Iran Series: Marjane Satrapi, Hilarious Cartoonist

Yesterday I attended a Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro lecture at the Boston MFA, where I got to see one of my favorite artists, Marjane Satrapi, speak and wisecrack about her life and the cultural multiplicity of human experience.

If I had to sum-up the experience in one word, I would say: hilarious. Basically, Satrapi is the kind of person you want to go get drinks with. Eloquent, witty, constantly cracking jokes in heavily accented yet fluent English, she had me in stitches the entire evening.

She sat at a podium in front of the lecture hall, with a note sheet the size of a Post-it in front of her. With virtually no external prompting, she mostly spoke about the experience of writing Persepolis, her most famous and wildly popular book, and its subsequent conversion into a film. Despite her misgivings about the latter project, Persepolis (2007) won the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature that same year.

During the talk, Satrapi often referred to and joked about what she called her huge “narcissism”. She made the point that the artist, by nature, was quite narcissistic, in the sense that the artist portrays and ultimately tries to prove the value of his/her work to others. The writer always writes for an audience, and whoever tells you otherwise is just lying; the word publish implies it is being made available to a public. Even when you journal privately, she joked, “You’re secretly hoping your diary will be discovered in your apartment by someone who will read it and go, ‘Oh, what a charming person she was!'”

She explained that she originally did not take the idea of comics as a viable art form seriously, until she was given a copy of Art Spiegelman’s monumental work Maus (an excellent book I highly recommend). Suddenly, she realized that here was a medium which told a story with drawings as well as words, both complementing the meaning and messages of the other.

Satrapi also spoke about the role of humor and politics in culture. “Humor is really a question of intelligence,” she asserted. She recognized how humor doesn’t always translate, since “Language isn’t just about learning a few words, it’s about learning a way of thinking.” Born in Iran, Satrapi spent part of her adolescence in Austria, before returning to her country, only to leave it again for France, where she lives today.

When prompted in the Q&A about the choice young Iranian artists must make, about whether to stay and struggle under the oppressive Islamist regime that dominates Iran, or seek artistic freedom abroad, she replied that the choice must be quite personal, and that the artist must see where his/her source of artistic inspiration comes from. “I’m not too patriotic, since being a patriot just means supporting your country because you were born there, like we are part of a soccer team”. She confessed, however, that despite her own relative artistic detachment from Iran, perhaps her decision to leave Iran could be considered “cowardly”.

Satrapi’s work often fights against the stigma that is foisted on to foreigners who happen to come from belligerently governed countries. “What is the point of connection between me and a Mullah of my country?,” she asked at one point. “None! Just like, what is the point of connection between any of you nice [American] people and Dick Cheney?”. Satrapi insisted that fanaticism was the real enemy, not Islam, Christianity, or atheism, not America or Iran. The surety of the ignorant (and sometimes the not so ignorant) is the real enemy to combat.

I summoned up my courage to ask her about one of her less-discussed works, Embroideries. I wandered what facet of women’s lives was she trying to portray in the book, since the oft-discussed issue of the obligation for Iranian women to wear the veil was notably absent. “I think that the veil is not a women’s rights issue, but a human rights issue. If men were forced to wear a veil, I would fight against that.” Instead, Satrapi takes up arms against the sexist religious tradition of expecting women to remain virgins til marriage. “Men are allowed to sleep with who they like. But, who exactly are they going to be sleeping with if women are virgins…?” she trailed off, pointedly remarking on the vicious double standard. Like many topics she discussed that evening, she thought “it should be a matter of choice.”

She wrapped up the lecture with a very funny anecdote. At a Parisian cabaret, amongst the audience watching scantily clad women dancing vigorously, she witnessed an elderly lady wrapped in a chador (a full body Muslim covering that reveals the female face), probably brought to the event by her children. “Why would they bring this lady here?” Satrapi groaned to herself.

At one point, an Oriental-style dance began, and women wearing fancy bras (and I’m assuming not much else) took the stage. Satrapi watched in horror as the old woman motioned for one of the dancers to approach her. “Now she is going to get a lecture”. Imagine Satrapi’s surprise when the old woman takes a $100 dollar bill and tucks it into the dancer’s bra! “You dance very well my dear,” the old woman chuckled.

Satrapi smiled warmly at the memory. “When an old woman in a chador can tuck a bill into an exotic dancer’s bra, this should be our goal, the society we should fight to have.”

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