We've had a wonderful, positive response to the announcement of Persepolis as our UConn Reads book for Spring 2014. Faculty and staff have proposed many exciting ideas for programming already, and we'll have a full array of panel discussions, exhibitions, lectures, and other events to enhance our reading experience.
As the planning process moves forward, I thought it might be good to share a bit about some of Marjane Satrapi's other publications and place Persepolis in the context of her oeuvre.
Perhaps the most closely related book is Embroideries (2005), which opens with a character we know from Persepolis: Marji’s grandmother, who is loving and supportive and yet challenges her granddaughter to live according to her own desires and her own ethics. In Embroideries, we learn more about Marji’s grandmother and her other female relatives as they gossip over tea – as the grandmother notes, with her characteristic pointed humor, “To speak behind others' backs is the ventilator of the heart.”
The women take turns telling each other stories about their experiences with love, sex, and marriage. The Thousand and One Nights echoes throughout Embroideries. Though The Thousand and One Nights is a classic of Arabic-language literature, it draws on earlier Persian and Indian stories, and it’s significant that Satrapi embraces the story here. But instead of a wife telling tales to amuse her husband – and secure her own survival – these women tell each other tales to amuse, enlighten, and provide emotional release. And, like Scheherazade, secure their survival in a world that is not always kind to them.
The visual texture of this book is immediately appealing. Like Persepolis, Embroideries uses black-and-white drawings and many of the conventions of comic books for emotional impact. By deceptively simple means – the linear rendering of hair, nose, eyes, wrinkles – Satrapi creates characters that have a remarkably distinctive presence on the page.
Chicken with Plums (2006), like Persepolis and Embroideries, draws on Satrapi’s family history but incorporate elements of fairy tale and political allegory. It tells the story of her uncle, a gifted musician who loses the will to live and takes to his bed to die. Chicken with Plums is whimsical, moving, and rich with references to Iranian culture and history – a recurring point of reference is the 1953 coup d’état, orchestrated by Britain and the U.S., that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government. Despite the arc of the story, the book isn’t fatalistic – and we, the readers, are left thinking that perhaps the uncle gave up too soon, after all. But was it a dream of love, or democracy?
The live-action film of Chicken with Plums (2012), directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, her collaborator on the animated Persepolis, is readily available on several streaming services and is well worth seeing. Although not animated, its aesthetic is very close to that of the book, emphasizing fantasy and emotional perception as visual reality. The New York Times website offers a slideshow of storyboards and other visuals from the production, providing unusual insight into the filmmaking process.
Unlike Satrapi’s graphic novels, The Sigh (2011) is an illustrated book in a more conventional sense, although an unusually beautiful one. The images are richly colored and textured, in ways that are as evocative and emotionally rich as the black-and-white graphics of Persepolis and the other graphic novels. The Sigh is a fable, the story of a merchant who goes on a long journey and brings his daughters gifts, except for Rose, the youngest, whose disappointed sigh has unintended consequences. There are problems to be solved and hard life lessons to be learned – The Sigh evokes Grimms’ fairy tales in this sense, and so readers may or may not perceive it as a children’s book.
And, finally, I'll note a charming book, Monsters Are Afraid of the Moon (2006), which is unequivocally meant for children. It features a spunky girl – a familiar character in Satrapi's work – who does not like the dark. Without giving away the story, I'll just say that anyone who has small cat-lovers at home, as I do, will have an eager audience for this tale.