Academic journal article Nebula

Crossing Cultures/ Crossing Genres: The Re-Invention of the Graphic Memoir in Persepolis and Persepolis 2

Academic journal article Nebula

Crossing Cultures/ Crossing Genres: The Re-Invention of the Graphic Memoir in Persepolis and Persepolis 2

Article excerpt

Migrant Intellectuals, Academic Debates and the Graphic Memoir

Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoirs Persepolis and Persepolis 2 are compelling explorations of female Iranian national and diasporic identity. Satrapi uses the form of the graphic novel to creatively counter the overwhelming perception of Iranian women as oppressed subjects of Islamic religious orthodoxy. This essay is an attempt to read Satrapi's memoirs as a reworking of the traditional genre of autobiography which has traditionally privileged a universalist western subjectivity, usually male. Satrapi reinvents autobiography as a genre expressing the growth of non-western, female, Iranian subjectivity but also rescripts its terrain as encompassing the social sphere in relation to which individual subjectivity develops. Not only does Satrapi use the memoir to narrate her own growth into consciousness and artistic expression, this narrative is constantly juxtaposed against seminal events in contemporary Iranian history. Satrapi's reworking of autobiography as graphic memoir disrupts the categorization of Iranian female identity as one in direct opposition to modern western female identity, positing one as complete suppression by religious authority and the other as the apotheosis of freedom and individualism.

Satrapi's memoirs have been published at a time of increasing visibility of memoirs by Iranian women in the US. Perhaps the most famous example is Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. This work has sparked a furious controversy about the particular popularity of Iranian women's memoirs at a time of increasing US intolerance towards the current regime in Iran and the constant veiled and overt threat of American attack if the present Iranian government does not give up its nuclear energy program. Hamid Dabashi has drawn a connection between these seemingly disconnected literary and political phenomena by arguing that such literary presentations of women's suppression by religious or cultural institutions has been the traditional rationale for moral and cultural legitmation of imperial rule. Using Gayatri Spivak's analysis of the moral rationale for British colonial rule in India to be the saving of brown women from the atrocities of brown men, Dabashi categorizes these contemporary memoirs to be providing the present day moral impetus to sanction American imperial adventures. Dabashi is quite unabashed in his categorization of Nafisi and others as comprador intellectuals who are servicing the American ideological machinery. In addition, Dabashi accuses Nafisi for reinvoking a restrictive notion of the western canon, through her depiction of a group of students reading the classics of modern western literature in the privacy of Nafisi's home, at a time of academic and literary censorship in Iran. The reading list of Nafisi's group, Dabashi argues, ignores a domestic Iranian literary tradition and the women in the group lack an empathy with the underprivileged sections of the Iranian population. While this paper is not the space to tease out the intricacies of this debate, I think it provides an interesting context to begin reading Persepolis.

It is important to keep in mind that the Nafisi controversy impinges on the question of gender. Dabashi's main source of discomfort with Nafisi's depiction of the severe restrictions of women's freedoms in contemporary Iran is that it becomes a rationale for imperial interventions. This is a familiar accusation that many feminists of color have faced. In representing gender oppressions in their societies truthfully, they invite criticism for being anti-nationalist or pro-western. The Nigerian born British novelist Buchi Emecheta is an example that comes to mind as someone who has attracted a great deal of negative attention because she has been an unequivocal critic of polygamy. Nigerian critics have attacked her for her negative portraits of Nigerian men. This ambivalence in Emecheta's presentation of Nigerian men has led to some critics like Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi to argue that Emecheta is preoccupied by the question of the black woman as a victim of black patriarchy, without being equally attentive to the question of racism. …

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