There's this misconception in the West that every Iranian is scum, that all men force women into marriages, then beat them, and that everybody is a fanatic. It's like arguing that Western society is typified by the Inquisition.
- Marjane Satrapi
Next year, Philadelphians will have the chance to think, discuss, and argue all things Iranian, thanks to Iranian-French author Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel, The Complete Persepolis, which will be announced today as the selection for the 2010 One Book, One Philadelphia.
"Marjane's book was a natural choice given the recent events in Iran," said Marie Field, chair of the citywide literacy program cosponsored by the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Mayor's Office. "We felt that the Iranian elections and the protests that followed made this a perfect time for the book." The presidential vote was in June.
One Book, which is entering its eighth year, will feature more than 100 lectures, discussion groups, and workshops at numerous venues throughout the city. Organizers also will help coordinate high school programs for students in 10th grade and up.
"We are distributing 5,000 copies [of Persepolis] to every city library and at least one class in every public high school in the district," said Gerri Trooskin, the One Book project manager at the Free Library. She added that charter schools and Catholic high schools also will participate.
Satrapi will launch the program with a lecture Sept. 23 at the Central Library, 19th and Vine Streets.
"I'm extremely honored to be chosen," Satrapi, 39, said on the phone from Paris, her home for the last 15 years. "I know the program in Philadelphia is an important one."
First published in France in 2000 to rave reviews, Persepolis has become an international hit. In 2007, Satrapi added filmmaker to her resume when she released an animated version of the book.
Persepolis is a riveting, deeply moving - and wildly humorous - memoir of the author's experiences as a girl growing up in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the traumatic years she spent at an Austrian high school, and the growth of her political consciousness as a college student back in Iran. (Satrapi eventually emigrated to France in 1994).
Satrapi's insightful story touches on Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the treatment of women, gays, and political dissenters under its theocratic government. It also features a razor-sharp look at Satrapi's emotional and psychological development, including her drug use, sexual history, and attempt to commit suicide as a teen.
Despite its heavy subject matter, some literary traditionalists may be thrown by the format. Persepolis is, after all, a comic book (Satrapi's favored term), or a graphic novel (to use the more fashionable term she loathes).
It marks quite a departure for One Book, which in previous years featured more conventional books, including Steve Lopez's The Soloist (2009) and Dave Eggers' What Is the What (2008).
"In recent years, the graphic novel has achieved not just public recognition, but is held in high regard by literary critics and scholars," Field said.
"It's a unique way of telling a story. . . . It can reach certain students in ways that words [alone] may not reach."
Field said Persepolis attains the same level of literary greatness as Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winner, Maus.
Satrapi, who cites Spiegelman as a formative influence on her work, said that combining words and images is for her "a natural way to tell stories. . . . Besides, the earliest ways human beings told stories was the drawing," she said, referring to cave drawings.
As with early drawings, comic books speak to something fundamental in human experience, she said.
Perhaps the most salient aspect of Persepolis is that it can help demolish prejudice, Trooskin said.
"We have a real opportunity, through Marjane's work, to showcase the fact that the Iranian people aren't necessarily the same as their government," she said. "Iran has such a rich tradition and a vibrant cultural and educational" scene.
"The work I have tried to do with Persepolis is to change the ethnic point of view that so many people have about Iran," she said.
"My role as an artist is not to supply answers" to political and ethnic questions, she said, "but to inspire people on both sides of the East-West divide to question their assumptions."
This summer's pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran, she said, have helped Americans to see Iran in a new light.
And they've given her hope about the future.
"I have always thought that I wanted to die in Iran, because it's my home," she said. "Now I'm hopeful that some day I can live there."