduced to drawing drapes.

"Embroideries" draws readers into the warm heart of Iranian life, with a story of a close circle of women and the wily resourcefulness they employ to outmaneuver the vice grip of their patriarchal world.

" 'Persepolis' was a scream: 'Look! We're not so different from you,' " Satrapi said, pouring herself a glass of red wine and lighting a cigarette in a hotel room so mod-minimalist that her outsized personality seemed the only sign of life. "In 'Embroideries,' I try to dispel crazy ideas people have about Iranian women -- that they don't have a sexual life, that we don't talk about anything."

The heroines of "Embroideries" talk about everything. In a virtual Iranian "Sex and the City," the women -- drawn from Satrapi's relatives and family friends -- pull the veil off the intimate encounters that have more than doubled the Iranian population since the revolution.

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