Marjane Satrapi is the author of the acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis and director of the film adaptation, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2008. The novel—banned at a Chicago high school in 2013—follows her life as a child in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, and subsequent teenage years in Europe. Just in time for Banned Books Week, Satrapi spoke with American Libraries about the importance of education and culture, and the unintended benefit of banning books.
What led you to write about growing up in Iran in the late 1970s and the period after that?
The first time I left Iran for Austria I was 14 (that was 1984), and I heard people with all kinds of prejudices—especially about countries like mine. It was really the most sensational stuff. They were completely wrong, so I kept telling my story over and over and over. It became an obligation—I had to write because I was so fed up and bored by all these misunderstandings. I couldn’t do anything else but write about myself because I’m not a politician. I’m not a historian. I’m not a sociologist. I’m not any of those things. It happened that I was born in a certain place and at a certain time. And as much as I can be uncertain about lots of things, I know what I have lived.
Why did you use the graphic novel form and what does it offer that other mediums don’t?
I used to read comics when I was a child, but basically I read Batman and Dracula. Then I came to France, and they offered me Maus by Art Spiegelman, and I was like, “Oh my God, a comic book, ha-ha!” Then I started reading, and suddenly the whole world opened to me. When I started writing, I said to myself, “You have to write at least like Dostoevsky or Hemingway.” I took myself very seriously. I became very boring. But with drawing I had the possibility to make it lighter. Humor is important because it’s a different level of language. If you laugh with someone, you have understood the soul of this someone, and then everything becomes easier. If people can laugh with me, then they can easily cry with me and understand my call.
Persepolis was banned briefly in 2013 at a high school in Chicago. It was removed from the library because of panels that depict torture. What are your thoughts on that situation?
It was very bizarre because it came from Chicago. Chicago is not like some lost place in the middle of nowhere. I thought it was completely stupid. It’s not like I made a porn magazine or something. I was very happy, though, because I saw these children, they were protesting. The good thing is that these people who ban things, it’s like they are completely unaware of what a human being is. If you want to make adolescents read a book, ban it! And then they all want to read it. Because then they’re rebellious. Why not just explain it? It’s not like kids are dumb.
What role did libraries and education play in shaping your life? Having lived in Iran and now Paris, what are the major differences you see in terms of the institutions and their public perceptions in different countries?
Education and culture are the basis of everything. Culture allows you to always speak with others because you have a basis. If I were the minister of culture for the world, I would make every student wiser by requiring them to travel to five continents before the age of 18. If you travel and see other people, then it becomes much more difficult to make war with them, because you know them.
Even though I was an only child, I never had lots of toys, but I could have as many books as I wanted. I was reading a lot, and I think that’s what saved my life. In my country under the Shah, there were books banned. And after the revolution there were other books banned. But they were all on the black market. When I first came to America I went a lot to book shops and spoke to people. I have never seen the equivalent in Europe—you have these reading groups, you come to listen to the writer. People really like to read in America, and they organize to make things happen. I really have the feeling that people are there to listen. It’s a whole exchange between me, the writer, and the people in front of me, which is really cool. I read somewhere that in America you have more public libraries than you have McDonald’s. That’s good.