Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries is a valentine of the best sort: dirtily reverent, humid with secrets revealed over tea. The comic artist's latest billet-doux to her Iranian homeland unfolds over one long afternoon, where three generations of women have gathered to mull over an issue of international concern: sex. In this blue version of The View, Satrapi's ribald grandmother holds court over a conversation on the merits of being a mistress, the power issues embedded in plastic surgery, and the debatable aesthetics of the penis (hot or not).
What is so revolutionary about women talking over tea? Everything, Satrapi seems to imply -- the way the women offer saucy succor, joust about gender relations, bear witness to one another's suffering, joy, and wisdom. With Embroideries, Satrapi offers a rebuttal to the veil metaphor, the unmasking, uncloaking, unwrapping, revealing, stripping away language that almost inevitably accompanies any writing on Iranian or Muslim women -- you know, “What's under there, anyway? Read this article to find out!” Satrapi denies the notion of a singular truth, the universal experience of The Iranian Woman, especially the downtrodden one to be rescued by Western neocon superheroes.
Satrapi has penned herself into each of her books -- the defiant, questioning daughter of loving, intellectual, well-to-do parents. She is not representative of Iran -- Who is? she might say -- and that is exactly why we need her. “I speak for only myself,” Satrapi has said in interviews, but that should be read as an endorsement rather than a disclaimer -- as it should for the other women in Embroideries. They are fiercely themselves: naive, cynical, broken-hearted or resolute -- often all of these things in turn. Their vibrant personalities belie both a regime that would stifle their stories and Western viewers who would deny them their rich (and sometimes contradictory) natures.
Satrapi's resolutely individual streak runs through her earlier work, the memoirs Persepolis and Persepolis 2. The first introduced Satrapi's young alter ego, Marjane, grappling with the classic bait-and-switch conundrum of a revolution that offers freedom but brings repression. Satrapi's richly inky black-and-white drawings -- influenced by Persian friezes and miniatures, plus Western graphic artists like David B. and Arthur Spiegelman -- pulled readers into the horrors of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the dreams of intellectuals and progressives, and the mind of a rebellious girl forced to confront hypocrisy everywhere, even within herself.
Persepolis 2 began with Marjane's leftist parents sending the brashly outspoken teenager to Austria, far from the dangers of the Islamic Republic. But moving to Europe just meant Marjane replaced one set of challenges with another: the confusion of trading an Islamic Revolution for Europe's sexual revolution, and the immigrant's dilemma of being free to assume a new identity even as, Satrapi once said at a reading, “I didn't know who I was anymore.” She struggled through unhappy love affairs and harsh xenophobia before she left for the sanctuary of Iran -- but then found that home offered its own troubles. She left, in the end, for the West, but could not ultimately extricate her homeland from her art, her mind.
Embroideries is one such visit to Iran. Marjane is now an adult, with the bobbed hair and the cigarette familiar to readers who have seen her self-drawn author portrait. She prepares the afternoon tea, a careful ritual that signals the start of a long session of “the ventilator of the heart,” as Satrapi's grandmother calls the joy of speaking “behind others' backs.” But the talk is no malicious, hen-party gossip. Rather, absent women's stories are shared with humor and sympathy. The menfolk have retired for a nap; more than anyone else, the women are speaking with love and irritation behind men's backs.
The women tell tales of faking virginity, and of the joys and horrors of infidelity, and berate themselves and one another for the insane lengths that they will go to in order to keep deeply unworthy men. On first read, Embroideries can seem episodic, bouncing back and forth with the confusing kineticism of a real-life conversation. What's more, Satrapi refuses to spell out one clear prescriptive message about women's lives in Iran. But both Embroideries' organic flow and its insistence on showing a wide range of women's realities are its strengths; these are open-ended narratives that may well inspire talks over tea in their Western readers.
Embroideries' contrarian quality is in keeping with the nature of its author. In person,
Satrapi is a vibrantly warm and funny polemicist, a defiant cultural switch-hitter, critiquing the Islamic Revolution and the West's sexual revolution; she has lived through both, and she ought to know, her work tells us. As a result, she can depict both the threat and the promise of Western culture: MTV is a symbol of modern liberation for one of the young women in Embroideries, and the channel “with the assholes who sing half-naked” for Satrapi's grandmother. And in a bit of equal-opportunity criticism, Satrapi often draws both Islamic fundamentalists and naked Westerners without heads or eyes. Although some critics might shy away from an act of seeming moral equivalency, Satrapi openly points out the ways in which “free-love” Westerners and “no God but God” Iranians both see only their internal worlds, the salvation of a strictly rendered Islam or the mandate of an “open” sexuality, as the way toward liberation.
As for Iran itself, Satrapi denies her readers simplistic answers about whether men or women wield true power in her country. In one delightfully bawdy anecdote, one of the women tells of how she reined in her husband's wandering affections. She had the fat removed from her buttocks and injected into her breasts -- and now her husband cannot stop lavishing his attentions upon her bosom. “Of course, this idiot doesn't know that every time he kisses my breasts, it's actually my ass he's kissing,” she says, to the delighted crows of her audience. An ass kissing an ass: What perfect symmetry, and what a complex story of love and vexation, of power exercised, denied, and subverted.
Although she has the fiercely held opinions of a pundit in person, on the page, Satrapi displays both the passion -- and the detachment -- of an artist. She depicts complicated, slippery interactions through drawings that have the clarity of reportage and allow her characters to speak for themselves. At first deceptively childlike, her artwork has become more sophisticated over the years; it has grown along with her alter ego, Marjane. While Persepolis was hinged on faces suspended in frames, Persepolis 2 added expressionistic tools to Satrapi's journalistic ones, distorting landscapes to reflect Marjane's state of mind, or using an “X-ray” drawing to reveal the clothes under women's Islamic garb and decode the signifiers that women send out with small alterations in their dress.
In Embroideries, Satrapi's drawings range even further into the world of the imagination, showing mock suicides, depictions of blissful Munchian merger, and a catalog of the annoying male behavior a woman can avoid by becoming a mistress and not a wife. In one hilarious piece of dramatic irony, Satrapi presents us with a horrifyingly pop-eyed, snaggletoothed picture of her besotted neighbor's ex-husband. Then Satrapi pulls back and shows us reaction of her grandmother to the photo: “Oh F … ! He is, … , He is, how do you say … very seductive … ,” the grandmother says, frowning at the picture as the neighbor laments, “His physical beauty masked the darkness of his soul.” It is a stunningly funny, and yet tenderly compassionate, look at the follies of love and infatuation.
Satrapi has her own love affair with Iran, but it's a clearer-eyed one -- she is aware of its ugliness even as she celebrates its warmth and beauty. Like many an artist-in-exile, she has had to leave her home to speak and draw of it. She takes her leave at the end of Persepolis 2; she can't tamp down her defiant nature, has run afoul of the mullahs too often. At the airport, her mother says to her, “You are a free woman. The Iran of today is not for you. I forbid you to come back.” But luckily enough, the rebellious Satrapi chooses to return to Iran, over and over again, in her dreams and in her drawings. Embroideries, like the Persepolis books before, is a loving, bawdy, angry tribute to her homeland -- and her finest act of resistance to those who would erase her story entirely.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.