Unveiled, unvarnished

Times Staff Writer

PERHAPS fiery, irreverent Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi was not the most orthodox choice to address the evolving young minds at West Point. After all, she is as ardent a critic of President Bush as she is of Iran's religious leaders. And a roomful of crew-cut cadets facing deployment to Iraq was not exactly Satrapi's idea of a highbrow literary audience.

But when she spoke to them earlier this year while on tour with her new book, "Embroideries," "I was very impressed," Satrapi said on a recent visit to Los Angeles. "I realized a soldier is just a 19-year-old boy. A baby. If I was 21 and had to go to a place and probably die, I wouldn't want to have doubts. These kids, they have doubts. Not all of them think it's a good idea. Not all of them want to go."

It is this ability to look across political divides and locate the humanity on the other side that has propelled Satrapi to the forefront of the long-form comic narrative known as the graphic novel. Her humanized account of Iran's 1979 revolution, told through the eyes of a little girl -- Satrapi as a child -- is now required reading at West Point.

Satrapi's highly expressive characters, rendered in stark black-and-white drawings with a woodcut feel, have put a startlingly recognizable face on the struggles of ordinary Iranians to maintain a sense of normalcy amid their country's political convulsions. More than a million people in 30 countries have read her books printed in 16 languages, her publishers at Pantheon Books say, since Satrapi debuted in 2000 with "Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood," her memoir of a youth -- she was born in November 1969 -- disrupted by the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Her growing popularity has also handed her a platform as a commentator on international affairs. Her devil-may-care frankness warms -- and occasionally, outrages -- people at her speaking engagements. Recently, she has contributed a new illustrated guest column, "An Iranian in Paris," to the New York Times website. "For many years, many people in Paris, maybe most, didn't see the immigrants as part of Paris," wrote Satrapi, who left Iran for good in 1994 and now makes Paris her home, in one column. "Now many of these immigrants are giving notice, via thousands of burning cars and smashed windows, that they are not happy with their current lot."

But as she expands her reach, Satrapi sticks to the first-person view of history that pulls her readers into the living rooms and streetscapes of her world.

"I was born in a certain place, in a certain time," Satrapi told a heavily Iranian American audience at UCLA's Royce Hall recently. "I might be unsure of many things, but I'm not unsure of what I've seen with my own eyes. This is not the story of Iran. I'm not speaking for the Iranian people. It is the story of Iran through my eyes. This was my truth."

Perhaps. But for many people, Satrapi's highly subjective witnessing of history decoded an Iran that had been crudely framed by one-dimensional news reports on the 1979 American hostage crisis and Bush's 2002 description of the country as part of an "axis of evil."

Brutally honest and blunt

IN "Persepolis," she introduces her progressive parents and a reassuring extended family that is increasingly concerned about rising religious extremism after the 1979 Iranian revolution. At first, Satrapi and other little girls lightheartedly play jump-rope with their funny new veils. But soon, their neighbors are sent off as boy "soldiers," armed only with plastic keys for entry to heaven, to the front of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, where many will be blown up clearing minefields.

In "Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return," her parents pack her off to Vienna in 1984 to get her out of the fray. Fourteen years old and desperately lonely, she ventures into drugs and attempts suicide while experiencing the usual sexual and emotional coming-of-age milestones. She returns to Iran, where at her art school the models are so heavily veiled that the students are reduced to drawing drapes.

"Embroideries" draws readers into the warm heart of Iranian life, with a story of a close circle of women and the wily resourcefulness they employ to outmaneuver the vice grip of their patriarchal world.

" 'Persepolis' was a scream: 'Look! We're not so different from you,' " Satrapi said, pouring herself a glass of red wine and lighting a cigarette in a hotel room so mod-minimalist that her outsized personality seemed the only sign of life. "In 'Embroideries,' I try to dispel crazy ideas people have about Iranian women -- that they don't have a sexual life, that we don't talk about anything."

The heroines of "Embroideries" talk about everything. In a virtual Iranian "Sex and the City," the women -- drawn from Satrapi's relatives and family friends -- pull the veil off the intimate encounters that have more than doubled the Iranian population since the revolution.

"I have a cousin who always maintained that he would only marry a virgin. The other day he called me to tell me that he had changed his mind," Satrapi says in the book as she attempts to comfort a weeping friend who fears the reaction of her husband-to-be if he notices her lost virginity. "When I congratulated him on his enlightenment, he answered: 'Marji, if I changed my mind, it's because no girls are virgins anymore.' "

The book's title reflects that new reality. It's a euphemism for a kind of plastic surgery (also performed in the United States) in which a bride-to-be has her virginity "restored" before her wedding night.

This, of course, serves as a metaphor for the gender charade playing out in their lives, often with wickedly funny results. Satrapi's distraught friend brings a razor blade to bed on her wedding night to nick herself and simulate the blood of virginity -- but ends up cutting the most delicate anatomy of her hapless groom instead.

To Satrapi, the unequal balance of power between the genders is at the heart of her country's oppressive government. "In a patriarchal culture, when the father has the final say in everything, the furthest manifestation of that is the dictator having the final say," she said. "If we fight the patriarchal culture, we will have democracy in Iran."

By way of illustration

SATRAPI, whose profession was graphic art, began to write graphic fiction while living in Paris with her Swedish husband, whom she describes as a supportive muse. Her introduction to the form came on her birthday in 1995, when someone gave her "Maus," the internationally acclaimed graphic novel on the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman.

"It was really a revelation to me," she said. "I realized: An image is an international language. A sad man is a sad man to everyone in the world."

She began the drawings that became "Persepolis," thinking she might copy them and give them to friends. A small press caught wind of it and offered to publish it. Satrapi said she was startled when her memoir mushroomed into a bestseller.

Satrapi's accounts of violence and exile resonate with many families who have rebuilt their lives in L.A.'s Iranian American community -- "Irangeles" -- or had loved ones arrested, tortured or killed in Iran.

At her recent Royce Hall appearance, a multigenerational Iranian American crowd chuckled in recognition alongside young Americans of other ethnicities who closely follow the graphic-novel genre.

"Your books have been a lesson for us of our history, and given us insight into our parents' experiences," a college-age woman with long, dark hair and bluejeans told Satrapi.

"You are a role model for me as a Persian woman," an elegantly suited woman said next. "I have spent so much time laughing and crying with your books. You're truly a role model, for your honesty."

Satrapi is beyond honest. She's blunt, outspoken, outre.

"I really like Americans very much. If there wasn't a President Bush, I would probably come and live here. Kick him out!" she exhorted the audience at UCLA, to some laughter and clapping.

"I think there's a lot of resemblance between the government of your country and the government of my country," she elaborated. "Both are God's best friend. Both want to pray. Both want to fight evil. But when the leader of the world's greatest democracy is the best friend of God and wants to fight the 'axis of evil,' that's a little scary."

Satrapi even ventured into the rather taboo territory of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran, explaining that it was fueled by Iranian outrage at the history of U.S. meddling in Iran.

A few older Iranian emigres took umbrage.

"I was offended by what she said about Bush," said Etty Barcohana, an elderly Iranian-born New Yorker at the event. "She's in our country."

Satrapi herself is somewhat stateless. She no longer feels safe traveling back to Iran: "There is not a state of law." She says that although most countries -- even France, Germany and the United States -- have a small population of extremists, in Iran, "these fanatics have the guns and the power. The world should pay attention, so their 15% don't get the guns and the power."

It is this inclination to emphasize the connections between peoples and societies, rather than their differences, that has boosted the audience for Satrapi's running commentary.

And it seems to prompt openness in a surprisingly diverse cast. Satrapi said she was at a gay bar in New York City when she made the West Point contact who led her to address the cadets in May. While mingling at West Point, Satrapi said, she met two generals who told her they thought the war in Iraq had been a mistake -- and found herself in the company of many disenchanted young men.

"If I was 21 and I had to go to war, I would want to die for a good reason. These soldiers were practically children. They still have pink cheeks," Satrapi said, taking a sip of wine. "They told me I'm invited to go back and speak again there whenever I want."

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