Banned Book Week: Lilith Wood on Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Written and Illustrated by Marjane Satrapi
Published by Pantheon Books

The stories of Persepolis being banned and challenged in the U.S. are a bit insulting to the book and its subversive powers. No one seems to know why they want it banned it exactly. They say they want it banned for a few panels depicting torture—not actual torture, but a child trying to imagine torture. But the subtext to their arguments just feels like “No! No! Muslim stuff! Bad!” Even worse, Persepolis gets lumped in with a slew of other books being challenged, as if it is just a banned-book hanger-on and not its own magnificently bannable entity.

In words and pictures, Persepolis follows author Marjane Satrapi’s life from 1979, when she was nine and the Iranian revolution began, to 1984 when she was 14 and sent by her parents to live in Austria in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. It captures the curiosity, passion, and humor (both intentional and unintentional) of a bright child in a strange and scary time. Her family welcomed the overthrow of the Shah, and then were dismayed by the rise of the Islamic Republic and the war with Iraq that followed.

The irony of this book being banned is that censorship and manipulation of the education system are recurring themes in Persepolis. First there is the teacher telling the grade school class to tear out the first page of their textbooks, where it was written that the Shah was chosen by God to lead the country. It wasn’t lost on young Marjane that the same teacher had dutifully fed them first one party line and then another. Later, Iran closed down all universities for two years. The ministry of education said, “The educational system and what is written in books, at all levels, are decadent. Everything needs to be revised to ensure that our children are not led astray from the true path of Islam.” Just replace Islam with Christianity, and plenty of people in the U.S. would be all right with this statement.

But Persepolis is dangerous not just because of its content, but because of how that content is handled with persistent deadpan in art and words. Satrapi wrings nuance out of her thick, deceptively simple black and white lines. We see the individuality of Marjane and her parents despite the lack of detail in their faces. We get a feeling for the people of Iran, even as Satrapi tiles veiled women and soldiers into repeating patterns. Through much of that scary time, young Marjane is swaddled in parental protection, dry humor, and everyday life. Then when these layers of protection fall away, Satrapi hits us hard with blunt horror of what she learned and saw. Still she is restrained, because the plain facts are bad enough and don’t need color. Imagine if young Americans learned this type of discipline and passion in self-expression. God knows what they might use it for.

Even when books don’t stoke revolution, they do plant seeds of empathy. Through the long summer of debating the Iran nuclear deal, the air was full of rhetoric suggesting it would be safer and saner to bomb Iran off the face of the planet rather than try any other method of dealing with that country. It takes empathy to entertain the idea that Iranians are real people. It takes a little bit of imagination and information to see that the Iranian people are not their government. No one can stop that HONY guy from heading over there and showing Facebook a warm, intelligent, and adaptive people but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep books about likeable Muslims out of middle school libraries.

Persepolis is also a story about how banning doesn’t work. Satrapi shows us the thirst for art and pop culture from without and within Iran, and an enduring sophistication of education and thought. When Marjane was stopped by frightening Islamist culture police for wearing a denim jacket and Michael Jackson pin (snuck in from Turkey), she went home and vented her anxiety by jumping around to Kim Wilde’s “We’re the Kids in America” on a bootlegged cassette tape.

People who want to ban Persepolis call it filth, because of a few panels about what can happen to the human body. I like to think that they can sense the real strength of Persepolis, even if they can’t articulate what it is. I salute this visceral revulsion. In this age of entertainment that’s commoditized and meant to anesthetize, who respects the true power of books more than those who would seek to ban them?