A conversation with Marjane Satrapi – even over opposite ends of a Zoom call – is a stimulating experience. Marjane is the author of multi-million selling graphic novel Persepolis, a cartoon-style book based on her Tehran childhood and adolescence that has, since its publication in 2000, become a global phenomenon. For so many people, Marjane’s story was much more than a graphic novel about life in Iran – it was a paean to collective memory, resonating with anyone who recalls childhood as a multifaceted story of adventure, sadness, fear, love, laughter and mystery.
The semi-autobiographical Persepolis is the story of an ordinary Iranian kid, Marji, who we meet at the age of ten, in 1980. The Iranian Revolution has shaken the nation to its core and the Iran-Iraq war is getting underway. Men are being conscripted to fight and be martyred; women are being sidelined and dis-empowered. As the young Marji goes about her daily business, dark clouds of religious fundamentalism are looming over the horizon, and an austere, repressive regime is shaping her world and the fates of those around her.
Today, 23 years since she published the book that changed her life, Satrapi is a warm, engaging and funny presence. She’s talking to me from Paris, where she has lived for the best part of the last 30 years and despite the fact we are gathered again, to talk about the book she has been asked about continually for much of that time, she is engaged, present and impassioned. During our call, I understand that what I have heard of her – she speaks as she smokes cigarettes, volubly, passionately and without much worry as to what others may think – is true. She also is cheerfully robust in her self-belief and conviction, when describing her steadfast trust in herself and her artistic practice. She is frank and open about her low spells, the crippling bouts of depression and rejection are as much grist to her mill as success and acclaim. "I know that I’m intelligent," she affirms. "I know it’s very pretentious to say that, but then it’s not really, because it’s a fact, so that’s it."
So, let's start at very the beginning. Or near the beginning. It was 1999 when you wrote Persepolis – what was your story at the time? Who were you when you wrote this book?
I was a very depressed chick, who did not have any self-confidence because she had her art book going from one publisher to the other and nobody wanted to publish it. It was very funny, because I went to one place where the art director was, like: 'You don’t have any style!'. That was the last straw, and I went into a very, very deep depression. But when Persepolis was published, the same motherfucker called me and of course, he does not remember our previous conversation... but I do. I went with the same book and he was, like, 'Wow, it’s so incredible, you have tried all these different things'. And I told him: 'You know, maybe you don’t remember but when we last spoke, you just exactly said the opposite'. So I left.
'I was a very depressed chick, who did not have any self-confidence because she had her art book going from one publisher to the other and nobody wanted to publish it'
You wrote the book after you’d moved to France, from Iran?
Yes, I started writing Persepolis, when basically I went [from Iran] to Austria, then I came to France, and I found that the French people are very cultured – they are more instructed in art and culture. [Iranian filmmaker Abbas] Kiarostami was there before me, he’d opened the door to all of us, thanks to his films. But I kept telling this story [of life in Iran] over and over, because people, no matter how much Kiarostami they knew, still in their mind, they just knew all these images [of Iran] that sell on TV. Because of course if you show women that look cross – all these angry people – this is what people want to watch. They want the violence to be in their TV and they’re safe in their little homes.
So I was like, yes, but it it’s not actually like this! It was not so much that I don’t like to talk, but I really don’t like to repeat myself, so I had to do something about it. I ended up in this studio in the Place des Vosges [in La Marais, Paris] and all these graphic novelists were working there and they would say to me, 'why don’t you do one?' And I was, like, 'no, this is too much work, guys, I am not like you, you know?' They were just all sitting very concentrated, drawing pictures, page after page.
What sort of art were you making at that time?
I was trying to make children's books with no real success. Small publications here, small publications there. Thankfully, I was married to a man who had enough money for the both of us. We were really, really not rich, but we were very happy, so I had his support, thank God. I was doing small jobs: sewing, making the clothes tighter or shorter because I know how to sew. I was doing all sorts of jobs. Around this time, I had met an American woman and she had everything to become a great writer but as she came to France and what did she take as a job? She became this person who writes publicity slogans. She told me to never take a job that is almost what you want to do, even if it gives you security, because once you’re there, it’s very difficult to go back. Just do something else. If you need to, just be a waitress or whatever. And that is really what I tried to do.
'I’m the only child and I have quite a big ego. I always thought that I was very famous, and the only problem was that nobody else knew it…'
Anyone who does something with the idea that they are not going to die if they don’t do it – then they should stop doing it. So that is the way it started: it was the question of death or life. I had to do it. But it was not art therapy, you know? I did not need to make a book to heal myself. It was more to have a testimony. And then writing just with words, it was not my thing, because I always had very high standards. I was, like, either I can write like Dostoevsky or I should not write. Now, I understand the reality of the world, but in my twenties, it was, like, okay, if I cannot be like Dostoevsky then fuck it, I won’t do it!
Absolutely – when we’re young, we think the world is just waiting for us and wonder why other people can’t see it?
Yes, it’s like, hey, here I come everyone, I’m coming to fucking dominate you! It's because I’m the only child and I have quite a big ego. I always thought that I was very famous, and the only problem was that nobody else knew it…
You were just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with this idea.
It’s not like I think that I’m so great, but yes, I have a very good brain that functions. The rest...well, you know, I don’t have any other pretensions, but I know that I’m intelligent. I know it’s very pretentious to say that, but then it’s not really, because it’s a fact, so that’s it.
'It’s not sufficient to just be an Iranian woman to make a book work. The book works because the book is great – this is the reason. And because I’m honest and people feel it'
So, despite the setbacks, you had this determination to write and publish Persepolis.
Yes, at the beginning when Persepolis was successful, people were, like, 'Oh, it has become so famous because this woman comes from Iran'. And actually, I played this game for two or three months and then I was, like, no. It’s not sufficient to just be an Iranian woman to make a book work. The book works because the book is great – this is the reason. And because I’m honest and people feel it, because I really did it with all my heart, and you can read the sincerity and honesty in it. When people write crap, you feel it, you know? I always know when the author has had fun writing a book, I know when he was bored, when he laughed himself, when he cried himself – you feel these things.
Let’s talk a little bit about the style of Persepolis then. So, initially you weren’t so familiar with the graphic novel form, but you found yourself being more influenced by peers and graphic novelists such as Art Spiegelman. How did you find yourself gravitating towards this format as an artist? Was it an easy transition or was it something that presented challenges?
Well, my style doesn’t look anything like Art Spiegelman’s. I know him very well, but for me, it was more that when I was younger, I believed everybody who does comics is writing them for adolescents or young adults, and that’s it. Then I read his story Maus and I’m, like, well, you can actually write anything in this format.
Did you consider writing a novel first? What was the pull for you, for relating the story in drawings?
There are many reasons for it. First of all, the primary language of human beings is drawing, not writing. Drawing is a universal language. If you want to describe an emotion, when you draw someone with that emotion, no matter where you come from, you understand it.
Human body language is the same, no matter where you come from. And then there was the use of humour, because I always think if something is bearable then you can complain about it. But when it becomes unbearable, either you die of it, or you have to laugh about it. I think when you laugh with someone, it’s the height of the understanding of them, because it means that you understand their soul. And you are actually integrated into a culture when you actually can laugh at the jokes that this culture makes.
So for all these reasons, I thought this was the best format. And a comic is a language in which you use words and you use drawing. The drawing is not just an illustration of what you have always said so you have to actually take care of it in the most precious way – the same way as you use the words.
'It looks very simple, but it’s very complicated to make something simple. It was really months and months and months of work'
It’s much easier to identify with a drawing than a person. For example, with the film, Persepolis, imagine if I had made it with real people in a real place in the Western world. They will look and they will say, 'Okay, they don’t really look like us exactly – its a foreign story'. So, why does it work? Because it's a drawing. People watch it and since it’s abstract, there is an interpretation of reality. Everybody can identify with me, my mother, my father, everyone, and then the story becomes universal – and my whole thing was the universality of the story.
It looks like very simple, but it’s very complicated to make something simple. It was really months and months and months of work. I had to actually force myself to draw like a real grown-up because if you see the evolution, you will see in the fourth Persepolis book (2003), I actually don’t draw like a little kid anymore. But I am starting my story when I was ten, and so I can’t make a very complicated drawing. I wanted actually to draw it to evolve with the age of the character.
I think that’s one of the strongest things – we’re not put off, we all relate to it, we all can remember being a kid…
Like any human being, suddenly you grow up and you’re in an environment that is hostile and you still have to make through it. You still have to find a way to actually be a normal teenager – to go dance, to fall in love the first time, your first cigarette, your first this, your first that. It doesn’t change. And this is the whole purpose of the art – it’s actually to recreate the world after your own image, to give an interpretation of what you see, which sounds quite a narcissistic point of view. Like look, this is my vision of the world and please not only should you pay money to buy my book but you have to spend your time to read it and at the end you have to applaud me! I mean, this sounds as if I am being a little bit egocentric and narcissistic, but I don’t think there is any artistic artist that works who does not have this amount of narcissism.
Does it still make you feel proud, this effect the book has had on people around the world?
Yes but the thing that makes me sad at the same time is I really truly wish that the book did not have any success, because that would have meant it was not necessary and that we would have been in a better situation. It’s extremely sad to see that the book is selling like hell in America right now. That means that in 22 years, the situation has not changed and this is sad. It’s extremely sad. I wish I sell less books and that the world would be a better place but, you know, there is nothing I can do about it.