The various mass-displacements that have happened in the 20th century have led to the much popular genre of diasporic memoir. In cases where the author of the memoir is female and Muslim, this genre has converged with that of the female coming of age, or emancipatory novel to produce that very lucrative industry of women’s memoirs which chronicle the trials and tribulations of bright young women oppressed by male figures such as fathers, brothers and husbands. However, recently a group of feminist Iranian scholars have taken the authority and legitimacy of these novels to task in their manifesto entitled “A Genre in the Service of Empire”. Judith Butler suggests that apart from the identifying streaks in feminism, the persistence of dis-identifications are equally important for a politics of change, and that dis-identificatory practices need to be mobilized within feminist politics. This is, I argue, what the following statements do in the context of Iranian feminism, or feminism in the Islamic world at large:
We identify this memoir genre as a part of industries of knowledge-production that reinforce and fuel the gendered and raced context of global capitalist relations, where the binarized notions of “freedom” and “progress” in the “West” are juxtoposed to “backwardness” and “barbarism” in Iran and in the rest of the Muslim world. Identified as an authentic and authoritative site where the “silenced” Iranian woman finally finds a voice with which to speak, these memoirs reproduce reductive but familiar narratives which pin the constructed “Third-world woman” against her male counterpart while setting the stage for what is presumed to be her salvation. (1)
Here we see that the disidentification that Butler talks about turns into a disidentification with certain modes of feminism that Iranian women-authors engage in. The concerns raised in this manifesto go to the heart of the material that Marjane Satrapi deals with in her graphic novel, Persepolis. While the memoir seems to follow the genre of the conventional female-emancipatory novel coming from Muslim countries, neither her memoir, nor her medium fits comfortably with the genre conventions or the political consequences that Akhavan, Bashi, Kia and Shakhsari outline above. It is, as any memoir coming from a culture that is relatively sealed to the outside world, part of an industry of knowledge, but I argue, an innovative one in both content and form.
In order to see how she deals with the responsibilities and possibilities of diasporic space, one has to look at how Satrapi uses the genre of the graphic novel to reconfigure the genre of the diasporic memoir. Her black and white rendition of scenes from her childhood years, I argue, are in the tradition of creating an alternative genre to tell a now much familiar and repeated story of trauma, rather than following in the footsteps of the Iranian women’s confessional literature mentioned above. I argue that with Persepolis, Satrapi challenges the genre of the Muslim woman-tells-all narrative, and I investigate how she inscribes another history of communal resistance, rather than proposing a binary of oppressed women and barbarous men, offering the picture of a united Iranian community against the Shah regime as well as the revolution being hijacked by the radical Islamists. The narrative elements she uses: the content, the child’s point of view, and the simplistic figures are strategies on her part to point to the personal and intimate characteristic of the story, rather than claiming it to be the definitive Iranian woman’s voice- an attitude that the above mentioned critics have scathed time and again.
Satrapi recreates the lost space of her Iranian childhood through a black and white comic book where the figures hark back to wood-carved figures. She starts the story of her childhood in the Iran of the revolution, with her first experiences of having to wear a headscarf. A couple of pages later there is a flashback, and the first half of the book tells of the events that lead up to the revolution. She is brought up in a loving family, whose male and female members suffer from the succeeding oppressive regimes in the country. The narrative that is reproduced here is not familiar as a story from Iran, and in no place does it pit the enlightened woman of the East against her barbaric male counterpart. In that context, the graphic novel helps Satrapi recover that very personal space of her family and friends. We see her experiences in school when they have to start to wear the headscarf, her close relationship with her immediate and extended family, the ravages of the Iran-Iraq war, and at last, her ultimate rebellion against the regime in her teens when her parents decide to send her to Austria to study. If we take space to speak discourse as Frederic Regard suggests, then Satrapi uses the space of the graphic novel to imitate the space of Iran, but with a discourse that she chooses herself: that of loving family relations, leftist liberals and valuable traditions.
In response to questions as to why she decided to write the memoir in the first place, the following is what she has to say:
From the time I came to France in 1994, I was always telling stories about life in Iran to my friends. We’d see pieces about Iran on television, but they didn’t represent my experience at all. I had to keep saying, “No, it’s not like that there.” I’ve been justifying why it isn’t negative to be Iranian for almost twenty years. How strange when it isn’t something I did or chose to be? (2)
The two most important aspects of the novel are revealed here. Firstly, that it has been written to represent her own experience which runs counter to images she sees on television. The second is that the fact that the revolution has been hijacked by radical Islamists does not mean that all Iranians are like that, that being Iranian is not intrinsically an oppressive or barbaric state. Another statement also underlines how very personal her memoir is:
We learn about the world through images all the time. In the cinema we do it, but to make a film you need sponsors and money and 10,000 people to work with you. With a graphic novel, all you need is yourself and your editor.
With a graphic novel, she appears to say, she can be the producer, director and the actor of her own film, in order to give us an unmediated version of her experiences as a child. It is only through an uninterrupted, unmediated telling that Satrapi can conjure up the space of her Iranian childhood. She conjures up both the social space of the school and the more private spaces of tea and fortune telling parties. She paints scenes at home where her parents discuss philosophy and enjoy good food ad music. It is seems, after all the negative images that she has seen on TV Satrapi wants to salvage these memories the most.
Thus, Persepolis functions not as an “I accuse” novel, but an attempt to reconstruct the lost Iran of her childhood. Her book is in silent conversation with other novels, such as “Not Without My Daughter” and images she has been bombarded with, redressing the absences in these other representations of Iran. She fills in these absences with the “positive” images she remembers from Iran, and especially, the activist spirit of both men and women against the regime which is more often than not side-lined in these novels in order to make the central character look more potent and heroic. Having put a child and no pioneering feminist at the heart of the novel Satrapi makes it clear that she wants to write another kind of memoir from the ones that try to “set the stage for what is presumed to be the salvation” of the Iranian woman. Thus, with the personal and liminal quality that both the child’s eye view and the graphic novel bring, Satrapi points to a new direction for diasporic memoirs, trying to forego the problem of multiple mediations, and at the same time offering the innocent view as a caveat for the officiality for her story. Thus, she reworks the popular genre of diasporic memoir, suggesting a new method of conjuring up diasporic space. She thus points to the responsibilities and possibilities opened up by diasporic space, using the tension of ‘staying put’ and ‘staying put’ as motor for creative articulation. In this liminal space she stages various elements of the Iranian revolution and their anti-thesis, as in the case of the veil- pointing out that putting it on or off can be conceptualized as a rite of passage according to the discourse it is surrounded with. The graphic novel forms, through minimizing a certain kind of mediacy, works as the threshold between word and graphics, allowing for what I would called ‘fairy tale semiotics’. Thus, the novel recreates Iran not just in narrative, but in pictures that have stuck in the child’s memory, avoiding the authorial voice of the self-important-emancipated-Iranian-woman-speaking-from-the-west.
1. You can find a more extended version of this article at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?itemid=12010
2. This passage is taken from the interview one can find on her publisher’s website. http://www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/satrapi2.html
Nagihan was born in Istanbul and finished her undergraduate studies at Bo_aziçi University, from where she holds a B.Sc. in Chemistry. She then completed an M.A. in English at Middlebury College, and then went on to do an M. St. at the University of Oxford, working on the first female Turkish novelist Fatma Aliye. Her article “Translation as Cultural Negotiation: The Case of Fatma Aliye” will appear in a collection of essays from Peter Lang publishers. Nagihan is currently a doctoral student at the University of Heidelberg, working on her thesis entitled “Narrating Selves: Female and Colonial Subjectivities in Jean Rhys’s Novels”. She is also an affiliate member of the IPP programme at the University of Giessen. Her first publication on Jean Rhys “Autobiography as Intertextual Strategy: Jean Rhys’s Smile Please” has appeared in the ELCH series, Kulturelles Wissen und Intertextualtität.