UConn Reads: Our Book, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

A page from The Complete Persepolis. (Ariel Dowski '14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)
A page from The Complete Persepolis. (Ariel Dowski '14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)
The title page of The Complete Persepolis. (Ariel Dowski '14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)
The title page of The Complete Persepolis. (Ariel Dowski ’14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

Announcing Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis as our UConn Reads book is a special thrill – it feels like our UConn Reads community is embarking on a special adventure together. This celebrated graphic novel is a complex and moving coming-of-age story, a memoir of growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Emotionally gripping and intellectually provocative, this book addresses the many challenges of that time through an expressive combination of words and images.

Satrapi noted in a recent interview that, unfortunately, “Iran is reduced to veil and beard and nuclear weapon.” Persepolis challenges this over-simplified image of Iranian culture, history, and experience. In its opening chapters we meet Persepolis’s main character, Marji, a rough-and-tumble, smart, fearless 10-year-old.  When the Shah is deposed, her cosmopolitan, liberal family celebrates – her mother had marched in demonstrations against the Shah – but the celebration is brief. Marji struggles with the imposition of Islamist rule, which brings her veiling and single-sex education; with political oppression, as friends and family go to jail; and, sometimes, with the adults in her life, who try to protect her and yet raise her in a way that is true to their values and traditions.

Marjane Satrapi uses a comic format to tell her story. (Ariel Dowski '14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)
Marjane Satrapi uses a comic format to tell her story. (Ariel Dowski ’14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

Satrapi uses the graphic novel form to great expressive effect in Persepolis. A graphic novel is a full-length book that uses the comic format – words and images presented in sequenced panels – to tell its story. Satrapi was attracted to the comic form as a young artist: “For me, who loves to draw and who loves to write and cannot choose between one or the other, the comic is the best form. And also, I’m a little bit shy to talk, you know, like, I was very sad or to describe — or when I’m too sentimental, I’m too shy to describe them. But I can make a drawing of myself and it shows. In words it becomes too much for me, I cannot do it. I think there are things with the drawings that we can do. Also, drawing — it’s the first language of human beings, before writing, before even talking, before words, human beings [were] drawing.” (Interview on PBS’ Newshour)

Satrapi’s drawings are intense. Strong lines curve and slash across the page, blocks of black ink define bodies and objects, patterns of light and dark create spaces that can be comforting or menacing. Her style is deceptively simple at times, reflecting a child’s perspective; at other times, it uses comic book conventions, like shifting proportions and scale, to express fear or anger; in other scenes, the intricate and rhythmic array of forms evokes Persian miniatures.

Satrapi’s words are similarly intense, and variable. Sometimes, they are a child’s shouts – angry, rebellious, or joyous. Or they are the poignant and honest insights of a woman examining her past. Sometimes her words capture the voices of other characters, from her loving, independent grandmother to narrow-minded teachers and threatening morality police.

How did we come to choose Persepolis? When the Steering Committee met, we discussed the pros and cons of each Short List book in alphabetical order. When we came to Satrapi’s book, which was last, I noticed that we immediately abandoned the discussion of pros and cons and focused instead on all the wonderful programming we could build around this book. It was less a choice than an enthusiastic embrace of all that this book could offer us, and the multiple ways that the UConn Reads community of students, alumni, faculty, and staff could connect to it.
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So welcome to Persepolis. It will be a wonderful, challenging, transformational book to inhabit together.