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Distance: The Key to Reading Persepolis

nk0825's picture


           When you look at this image, what do you see? A grotesque picture with contrasting pink and blue hues insisting on a violent exchange between man and beast? Now look at the next image. 

               You may almost laugh, right? It’s SO simple: black and white, a mere stick figure.

            Okay, now compare the two. I mean, actually compare them. Do you derive the same meaning? A shark attacking a human being? An ultimately horrifying reality?

 These two pictures imply the same situation, yet both artists approach it differently. One chooses to use color, exactness, if not a sense of realness to portray the horror of the scene, while the other relies on the viewer to either expand upon what’s given or to simply leave it as it is….

            Is one more real than the other? Do you feel more able to absorb the reality of the situation from the stick figure or the detailed picture? Is there a distance between the meaning and the projection that allows you to less emotionally process the situation?


            In Literary Kinds we have hemmed and hawed about the meaning of the word “real.” Some have said because it happens to you, it’s real. For the sake of this paper I’m using “real” in terms of the events encountered by Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis. I suppose I’m adopting the claim that “realness” is then measured by experiences that one can recount in one-way or another.

Since I assume that Marjane’s reality is real, I believe that Persepolis can be categorized as a memoir. A memoir necessitates certain qualities: the text must focus on a series of related events, include a sense of higher emotional levels, and have descriptions of events that then show (either directly or indirectly) why said events are significant. I believe that Persepolis includes all of these characteristics from the narrator’s accounts. Marjane Satrapi uses the medium of a graphic novel to share her own story. Throughout the story the reader watches Marjane’s highs (love, family, and friends) and lows (break ups, deaths, fears) and Satrapi continuously narrates how her past shaped the person she has become.

 It is also said that writing a memoir is a “Therapeutic experience for the memoirist.” However, since I don’t personally know Marjane Satrapi I cannot speak on her behalf. BUT, I do know that if I experienced half of the things she had as a child it would be somewhat relieving to share my story. I suppose maybe the relationship between memoir and memoirist is most like a psychologist and his patient—a memoir provides a silent audience for the author to spill their guts to.

            However, it is not Persepolis’s classification as a memoir that intrigues me—what interests me is how Persepolis as a memoir interacts with its readers. Nancy Miller in her PMLA paper “The Entangled Self: Genre Bondage in the Age of the Memoir” states “Memoirs from sites of danger provide a safe space for readers to ponder the nightmare of global relations, even as the pages display the extreme difficulty of living in times of traumatic history.” In Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel the images combined with the interpretation that Persepolis is in fact a memoir, actually distances the reader from the reality of Marjane’s youth.

            The content of Persepolis is hard to swallow—its graphic novel-esque features confused me at first. I expected to read an innocent story that was about a little girl growing up, and I believe that the simplistic images I encountered when I first paged through the novel led me to this assumption.

I was poorly mistaken.

Marjane’s recollections are heavy and dark—she, as a little girl, deals with more pain and destruction than many of us will encounter in a lifetime.  Yet, as I was reading the book I was never overcome by the grief that most likely consumed Marjane; I was never brought to tears. Maybe this is a clue that I didn’t connect with the story, maybe it’s a sign that I’m uncompassionate. But, considering my previous novel experiences I think both of these assumptions are untrue (many a time have I sat in bed at night with tears streaming down my face while reading a book).  In some way my experience with Persepolis was different than other tearjerker novels that I've read. I believe that Satrapi’s images are the reason why I was able to remain unattached—or more simply put, why I didn’t bawl my eyes out while reading the graphic novel.

            Opening the pages of Persepolis one is greeted with cartoon like images colored only by black and white. The childlike simplicity of the drawings  contrasts to the heavy content that is strung throughout the book via conversations and text boxes. Satrapi’s interesting choice of color indicates one detachment from reality.

            Black and white often imply a point of view: stark, definitive, etc. In Persepolis the black and white images mirror the stark reality of living in an oppressive nation. However, this black and white creates a realistic facade. There exists no gray in Satrapi’s graphic novel. Not one shade of color combining the black and white tones. In our reality gray exists—it embodies any aspect of life shaded by uncertainties and unknowns. I believe the black and white images in Persepolis hence “de-complicate” any reality discussed in the graphic novel. The lack of gray paints a picture that everything is known or defined,but we all know that in our reality everything is not known. How can we therefore closely connect with the story if there exist gaps between our reality and the narrator’s reality? How can we, as readers, judge the situation and apply it to our own lives if it lacks an essential part of “realness”— complexity. 

            Besides the color, I believe the construction of the images themselves lend to a created distance between reader and text. As I said before the images in Persepolis are simplistic, childlike in nature; very much like the rightward image at the top of this paper (however, not QUITE as simple…) The child like graphics go hand in hand with my de-complication idea. Just as a lack of gray de-complicates the story’s reality for us to digest, the construction/ style does the same.

Often, as humans we desire crystal clear views when trying to be shown something. For instance, take HDTV. How many high-definitions can we get? As of right now blu-ray is the crème de la crème, it makes you feel as if you are in the room with whoever is onscreen. This sense of clarity doesn’t exist in Persepolis. There’s no color and facial expressions are limited to cartoonish features—again the seeming realness which many of us connect to is sucked out of the story. The images do not allow clarity to exist. Satrapi instead creates distance from her expressed reality via images as opposed to seeking a sense of closeness with her audience many authors strive for. 

 If one had substituted Neil Gaiman’s graphic style from A Game of You into Satrapi’s Persepolis the outcome would have been gut-wrenching. Can you imagine scenes like the man cut into a million pieces from the section “The Heroes” or the image in which Marjane sees her friend’s hand sticking out of the rubble, depicted in graphic detail and color?  The graphic nature of Gaiman’s images are disturbing enough in a dreamland context, in a memoir discussing Iranian history they would have been unfathomable. The distance provided by the black and white cartoonish drawings allows the reader the choice to walk away from the book emotionally unharmed. But, I think this choice to stay distanced is a combined effort between reader and author.

            I know some in the class felt as though the images brought them closer to the story—maybe as Wai Chee Dimock offered, a lack of detail allows readers to project themselves more easily upon the characters. Personally, I did not have this open projection, I felt as though the images instead pushed me away to a point where I could process and retain what was going on.

            Satrapi’s images in Persepolis create a necessary distance between some readers and the text. If it weren’t for the black and white characteristic and the simple child-like cartoonish drawings, her reality would have been too easily the reader’s reality. This distance, as Nancy Miller states, allows the reader to “safely ponder” Marjane’s youth in a time of cultural and political uncertainty. 



"MEMOIR." Dr. Z's Education Website. N.p., Mar. 2006. Web. 23 Apr. 2010. <>.

Miller, Nancy. "The Entangled Self: Genre Bondage in the Age of the Memoir." PMLA 122.2 (2007): 537-48. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.

Escott, Shawn. Web. 21 Apr. 2010. <>.

Web. 22 Apr. 2010. <>.

Web. 21 Apr. 2010. <>.





Anne Dalke's picture

"Graphic Nature"

I'm beginning my response w/ an image evoking the oxymoron that most grabbed me in your essay, that of "graphic nature." (You said that the "graphic nature of Gaiman’s images" would have been unfathomable "in a memoir discussing Iranian history.") But if to "graph" is to illustrate, or represent, to abstract from "nature," then what can the phrase "graphic nature" possibly mean? It cuts against itself.

That question is of course not so far distant from what you characterize as our semester-long "hemming and hawing" about the meaning of the word "real." What is natural, what real; what is graphic, what represented? And what is the relation between those things? These are huge issues--really, THE issues in literary studies--how best, how most effectively, to represent the world? (And how--for those of us with political inclinations--in representing to change it?)

The story you tell here is one of Satrapi choosing to represent by "distancing," by "de-complicating,"  by turning the reality of "gray" (life "shaded by uncertainties and unknowns") into the "unreality" of black and white--and so providing (in Miller's terms) "a safe space for readers to ponder the nightmare of global relations." You present this as a good thing--a "choice to walk away from the book emotionally unharmed." I actually think that Miller presents this as a highly problematic activity: "The story of the other citizen, preferably female--the exotic, foreign self in translation (like us after all)," she says, "is also a valuable template in the marketplace of contemporary autobiographical production and consumption." That is, safely enscouned in the West, we can entertain ourselves with packaged stories clearly packaged to prevent us from being harmed. I think Miller thinks that we should be more troubled, even hurt, by what we see. That distanced, abstracted images should make it more clear to us, not less, what has gone wrong in the world we share with Iranians (among many others, of course).

In postmodern literary theory, to read is to recognize that a text is a construction, not real--and so: to not be taken in by it. In "Is Gender Burning?" Judy Butler writes, "'Reading' means taking someone down, exposing what fails to work at the level of appearance, insulting or deriding someone....For a performance to work...means that a reading is no longer possible...that the artifice works, the approximation of realness is achieved." Where do you fall on this spectrum: do you go to literature in general, or to Satrapi's graphic narrative ('nature') in particular, to experience the real, or to be protected from it, to be assured that you need not experience it?