Graphic Novels, Iranian Style: Weaving a carpet of words and images
You have all probably heard of the graphic novels Persepolis (2000-2003 the French original, 2003-2004 the English translation), works by Iranian-born writer and artist Marjane Satrapi. The books were adapted into an animated feature film, directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, and won the Special Jury Prize at 2007 Cannes Film Festival along with another film, bringing the books to even more popularity.
I went to see it with a group of Iranian friends on its release in the U.S. I had previously browsed the books and read chapters in one bookstore or another. I liked those chapters, but I did not buy the books. I was not a comics fan and I was sceptical about the fame and success of the work.
The problem is that many works about Iran published in the U.S. can be disappointing. Using a critical lens to read and watch works of art from or about Iran that get attention in the West, one notices a trend: many of them come to the spotlight only because the stories they tell reveal an unknown place and people. They, however, do so in such a way that creates only a limited, if not false, sense of encounter with the faraway and the other; they do not challenge the stereotypes held by the audience and let them stay in their comfort zone of worldviews. Oftentimes if one considers their aesthetic qualities, their stylistic and formal (and even narrative) choices, and evaluates them as a whole, one could conclude that the reception and praise they have received has been unjustified or even worse that the works have actually been failures. (Of course, this is not to deny the existence of exceptions.) The trend has over and over proven detrimental to the growth of Iranian art and artists in the diaspora and problematic in allowing for any real cultural and aesthetic exchange.
So as I sat in that theatre back then, I expected to be disappointed. Satrapi’s film was, however, different. She doesn’t tell stories to reveal and to pose. She doesn’t tell stories because she wants to educate the Westerners or to exhibit atrocities or victimisation or life of Iranians. She tells them as a storyteller should tell stories, for the sake of the stories, thinking only about what the stories need to do. Persepolis intricately weaves memories of life in Iran and the hardships of immigration together with imagery filled with details, each of which can bring a whole world back to life for the Iranian reader/audience while also introducing the non-Iranian to that world without falling into the trap of clichés and generalizations, without becoming a mouthpiece. I sat there in the theatre and tried to avoid getting emotional, but there was no escaping the intimacy and intensity of a grandmother and her Jasmine flowers, of a teenager’s challenges in a world of must and must-nots, of a young immigrant feeling unwelcome, of a young woman’s adventures and misadventures, etc. Eventually, I had to let the tears go. Many of us, the Iranians in the theatre, were taken back to a childhood or youth long since gone. Many of the Americans in the audience were introduced to a world that was both unfamiliar and humanly familiar.
After the film, I went back to the books. Since then whenever a non-Iranian mentions them to me I have to say how they are one of the few non-Persian works about Iran that I like and recommend to readers interested in stories from the country.
No other graphic novel about Iran has been as widely talked about as Persepolis, but there are a few others out there using the opportunities offered by the genre that are worth taking a look at here:
Persia Blues (Vol I & II) Dara Naraghi and Brent Bowman. The books take us along on the adventures of its character Minoo as she lives life in three worlds: the mythical and fantastical world that brings together elements of ancient Persia with those of the U.S., the modern day Iran, and the modern day Ohio, U.S. The book won the 2014 SPACE (Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo) prize for best graphic novel and was nominated for two other awards in 2014.
An Iranian Metamorphosis, by cartoonist Mana Neyestani, originally published in France, was later translated into English by Ghazal Mosadeq and published in the U.S. by Uncivilized Books. The book tells the story of Neyestani’s imprisonment in Iran following a controversial cartoon he drew and him being forced to flee the country and go into exile.
Zahra’s Paradise, by Amir and Khalil. The book narrates stories of the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election by focusing on the story of a mother and her missing son. It began as a web comic series and was later published as a book. Since then, it has been translated into sixteen languages. Amir Soltani calls the book “a sort of collage made up of real-life events strung together to make sense of what can sometimes seem too absurd to be true” (Interview with Jadaliyya, Sept 13, 2011). The visual details and the words guiding readers through the narrative beautifully and painfully document a historical moment in time and pay tribute to the struggles of different generations and groups of people coming together to raise their voices against injustice.
Yousef and Farhad, Struggling for Family Acceptance in Iran, by Amir and Khalil, tells the love story of two young gay men in Iran. Published and available online through OutRight Action International, this short book seems to be put out primarily for educational purposes and bringing attention to human rights issues. It, however, fails to create a fully developed story. No one episode is really delved into, many of the choices and references are rushed through, and everything remains on the surface. As a result, other than hinting at the problems of the gay community in Iran, it is not clear what the book is aiming for and who are the intended audience. The Iranian reader might end up asking, “So what?” while the non-Iranian reader unfamiliar with the nuances and background information will probably be left more confused about the situation than before they began reading.
It is interesting to note that the form is not as popular with Iranian writers currently writing and publishing in Iran. Other than two titles put out by Mana Neyestani when he lived and worked in Iran, I am not aware of any other writers living in Iran tackling the form in recent years. It is the Iranian writers living in the diaspora who have tried their hand in the form, perhaps because they have realised the possibilities that interweaving images and words can offer to reach audiences who do not know much about the place and people whose stories they are telling. The presence of images allows them to include details that might not have found their way into the narrative otherwise, or if they did they would risk ending up being forced and not belonging to the story world. These details are nonetheless important in recreating the larger context and the specific details of the world, especially for the audience who is unfamiliar with them. Objects around a room, details of cityscapes, or textures of clothing and foods can recreate reality and woo us or they can help create a fantasy and take us into a completely imaginary world.
The visual elements can, moreover, bring in a group of readers—people interested in the genre and also younger generations who have an affinity for visual representations—who might not have otherwise approached that unknown world. Teaching classes using Joe Sacco’s works of comics journalism telling stories from Sarajevo, Gaza, Iraq, and books by Satrapi and Amir and Khalil about Iran to my undergraduate students in the U.S. has allowed me to introduce them to realities they would otherwise feel resistant reading of, engaging with, and thinking critically about.
It is perhaps time for us, Iranian writers inside and outside Iran, to think more about the creative opportunities the form can provide in the realm of storytelling.
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