As an undergraduate student on the hunt for academic materials, I often found my eyes searching the college library shelves for a light read. It was during one of those searches that I discovered Marjane Satrapi’s bildungsroman, Persepolis. It was a graphic memoir which promised a break from the books rich with theoretical jargon. It was this visual paperback that ushered me into the world of graphic novels but more importantly, into Marji’s world. Her narrative style, albeit effortless, is not an escapist read. The path she treads is not without thorns and the stories she tells are not easy ones to absorb. Her work reminds you of Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which explored similar themes of war in the Islamic world. A woman writing for other women, Marjane’s Persepolis is something of a revelation. The clash between the two worlds the author inhabits and her journey reconciling her past with her present, in this coming-of-age bestseller, has found critical acclaim. The powerful narrator has also published Chicken with Plums, a French melancholy with an Iranian flavour seeping through the pages, which is nothing short of a masterpiece.
This book review pertains to one of her lighter books and a personal favourite as it is set within the confines of the women’s world, a heterotopia, where generations of women share their stories in a safe space where they can freely discuss their intimate lives. Embroideries was nominated for the Angoulême Album of the Year award in 2003 and won the Urhunden Prize for Foreign Album in 2007.
Through Embroideries, Satrapi succeeds in deepening one’s understanding of the socio-cultural intricacies of women’s lives. She covers various themes in Embroideries including love, men and the importance of living up to patriarchal norms for a woman. Most successful graphic novelists are men. Satrapi’s contribution to visual culture from a female point of view is significant. Moreover, ‘western’ women have written most of the mainstream English literature exploring the lives of ‘eastern’ women. So, the subtleties of cultural nuances are often written off as foreign anomalies.
As a teenager, Iranian-born Satrapi was educated in Vienna. On returning to Iran, she earned a master’s degree from the Islamic Azad University in Tehran. Looking back at the issues faced daily by women under patriarchies in the Islamic world such as arranged marriage, child marriage, extramarital affairs, plastic surgeries and virginity, her perspective is unique and refreshing.
The portrayal of the characters in Embroideries challenges the one-dimensional paper-doll image imposed on the veiled Muslim women by mainstream media. Satrapi enlightens the reader about the experiences of three generations of women living under soul-crushing patriarchy, both in the external world as well as within their homes. She introduces us to her feisty grandmother, indifferent mother, fashionable aunt and friendly neighbours- characters who come alive for the reader. These women struggle against patriarchy, often outwitting it and winning against it in their own ways. In this way, Satrapi weaves a fabric of various women’s lives, by gathering the individual strands of the stories of different women who were a part of her world.
The narrator’s voice is distinctive. The language is simple and easy to understand. However, an exciting element of the book is the introduction to concepts and utilities for which words in another language do not exist. For instance, in this book, I was introduced to the ritual of tea-making in a Samovar, a metal urn that has been used to brew tea in Iran for centuries. However, some readers might find the language graphic at times, like when she describes an episode where one of the women accidentally slices her husband’s testicles.
The comic-book format gives Satrapi the flexibility to invite the reader straight into the scene. In Embroideries, that scene is a segregated space, solely populated by women. That space occurs during stolen moments of female bonding, such as after a meal, when the men take a nap and the women clean up. You, the reader, are ushered into an intimate gathering. The characters we meet through the pages of the novel are real because Satrapi has met them and is introducing them and their stories to us. This book makes a major contribution to literature as it is devoid of the orientalised gaze which surveys ‘eastern’ women as stereotypically oppressed and without any agency. Satrapi clearly shows that Iranian women come in all shapes and sizes and challenge the structures of patriarchy in their own way every single day.
Although the book is a delightful read with strong characters, it also succeeds in highlighting many bitter truths. The glamorous aunt Parvine, for instance, had been forced to marry a sixty-nine-year-old man at the tender age of thirteen. Although she escaped the marriage, the experience has rendered her deeply cynical as we meet her in the pages of the book. However, Satrapi keeps it light. The story she shares of the time when she accompanied her lovelorn friend Sideh to consult a white magic practitioner is particularly hilarious.
Satrapi’s book is for anyone looking for a quick visit to a comfort zone. The women in this room will not judge you because they know better. Perhaps, because they have been there too, a few times. If I took anything away from this book, it was that the patriarchal system is inherently designed to subdue women. However, women should be confident enough not to let it bring them down and to use their agency to control their own lives. As Marji’s grandmother advised Azzi, “If you miss your virginity so much, you just have to get an embroidery!”