Our March Pick: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Our pick for March is the complete Persepolis by Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis is the "desperately moving and extremely funny" autobiography in which Satrapi shares her childhood in Iran prior to, during, and after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Satrapi's parents (who were Marxist intellectuals) sent her to Vienna in 1983 to flee the Revolutionary Guard in Iran. After several years of schooling, a three month period of living on the streets, and becoming ill with pneumonia, Satrapi returned to Iran to pursue a Masters Degree in visual communication. Satrapi currently lives in Paris.

On making sense of culture and identity: "The feeling that I am evoking in the second book is more a problem of when you are going to a new culture and you absolutely want to adapt yourself, and you absolutely want to be integrated. You have to forget about your own culture first. You know, because culture takes all of the space inside you. If you want to have another culture come into you, it’s like you have to take out the first one, and then choose what you want from the two and swallow them again. But it’s the moment you look at everything that it’s this lack of identity. You don’t know anymore who you are. You want so badly to be integrated, but at the same time you have a whole thing that is inside you. It’s the problem that when you leave and then come back, you are a foreigner anywhere."

On forgiveness and violence:  "Forgiveness is a good thing because you cannot go on living your life being angry, because then you become like the people you hate. And that is exactly what is happening in the world that we live in. Our response to violence is violence. If we start playing the same game as the people whom we accuse, that is very dangerous."

From Goodreads:

Here, in one volume: Marjane Satrapi's best-selling, internationally acclaimed memoir-in-comic-strips.

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi's unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming--both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up. 

Edgy, searingly observant, and candid, often heartbreaking but threaded throughout with raw humor and hard-earned wisdom--Persepolis is a stunning work from one of the most highly regarded, singularly talented graphic artists at work today.

Trailer for the movie here (spoilers):

1) FORMAT: This is the first graphic novel we've read as a book club. How did you like its format vs. a more traditional novel? Have you read graphic novels before? How did the art influence your reading of the text? Did you like her artistic style?

2) IMPORTANCE OF CLOTHING: As a child, Marjane has to wear a veil for the first time. She fights against dress codes in both her school and in Tehran, by wearing denim jackets, and Nikes, and arguing for the right to have a shorter veil and trendier pants. Why do you think clothing is so important to Marjane, to the Guardians/regime? Do you think fashion is always as political as it is for Marjane? Do you consider what you wear to be an expression of political action? The veil plays a big role in Persepolis. Recently in Canada the hijab has become a big topic of conversation/ political legislation. Did Marjane's portrayal of the veil shift your thinking in any way? Did you agree with how she portrayed the veil- why/why not?

3) RACISM- BEING A "FOREIGNER": Marjane has many experiences of racism while living in Vienna as a "foreigner". What is an example of a racist experience Marjane faced that really struck you or hit home for you? Some of us have lived experience being a "foreigner" in a new country, or have family who have experienced this. How might that shape your reading of Persepolis? Did you empathize with Marjane?

4) disABILITY: Though ability or ableism is not a major theme throughout Persepolis, Marjane's interaction with her childhood friend Kia, now in a wheelchair due to the war, is particularly poignant. What did you think about how disability was portrayed in this scene?

5) IMPORTANCE OF READING: We see a lot of books in Persepolis. Her mom is an avid reader and so is Marjane. As a child she reads all about the history of Persia/ Iran, in Vienna she reads about Nietsche and other philosophies, when she is depressed and married to Reza, her father once again encourages her to read and be an intellectual instead of watching TV. Why do you think her father thinks it's so important to Marjane to read again? What is it about reading, for you or for people in general, that gives it such a positive influence? How is reading different from watching TV in that sense? Were there any books that she read or that were mentioned that you'd like to read? As a book club member, how do you think reading regularly influences you (if at all)?

6) POLITICAL ACTION: Marjane's family has a long history of political action, from her grandfather, to Uncle Anoosh, and her parents as well. Marjane begins to protest at an early age. What did you think about all of the different forms of political action? How do you think being involved in activism shaped who Marjane became? Did any of it inspire you to be more involved?

7) FAITH/DIVINE INTERVENTION: As a little girl Marjane says she has a religious faith, not like that taught to her, but a direct relationship with God. God is illustrated interacting with her throughout the beginning of the book but then we see "him" no longer. Instead there are many instances of a divine intervention, such as when she passes her test and she attributes it to her mother's letters to God, or when she attempts suicide and the doctor says without divine intervention she would have been dead. What are your thoughts on the way faith is portrayed in the book? How does Marjane's faith change over time, and what influences it? How has your own faith changed or evolved? Did you relate to her experiences of faith or divine intervention?

8) HOMELESSNESS: After Marjane's break up with Markus and getting accused of stealing from her racist landlord, Marjane experiences homelessness for three months in the cold Austrian winter. Later, when she returns home to Iran and sees the toll of the war on her country she decides that her experiences of homelessness and hardship are nothing in comparison. What do you think about the depiction of homelessness? How did racism and her status as an "outsider" impact her ability to be housed? Do you think her homelessness was less severe because she had a home to go back to? Do you think her assessment that her experiences were not as severe as those of war is accurate?

9) WESTERNER VS. EASTERNER: When Marjane returns to Iran she feels a conflict of identity. In Vienna, she is seen as an Easterner, but now back at home she is seen as a Westerner. West vs. East is a theme throughout the book and is also seen in her friends who dress and try to act "Western" but are still traditional at heart.  Have you ever experienced a similar conflict of identity? What are your thoughts on the way both the "Western" world and "Eastern" world is explored throughout the book? To Easterners, what is the importance of being seen as "Western"?

10) CLASSISM: Marjane first becomes aware of class/socioeconomic status when her maid, Mehri, is not allowed to date someone outside of her social class. Much later on, Marjane hears that Mehri's son (as well as many boys in the lower classes) is given a plastic key to signify that they will get entrance to "paradise" if they die in the war. How does Marjane's awareness of class differences change her outlook on Persia/Iran? What are your thoughts on the classism shown throughout Persepolis? Did it give you any insights to the classism here in North America?

11) IMPORTANCE OF PUNK MUSIC & PARTYING: Punk music and partying are both featured heavily throughout Persepolis. As a teenager Marjane defies her mom and the Guardians by buying illegal tapes of punk music, and smuggling in punk rock posters after her European vacation. Throughout the fundamentalist regime, partying plays a big role as well, despite it being outlawed- recall the scene where Marjane and her grandmother have to pour out all the alcohol before an inspection, or when in her 20's a friend of Marjane's runs off a building to avoid getting caught by the Guardians for partying. Nonetheless, Marjane doesn't stop listening to punk or partying. Why do you think this is? What about these two things is so important/therapeutic, or is it? How do these mediums allow Marjane and her friends to rebel? Has punk or music in general been an important part of your political resistance or self-care? What about partying?

12) LGBTQ+: When Marjane is in Vienna, she lives with a group of openly gay men. Coming from Iran, this is at first unusual to her, as well as something she initially keeps hidden from her parents. How might this experience have changed Marjane's or her mother's view of LGBTQ issues? How do their interactions with the men speak to their political beliefs or ideals?

13) SEXUALITY: As Persepolis is a memoir but also a coming-of-age story, sexuality is an interesting theme throughout. When Marjane is in Vienna living with her friend Julie, she is very shocked to see Julie having casual sex with multiple men when in her home country holding hands is forbidden. Later, when Marjane returns to Tehran, her friends call her a whore for not being a virgin and having slept with more than one person. When she's at art school later on, she proudly proclaims that she uses birth control to have sex rather than for another use. Comment on how her attitudes to sexuality changed, and why you think they did. How do the two cultures (in Vienna vs. Tehran) affect her views on sexuality? Do they at all? People experience slut-shaming all over the world, what makes her response to it so unique?

14) SEXISM: There are many instances of sexism that Marjane encounters. One example is when the Guardians tell her to stop running because her butt looks obscene when she runs. Can you think of any other examples? What do you think about the way Marjane responds to sexism? How do you think sexism impacts her and her family/friends?

15) MARJANE'S OUTSPOKENNESS: From a young age, Marjane is extremely outspoken and opinionated. This gets her in trouble numerous times, particularly at school- she even gets expelled, and it's why her parents send her to Vienna. There are also times when her outspokenness gets rewarded. How did you feel about how opinionated/loud she was? Do you think it was more of a positive/helpful trait or a negative/harmful one? Has being outspoken gotten you into trouble? Has it helped you in some way?

16) SUBSTANCES: Marjane experiments with many substances throughout her life, and ends up being quite dependent on marijuana. With her boyfriend Markus' encouragement she also begins to deal. What were your thoughts on her journey with substances - from fun experimentation to dependency? Marjane worries that she will/has become a "vegetable" like a cousin who did too much heroin. How do you think that shaped her experiences with substances? Why do you think Marjane decided to keep this part of her life in her memoir, despite her not ever wanting her parents to find out?

17) FEMINISM: Marjane's mother reads a lot of feminist theory and encourages Marjane to be a feminist as well. She later ends up discovering feminism for herself through books. What do you think about Marjane as a feminist? Is she a feminist to look up to? Or is she flawed as many of us are? What does it mean to be a feminist in an Eastern context vs. the Western context that is so prevalent in #Whitefeminism? How does living in a fundamentalist regime restrict or reinforce her feminism?

18) FAMILY: Marjane's mother, father and grandmother, as well as her Uncle Anoosh, all serve as very important characters in Persepolis. Even when she is in Vienna away from her family, their presence is still felt. At the end of the book, she decides to move to France and away from her family for good. Who of her family, was your favourite character? What did you like or not like about all of these characters? How do you think her family shaped her and her views? Why might she have left for France even though it meant leaving her family behind?

19) RELATIONSHIPS: Marjane is in two major relationships throughout the book - with Markus, her first serious boyfriend in Vienna, and her marriage to Reza. What did you think about the characters of Markus and Reza? What were your thoughts on their relationship? When Markus and Marjane break up, she is devastated and states that after all that she's been through (war etc.), it was a break-up that led to her breakdown and homelessness. What do you think about that sentiment? With Reza, both her grandmother and father encourage their divorce. Rather than leading to heartbreak, the divorce is seen as a new beginning. Why do you think that might be? What does it say about relationships and what she might have learned from her first heartbreak?

20) WAR & FUNDAMENTALIST REGIME: The many wars of Persia/Iran are discussed in Persepolis. How did you feel reading about the history of Iran? Was reading about war different through this memoir than reading about it in a history book? The fundamentalist regime that Marjane lives through has a big impact. Was this eye-opening to you or do you have your own experiences or family experiences with war etc.? Throughout the war, Marjane also comments frequently on the martyr culture where losing your life in war makes you a hero. What are your thoughts on that and how it impacts the way war is viewed in any given culture/time period?

21) EDUCATION: We see Marjane go through many types of education throughout Persepolis. We witness changes to schools, such as dress codes, girls being separated from boys and Universities being shut down due to the war. We see her from elementary school to boarding school to art school. Why do you think education was featured so heavily throughout the book? What, in your opinion, is the value of education in Marjane's life? In the life of women? In your life?

Discussion questions for Persepolis are written by Alice, of TOFemCo's Underwire Podcast. Feel free to use for your own personal discussions, but please credit us if you re-post or publish them elsewhere. 

Have you read the book or seen the film? We'd love to hear from you. Let us know what you think in the comments!

TOFemCo Book Club
TOFemCo Book Club 14 members
TOFemCo [tee-oh-fem-co], also known as Toronto Feminist Collective, is a group of women and non-binary identified people who are passionate about intersectional feminism. We are rooted in the heart of Toronto. TOFemCo first began in spring 2015 as a book club where feminists who like to read could discuss a variety of books using a feminist lens and a sense of humour. Since then, we have grown into a community that supports each other, shares communal meals at monthly potlucks, plans social gatherings for Toronto feminists, and attends community and activist events. Members of TOFemCo are the hosts of the podcast Underwire: Support for the Girls. In our book club, we read a variety of books by a diverse group of authors. We strive to be a trans-inclusive, queer-positive, anti-racist and anti-oppressive space for all feminists who are interested in good reads, good conversations and good laughs. We do not shy away from controversial issues or debates, as long as the conversation is respectful of others.

Books we've read

Milk and Honey
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait
The Complete Persepolis
The House on Mango Street
The House of the Spirits
Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
My Brilliant Friend
The Round House

View this group on Goodreads »