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Marjane Satrapi Read by Liz Montague

About the Episode

The story of Marjane Satrapi takes us from war-torn Iran to the streets of Paris. Marjane grew up under the rule of a strict religious government and always felt the need to push the limits that surrounded her. After moving to Paris as a young adult she found a way to tell her story: with simple black and white images and an unending commitment to telling the truth about her childhood, her country and herself. 

Get to Know Liz Montague

Liz Montague believes in representation and in this interview she tells us how she gently suggested that the New Yorker needed a little bit more of it in their famous cartoons. Liz read us the story of graphic-novelist Marjane Satrapi who was an inspiration to her as an artist and a storyteller! 

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Transcript

Once, there was a girl who drew the story of herself and her family across the pages of the world…

Her name is Marjane. 

Ever since she was very young, Marjane, or Marji for short, was a spitfire. She ran around her home in the Iranian capital of Tehran in sneakers, with her short, dark hair bouncing around her grinning cheeks. Her eyes sparkled with mischief.

Marji’s parents wanted everything for their daughter. But in Iran, where she grew up, people believed men and women were not equal. Girls were told to be “pretty,” to get married, and to have children.

But, Marji’s mother never treated her differently from boys. She told her daughter – who was so full of life and energy – that there were no limits to what she was capable of. She told her that anything a “human being can do” Marji can do. 

These would become words to live by as Marji grew up and – eventually – told her story to the world…simply…in black and white.

I’m Liz Montague, and this is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. 

A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. 

This week: Marjane Satrapi.

As she grew up, Marjane read books about philosophies and governments from all over the world and wondered why her own government treated it’s people so badly. From her family’s apartment, she would watch as protestors marched the streets, calling for an end to the oppressive regime.

Then, in 1979, when Marji was ten years old, the Iranian Revolution happened. Iran’s king, who was known as “The Shah,” was forced to leave the country. Marji and her classmates ripped out pictures of him from their textbooks. Most exciting of all, 3,000 political prisoners were released. One of these was Marji’s Uncle Anoosh who had been in prison almost as long as she had been alive.

One evening after Uncle Anoosh was released, she asked him to explain what happened to him as a bedtime story. And he did.

When he was done he said, “I tell you all this because it is important that you know,” said Uncle Anoosh. “Our family memory must not be lost. Even if it’s not easy for you, even if you don’t understand it.”

“Don’t worry,” Marji replied, snuggling down into her blankets. “I’ll never forget.”

And she didn’t. She held all the stories inside of her and saved them for later. When she would one day draw them for everyone to see. 

When the Shah of Iran was ousted by his people, Iranians were hopeful that the new regime would be better than the old one. Unfortunately, they were wrong.

The new government was very strict. So many things were forbidden – certain music and clothing. Girls and boys weren’t allowed to study together anymore. Women and girls were required by law to cover their hair with headscarves and hooded veils before leaving their houses. 

This was a huge change to what Marji was used to.

Her parents were afraid that the government would soon ban travel to European countries, so the family took a trip to Italy and Spain in 1980. And when they got back? Their country was at war.

Tehran, the capital city of Iran where Marji lived, was under constant attack from Iraq, the country next door. Air raid sirens wailed. The distant sound of military planes and muffled booms seemed constant. It was a very scary time. 

Despite all the violence around her, Marji’s parents still encouraged her to think for herself and be independent. As she grew into a teenager she resisted the oppressive laws through little acts of rebellion

She went out wearing jeans and punk-rock t-shirts under her veil. She wore black-market nail polish and listened to banned music alone in her room, head banging and  strumming a tennis racket air-guitar. 

She got in TONS of trouble but somehow always managed to squeak out of it. 

Even so, Marji’s parents were getting worried for her. They made a tough decision to send her away from Iran…and away from her family. The plan was, she would go to Austria. Marji was shocked that they trusted her enough to let her go alone. And…she was sad. As she wrote later “Nothing’s worse than saying goodbye.”

Austria was a culture shock. In a GOOD way. Marji wouldn’t write…or draw about it until much, much later, but her experiences in Europe always stuck with her.

She didn’t speak a word of German but she made it work. She was amazed at the supermarkets…at the shelves and aisles filled with food. 

She excelled in her classes. She found punk friends who were fascinated by her experiences in Iran. She ate spaghetti right out of the pot.

For the most part, she could wear what she wanted, eat what she wanted, do what she wanted, and BE whoever she wanted.

Life in Austria turned out to be better than she expected. But this left Marji feeling guilty that her friends and family back home were in danger every day. A few phone calls every now and then and a visit from her mother helped a little, but Marji was homesick. She felt like nobody understood her in Europe. 

Lots of people assumed all Iranians were terrorists – and they weren’t shy about saying terrible things to her because of where she was from.

She began to feel lost…and eventually, she realized something important: It was time to go home.

Marjane flew home in the winter of 1989 when she was eighteen. Driving through the streets of Tehran was both the same and very, very different. It was eerily quiet. Like a cemetery. And the buildings were covered with 50 foot high murals of serious, stern-looking men. 

Marji refused to speak about her time in Austria. One of her childhood friends had lost an arm and a leg on the front lines. Parts of her city had been reduced to rubble. Families had been destroyed by the violence. It felt like whining to complain.

So, she kept her own story all bottled up inside. It wouldn’t be til years later, when she finally put pen to paper, that she would describe her “great European adventure”  to her family, friends…and the rest of the world.

At this time, a great sadness began building within her. A sadness called depression. She didn’t want to get out of bed and she couldn’t stop crying.

It took time, but Marji eventually realized something. Something important: it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be depressed.

After that, Marji was determined to take care of herself. Depression would stay with her for many years, but it didn’t stop Marji from continuing to rebel. She got a job, took university entrance exams, and realized something ELSE important. She realized a love of art. So she decided to study it in school and started on a degree in art.

In college, Marji found her classes too serious. So she started doodling funny cartoons in her notes. She added speech bubbles of her professors shouting and showed them to her friends to make them laugh. Luckily, she didn’t get caught or she would have been in big trouble.

But – remember – a lot of things were still illegal in Iran. 

As an artist, Marji needed to have models pose for her but it was technically illegal for her male friends to pose, and it was impossible for her to get a good sketch from the female models at school because they wore long robes and had their faces covered. 

As usual though – Marji found a way. She and her friends took turns striking poses at home in dress-up clothes. They always got better grades on their home-made sketches, and their professor pretended not to notice.

Marji and her friends defied the law in other subtle ways too.  By wearing makeup, showing their wrists in public, listening to music on headphones, and occasionally switching out their black socks for red ones. 

Once, Marji’s friend dared her to take off her veil in the car. She shouted with joy out the window as they drove through the streets of Tehran. 

After a few years though, Marji couldn’t stand the strict laws anymore. “I want to leave this country!” she shouted.

In the summer of 1994, at age 25, Marji memorized every precious detail of the country she loved: the mountains, the salty air, the sight of the Caspian sea, the smell of Jasmine wafting off her grandmother’s clothes. She said goodbye to her grandfather and Uncle Anoosh where they were buried.

Then she packed her things and moved to France.

After leaving Iran, Marjane ended up settling in France and tried to make it as an artist, but it didn’t go well at first. She wrote and illustrated a few children’s books, but they didn’t get published. 

Then, a friend gave her a book that changed everything: Maus, a graphic novel. Reading it made her think about her old doodles in school. What if she tried writing a story like this, she wondered. What stories would she tell?

And then…she figured it out. Every time she made a new friend, she always tried to stay away from talking about her home country. But somehow she ended up explaining her childhood in Iran over and over again. 

So she decided to write it all down. The story of her life, and her family, and Iran. She started writing and drawing the book that would introduce her to the world. 

Persepolis.

This time, publishers took notice. They saw and appreciated Marjane’s dark humor, her honesty. And her simple art style impressed everyone. 

In Persepolis, she told the truth about her childhood in Iran: every scary, controversial detail. She didn’t paint herself as a hero or villain. She was just Marji, good and bad. She ended up publishing 4 volumes and the book was made into a movie in 2007.

So far, Persepolis has been translated into 24 languages and sold over two million copies.

But – for all that – Marjane Satrapi’s work is banned in the country she loves. The country she was born in, Iran. She can’t even return home because the government might throw her in jail. 

But she continues to write and draw her family’s history, no matter what other people think. 

And, to this day, her work inspires female graphic novelists to tell their own stories, through pictures, one panel at a time.

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