Off the Banned Book List: PERSEPOLIS–A Review

Hi there! As part of my Reading Resolutions for 2016, I made a vow to read books that continue to make the ALA Banned Book List. I’ve picked up a couple already, and had a chance to complete the graphic biography (which is a biography that is illustrated like a comic, or graphic novel) PERSEPOLIS: Story of a Childhood from Marjane Satrapi.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Persepolis, #1-2)About the book:
A New York Times Notable Book
A Time Magazine “Best Comix of the Year”
A San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times Best-seller

Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. Marjane’s child’s-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family. Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, Persepolis is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression. It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity. And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love.

My Review:

I”m going to start this review with the end. I read the last page, closed the book, and burst into tears. There’s a reason I don’t read non-fiction or biography very often, and that’s because I read as an escape from the usual and difficult bits of life that often catch me raw. PERSEPOLIS is a biography, told in graphic “novel” format, illustrating roughly 6 years in the life of an Iranian girl from 1978-1984. This was a time of incredible upheaval in the populace and government of Iran, and marked by revolution, war and religious strife.

As it’s a biography, it tells Marjane’s particular story, growing up with socially active and successful parents, who had some direct ancestry to the shah who’d been deposed in the 1950s. Also, her grandfather served high in the government, before being exiled.

Marjane’s perspective is of a forthright and questioning child who doesn’t understand why her school is now for girls only. Why she must, suddenly due to the Islamic revolution, now wear a veil. Why she cannot possess Western clothing. Why her parents protest their government, and she cannot. Marjane is an only child, and she’s a bit precocious, but she’s also just plain curious and mystified about her world. She wants it to makes sense, and latches on to “heroes” of her environment, like her uncle who survived years as a political prisoner.

Thing is, is seems life didn’t make much sense for the adults in the period, as Satrapi continually relates. Her parents and their neighbors are often performing a public display of allegiance, and privately live as they would choose–even taping their curtains closed so spying eyes cannot bear witness to parties and card playing and alcohol consumption. Revolutionaries believed they would install a democratic government and instead they got a theologic-based government of religious leaders. The hypocrisy of which was made quite clear, when all that was required was for disgruntled men to grow a beard and claim power, in the eyes of Marjane’s grandmother.

I believe some of the most poignant passages illustrated Marjane and her peers talking about the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and the human tollof all this upheaval. Young, primarily poor, boys being recruited to serve as cannon fodder–in exchange for the “key” to Heaven. The ban on travel for boys aged 13 and over so they could be assured of having soldiers in a war that could have ended, except it served the government’s purpose. The danger of having an outspoken girl in a repressive society. Marjane watches as more and more of her friends disappear, and experiences the terror of becoming a target of the morality police.

I do not know much of the internal politics of this region, and found the brief and tidy snippets of history from young Marjane to be relevant, if not entirely explanatory. Without question, the book is a fantastic look into a world, and history, that should be more widely known. Further, it’s unflinching in its presentation, and accessible to a wide range of readers because of the perspective and voice.

Regarding the “banned” label, the reasons cited for banning the book are as follows: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”.

I’ll be honest, none of those parts of the book bothered me. If American citizens are outraged that a foreign-born person is citing use of CIA-trained torture tactics, including whipping, mutilation, urinating on a prisoner, burning alive, and dismemberment, they ought to complain to the government for allowing such practices to become part of their “arsenal,” not the school for having the book on the shelf.

This book was on the reading list of my son in seventh grade. I live in a town that is ethnically and racially mixed, with a high percentage of college-educated residents, and some of the highest-graded schools in my state. It’s “liberal” and I’m proud to be a part of that vibrant community. Having read Persepolis for myself, I’m glad my son read it. I hope that it sparks the same skepticism that Marjane and her parents demonstrated regarding his own government. I think it’s an important book to read, especially now as we see more and more problems within the Middle East region. It humanizes the many thousands of people that live under a regime they perhaps do not agree with, and against which they resist in whatever manner is possible for them. I think it applies farther than Iran’s borders, in many respects.

For myself, living in the nation with the largest free-standing military int he world, I can only voice my pacifism through demonstration and political will. I’m proud to have that right, and will exercise it, even as my fellows shout out my voice for cries to war. Thanks Marjane, for sharing your struggle. It’s a chilling story, and should be distributed far and wide, IMHO.

Interested? You can find PERSEPOLIS on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local library system…perhaps. Remember this is a “banned” book, so you may have to request it. I find it interesting that the cover was censored in my library, and have it in my mind to ask why upon returning the book.

About the Author:

Marjane Satrapi (Persian: مرجان ساتراپی) is an Iranian-born French contemporary graphic novellist, illustrator, animated film director, and children’s book author. Apart from her native tongue Persian, she speaks English, Swedish, German, French and Italian.

Satrapi grew up in Tehran in a family which was involved with communist and socialist movements in Iran prior to the Iranian Revolution. She attended the Lycée Français there and witnessed, as a child, the growing suppression of civil liberties and the everyday-life consequences of Iranian politics, including the fall of the Shah, the early regime of Ruhollah Khomeini, and the first years of the Iran-Iraq War. She experienced an Iraqi air raid and Scud missile attacks on Tehran. According to Persepolis, one Scud hit the house next to hers, killing her friend and entire family.

Satrapi’s family are of distant Iranian Azeri ancestry and are descendants of Nasser al-Din Shah, Shah of Persia from 1848 until 1896. Satrapi said that “But you have to know the kings of the Qajar dynasty, they had hundreds of wives. They made thousands of kids. If you multiply these kids by generation you have, I don’t know, 10-15,000 princes [and princesses]. There’s nothing extremely special about that.” She added that due to this detail, most Iranian families would be, in the words of Simon Hattenstone of The Guardian, “blue blooded.”

She currently lives in France.

Thanks for popping in and keep reading my friends!

3 thoughts on “Off the Banned Book List: PERSEPOLIS–A Review

  1. I read Persepolis quite some time ago at my daughter’s suggestion. I love your review. Thank you for promoting such a great graphic novel. I think Persepolis has also been made into an “animated” movie. I put animated in quotation marks because it’s not made like Mickey Mouse cartoons. I had no idea it was a banned book, and I don’t why the cover would be a problem.


    • Thanks for sharing, Janie. It’s wild that our kids read such great books! There are always people who will disagree with the content of a book, and make an objection to it’s use (and presence) in a school library. I didn’t feel that this book was anything out of the ordinary realm, in terms of content. It’s definitely graphic, yet, being a biography I believe that those small areas of controversy (if it actually exists) are the meat of the matter, and the story would suffer if they were not present. They evoke such a visceral connection/response. The last panel at the airport just slayed me. It brings to mind the many images of Syrian refugees on boats, some tiny children with no parents–because they couldn’t afford to go along and prayed their sacrifice would benefit their child.

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