Reading Persepolis: Comically Inept?

persepolisMe, not Persepolis, of course. Because Persepolis is highly acclaimed (from the cover blurbs: “brilliant and unusual,” “superb,” “a mighty achievement,” “a dazzlingly singular achievement”) and widely considered an outstanding example of its kind. So the truth must be that if I read Maus badly, I read Persepolis very badly — despite having dutifully read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in the meantime.

I enjoyed Understanding Comics. I always like the feeling of starting off down a path that’s new to me while being guided by someone smart and, in this case, also fun. I think I got a lot out of it, too — not just some basic vocabulary for talking about the art and craft of comics (terms like “closure,” “gutters,” and “motion lines,” for instance) but a better, if obviously still superficial and preliminary, appreciation of comics as part of the broader landscape of both pictorial and textual art. I was intrigued and largely convinced by the argument that comics are a form that requires a high degree of audience participation to make meaning, and by the theory that “by de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts” — in other words, something that might seem from a different perspective to be a flaw in comics (their more or less iconographic rather than realistic style of representation) is better understood as a feature of the form (not unlike the formulaic plot structure of the classic mystery). I was interested in the histories McCloud provided of various comic-like forms, and in the connections he made between developments in other theories and practices of art and things comics do and don’t do. I was both engaged and amused by the ecstatic tone of the book’s final chapter, which rises to a crescendo of enthusiasm about how one day “the truth [about comics] will shine through!” It’s a long way from reading my first book about comics to claiming any expertise, but by the time I finished Understanding Comics I thought I would at least read my next graphic novel with more appreciation.

04-persepolisBut I didn’t! If anything, I found Persepolis less satisfying to read than Maus. From start to finish I felt as if I were reading a child’s picture book about Iran: an illustrated oversimplification, rather than a sophisticated verbal-visual synthesis, which is what the euphoric conclusion of Understanding Comics holds up as the form’s highest potential. Satrapi’s decision to tell the story strictly from her childish point of view is one obvious reason for that: the book does effectively convey the frustration and confusion she felt, not just at events themselves but at people’s often puzzling and contradictory responses to them. I really missed the kind of framing perspective we get in Maus from both Art and his father, though; compared to Marjane the character, Marjane Satrapi the author certainly knows much more about, or understands much differently, the world of her childhood, but I struggled to find evidence of that in the book. Maybe it’s in the drawings — but if it is, I wasn’t able to perceive it. The art was often dramatic and sometimes beautiful, or disturbing, but it also seemed incongruously cartoonish to me, and it distanced me from the emotion and action of the story as a result. McCloud proposes that more generic drawings allow us to identify with characters rather than being preoccupied with their specificity, their difference from us, but since in this case the characters are highly specific, the degree to which they looked similar was frustrating and seemed to flatten out the narrative. I could see at times that the effect was appropriate: stamping out individuality in favor of conformity was clearly a goal of the Islamic regime, for instance, and being unable to tell which veiled girl in the group was Marjane played into that. Overall, though, I couldn’t shake off the desire to have a more rich and complex written text; for me, even the most complex of the pictures were not sufficient compensation for what I felt was missing.

understanding-comicsI think what I may be running into here is a limitation created by my own love of words. Though I can tell even from one reading of Understanding Comics that there is a grammar to the art work and a language and style (or rather, many languages and styles) to the combination of words and images in comics, I am by both training and inclination a different kind of reader, a long-time devoted reader of a different kind of texts. Right now it seems unlikely I’ll ever become an avid reader of comics, partly because so far I haven’t enjoyed them that much and partly because there is so much else I want to read (so many novels that aren’t ‘graphic’) that I can’t really see putting in a concerted effort to get better at reading them. If I did end up choosing to teach an example of the form, I’d have to put my personal preferences aside, of course, and do the work. I’ve done that often enough with other texts I have felt obligated to teach that I know I’m often led by obligation to appreciation and then to genuine liking. I’m done with comics for now, though, as I have to write up some notes on Middlemarch for tomorrow’s seminar … no shortage of words there! And on no occasion have I ever wished the novel had pictures, either.

Recent Reading: Johnson, Mitchell, Sage, and Mitchell

Somehow that post title ends up sounding like a law firm! Its somewhat miscellaneous character matches my recent reading experiences well, though.

Diane Johnson’s Persian Nights is the first book on my blogging catch-up list. I picked it up on a recent trip to Doull’s because I’ve been spending a fair amount of reading time in Iran lately and also remembered having read Ahdaf Soueif’s review of Persian Nights in her collection Mezzaterra, so it just seemed like a good book for me to try. Soueif seems to have liked it better than I did: she found it ” a serious tale, a tale of altered perceptions and of moral responsibility.” I’m quite prepared to believe that she is a better reader of this book than I was, but I was disappointed precisly by the lack of seriousness and by the sideways, slightly satirical way it touched on issues of moral responsibility. The book clings closely to the point of view of Chloe Fowler, an American doctor’s wife who ends up spending alone what was meant to be ‘together’ time for them in Iran. I felt that her limitations became the novel’s limitations, that the opportunity for a complex narrative about cultural misunderstandings and crosspurposes was handled instead as a rather sour comedy of manners. I agree with Soueif that Persian Nights “is a story about the limits of change — and, finally, its impossibility,” but I would press a little on that, or add in that it is about the limits of change that are possible for someone like Chloe.

The first ‘Mitchell’ on the list is for David Mitchell: I’m reading Cloud Atlas. Notice that I say “reading”: it’s a work in progress. I was doing really well until “An Orison of Sonmi-451.” I’m not a science fiction reader, largely because I find the elaborate artifice of ‘world-making’ tedious, and while I accept intellectually that the genre at its best works as an indirect way of exploring themes or problems in our actual world (though of course I’m sure it doesn’t always, or have to, do this)–still, there’s a machinery to it that I don’t read well. Still, I persevered with Sommi 451 and eventually became adept enough at the futuristic dialect to feel a pulse of readerly excitement as it came to its (interim) conclusion. But then Mitchell hit me with “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” and ground to a halt. Egad. It’s like reading “Caliban Upon Setebos” but for 100 pages. Still, the novel as a whole is clearly genius, and I know my expectations and reading habits are just being tested. I’m going to return to it and just read, even skim, if I have to, until I feel that pulse again, because I’m quite keen to return to all the other narratives, each of which caused a terrible hiccup of interrupted attention as I began it the first time–like grinding gears!–but each of which also had drawn me right in within a few pages. I enjoyed seeing the threads of connection gently laid down for us, too, and I’m pretty confident that the experience of following them back out of the labyrinth of stories will be quite thrilling. I just have to get past “Sloosha.”

‘Sage’ here is for Lorna Sage, whose memoir Bad Blood I’m also stalled in the middle of. I’m not sure why, except that the atmosphere of the book was depressing and I have been discovering, also, a strain of resistance in myself to memoirs as a genre.

And the second ‘Mitchell’ here is for Margaret Mitchell: I’ve just finished reading Gone with the Wind for (and I’m not making this up) the 32nd time. I know this exact number because GWTW was a favourite of mine in my misspent youth and I used to note each rereading on the inside cover (the copy I now have takes me from 23 to 32). I have many thoughts about how this book looks to me today–but I’m saving those for what I hope will become an essay for Open Letters on just that experience of rereading something in a different way, from a different time–almost, as a different person. I’m thinking of drawing (not too heavily, I hope) on Wayne Booth’s discussions of books as friends in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. In this case, not to spoil the ending of my future essay or anything, I have to say that this friendship right now is under a lot of strain, but I think, despite myself,  its longevity may sustain it. Don’t we all, after all, have a friend (or a relative) we still love, warts and all, in spite of everything that’s wrong with them? We’ll see.

In the meantime, because clearly I don’t have enough unfinished projects on the go, I’m about to start work on this nice bookish sampler from Little House Needleworks. I’m going to try and sneak “George Eliot” in instead of “Wilder”–not that I didn’t read and love all the Little House books as a girl, but really, if it’s going to hang in my office when it’s finished, she just has to be there. There’s some nice lurking irony in this project, given how many of these writers felt about needlework! Canadian readers with a crafty tendency may want to know that I ordered my copy of the pattern from the Button & Needlework Boutique in Victoria. You Yankees are on your own.

Two Iranian Women’s Memoirs: Things I’ve Been Silent About and Iran Awakening

I read both Things I’ve Been Silent About and Iran Awakening a few weeks ago, inspired in part by the discussions with one of my students mentioned here–she also very kindly gave me her copy of Iran Awakening when I mentioned I had not been able to find it in stock locally. I’m not entirely sure why I have put off writing about them for so long! But until I do, I can’t put the books back on the shelf, so here I go.

I had a passing idea that I would, maybe should, reread Reading Lolita in Tehran before writing on Nafisi’s memoir, but I didn’t. Perhaps if I had, I would have more to say about Things I Have Been Silent About, which I didn’t actually find very engaging. It’s primarily about Nafisi’s relationship with her parents, which wasn’t what I wanted to know about. I also felt uncomfortable reading her account of them, particularly of her vexed relationship with her mother. Though she is self-conscious about her own failures to understand or sympathize with her mother, and works to contextualize her mother’s choices and values, she ultimately still comes across as both unsympathetic and resentful. I guess I’m just wary of the inevitable one-sidedness of such a personal account, and wince at exposure of family feelings in this way. Consider the tone of this passage:

Some families try to cover up their tensions in front of strangers, but for Mother, a woman otherwise so insistent on social etiquette, no such niceties existed. She gave in to her emotions regardless of where she was. I tried not to let her know about my interest in Mehran, but she had a hunter’s instinct, alert and sensitized to my secret hideaways. Her instinct was helped, in this instance, by daily intrusions into the most private corners of her children’s lives. She listened in on my phone conversations, read my letters and diaries, and walked in and out of my room whenever she felt like it. I could never be certain which I resented more, the fact that she read my diary and letters or that she never allowed me to feel indignant about her actions: she would use her new evidence as proof of my betrayals.

Sure, Mother sounds intrusive–any teenager would find her so. But Nafisi seems to be still caught up in the resentment she describes. She’s far more forgiving of her father’s infidelities than she is of her mother’s transgressions. In fact, she gets angry at her mother about them, as here, when her mother befriends one of Father’s mistresses:

It irritated me, the innocent and persistent way my mother had of being attentive toward this woman and her family. It made us all uncomfortable, since we all knew what was going on. . .

To some extent Things That I Have Been Silent About does trace a process of reconciliation for them, and the book ends, after the death of both parents, with some touching reflections on what–almost despite themselves, you get the impression–her parents have left her with, “a portable home that safeguards memory and is a constant resistance against the tyranny of man and of time.” But as I read the book, I wanted to get away from Nafisi’s own perspective on them–which of course is a desire that goes against the grain of a memoir.

Shirin Ebadi’s story is intrinsically interesting, even inspiring. The oddity of Iran Awakening, for me, was that the book does not perform that inspiration. If anything, it consistently downplays the drama of Ebadi’s confrontations with the Islamic Republic. Individual chapters often open with appalling anecdotes of injustice and brutality against women and children, like the story of 11-year old Leila Fathi, raped, beaten, and discarded. Two of the three perpetrators are convicted and sentenced to death (a third hangs himself in prison).

In this instance, the judge ruled that the ‘blood money’ for the two men was worth more than the life of the murdered eleven-year-old girl, and he demanded that her family come up with thousands of dollars to finance their executions.

Leila’s father sold all of his worldly possessions, including the little clay hut where his family slept. Homeless but convinced that they would at least reclaim their honor, they offered the money to the court. It was not enough. The family took to sleeping at the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, a vast mausoleum on the road to Qom, while trying to raise the reminaing cash. First Leila’s father volunteered to sell a kidney, but his organ was rejected because of his past drug abuse. Next Leila’s brother offered his up, but the doctor refused because he was handicapped by polio. [Remember, they are doing this to raise money to pay for the legal sentence to be carried out on the men who raped and murdered their daughter!] ‘Why,’ asked the doctor, ‘are you two so insistent on selling your kidneys?’ Out poured the tale. They could not return to their village, they explained, stained by tthe shame of Leila’s rape. [their shame?!] Family honor rests on the virtue of women, and nothing less than the perpetrator’s execution could erase their shame.

As Ebadi remarks, this case is evidence that the ‘postrevolutionary legal system’ is not just flawed but ‘effectively pathological’; she agrees to represent the family. But things get worse, not better:

Over the course of the proceedings, the court acquitted both defendants [though there’s at least one eye-witness, Leila’s male cousin], overturned the acquittals, and then relaunched the investigation. The family’s grief slowly descended into madness. Leil’as mother took to sitting outside the courthouse in a white funeral shroud, holding a placard that described her daughter’s violation. During one trial, she threatened to set herself on fire, and began screaming profanities at the court. As though the whole proceeding was not dramatic enough, the judge held her in contempt of court and filed legal charges against her that took us weeks of mediation to settle.

The case, she tells us, “remains open to this day.” The whole scenario is so outrageous I found it difficult to sit still just reading about it, and along with Ebadi’s other examples, it more than makes her case about the “pathological” system. What I found disappointing was her understated treatment of her own courageous commitment to fighting for the rights of women and children. “While I was arguing Leila’s case,” she says, “the judge repeatedly accused me of speaking against Islam and its sacred laws.” She doesn’t detail either those accusations or her responses, either here or elsewhere by and large, though surely those exchanges exemplify the conflict between an evil state and those it oppresses, something more elaborate reconstruction of the debates would have dramatized. The prose of the book overall is just prosaic, even flat at times, considering the events it describes. But then, though Ebadi is clearly heroic, her heroism was always on behalf of other people, and of principles: if she spent the book grandstanding about herself, it would draw our attention to her performance rather than to the issues and people she fought for. The incidents and details she does provide, too, including her stay in Evin prison, are dramatic enough not to need a lot of heightened rhetoric.

Of particular interest to me were the sections discussing her decision to “draw on Islamic principles and precedents in Islamic law” in fighting her reformist battles. She is explicit and eloquent about her own conviction that the right and best option is a secular state: fundamentally,” she points out, “Islam, like any religion, is subject to interpretation,” and thus “there will never be a definitive resolution. . . . I am a lawyer by training, and know only too well the permanent limitations of trying to enshrine inalienable rights in sources that lack fixed terms and definitions.” She talks about ijtihad, the tradition within Islam of “intellectual interpretation and innovation” advocated by, among others, my own former UBC classmate Irshad Manji:

On the one hand, ijtihad imposes flexibility on Islamic law and creates an exciting space for adapting Islamic values and traditions to our lives in the modern world. But this flexibility is also precisely what makes ijtihad, and Islamic jurisprudence altogether, a tricky foundation on which to base inalienable, universal rights. Ijtihad frees us by removing the burden of definitiveness–we can interpret and reinterpret Koranic teachings forever; but it also means clerics can take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights home and argue about it richly for centuries. It means it is possible for everyone, always, to have a point. It means that patriarchal men and powerful authoritarian regimes who repress in the name of Islam can exploit ijtihad to interpret Islam in the regressive, unforgiving manner that suits their sensibilities and political agendas. As with the mullah who summoned his clerk and removed me from the floor of parliament, fighting for women’s rights in the Islamic Republic is often not a battle of wits or reason, nor is it always a fair fight. This does not mean that Islam and equal rights for women are incompatible; it means that invoking Islam in a theocracy refracts the religion through a kaleidoscope, with interpretations perpetually shifting and mingling and the vantage of the most powerful prevailing.

But she’s a pragmatist, and recognizing also the “permanent limitations” of her own position as a “citizen of the Islamic Republic,” she resolves to “advocate for female equality in an Islamic framework.” She has taken criticism from all sides for her decision:

I have been under attack most of my adult life for this approach, threatened by those in Iran who denounce me as an apostate for daring to suggest that Islam can look forward and denounced outside my country by secular critics of the Islamic Republic, whose attitudes are no less dogmatic. Over the years, I have endured all manner of slights and attacks, been told that I must not appreciate or grasp the real spirit of democracy if I can claim in the same breath that freedom and human rights are not perforce in conflict with Islam. When I heard the statement of the [Nobel] prize read aloud, heard my religion mentioned specifically alongside my work defending Iranians’ rights, I knew at that moment what was being recognized: the belief in a positive interpretation of Islam, and the power of that belief to aid Iranians who aspire to peacefully transform their country.

I admit, it was a problem for me to read about her arguments that, for example, male consent need not be given for divorce, not because of the inequities created by that requirement, but because the Shar-e Lomeh or Shia Textbook of Jurisprudence, does not explicitly require it. She works hard drafting a law to broaden women’s rights basing it “on the central texts taught in the holy city of Qom’s seminaries, showing that a basic right for women could be guaranteed within an Islamic framework of governance, provided [she concedes] those in government were inclined to interpret the faith in the spirit of equality.” My own view would be that women’s rights are not conditional on the inclinations of men or mullahs, and even as I am overwhelmed with admiration for Ebadi’s courage and accomplishments, it’s difficult for me to accept her strategic concessions precisely because, as she herself argues so elqouently, arguing for the compatibility of women’s rights “within an Islamic framework” is no guarantee at all because they can always be argued away again–really, arguing at all about the validity of women’s rights in the first place basically gives the game away. Though, as Ebadi’s memoir (like Nafisi’s) makes clear (as if it needed clarification), the Islamic Republic violates the human rights of all of its citizens, it’s women on whom the heavy hand of the state always falls the hardest– Ebadi remarks, “Reza Shah was the first, but not the last, Iranian ruler to act out a political agenda . . . on the frontier of women’s bodies.” The current case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, currently under sentence of death by stoning for alleged adultery, is just one appalling recent example. (Both Nafisi and Ebadi are signatories on the petition to free Sakineh; if you aren’t already, follow the link and add your name.) As Ebadi would have to concede, Sakineh’s trial and sentence reflect an interpretation of Islam–just not the one that guarantees “a basic right for women,” thus proving her point about the need to base “inalienable rights” on a different foundation. But, of course, that’s easy for me to say. Nobody’s going to put me in prison for it.