Category Archives: Literary

Isolation and Western Perception in Satrapi’s “Persepolis”

Oppression and misplaced representations of Iranians as foreign ‘Others’ led Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian in exile, to publish Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood; a graphic novel released in Western countries to communicate the unknown virtues of Iranian culture. These virtues unknown by Westerners, Americans specifically for this essay, include the perception of Iranians as being hostile and fanatic fundamentalists, which is only being spread instead of diminished because of faulty stereotypes.

September 11th and the subsequent war on terror placed Iran on the shortlist of ‘Axis of Evil’ powers, suspected of building nuclear weapons. The image of Iranians as ‘evil’ and the icon of their women hidden under black veils became a notable interest for Americans and their instant knowledge base through the sprouting online world in the early 2000’s. One piece of valuable knowledge that eluded Americans was that of an actual Iranian’s perspective inside Iran during their Islamic Revolution and Iraqi War.

Satrapi, through the experience of living in France, noticed this failure of perspective/representation and decided to describe her experiences in the form of a comic book. Her narrative sold millions of copies and reached the upper echelons of the graphic novel world, like Maus, published in 1991 by Art Spiegelman. The story sold exceedingly well because of Westerners heightened interest in Iranian culture and through the unique agency Satrapi explored with her main character Marji—her goal being to dissipate the oppressed figure she was seeing while living in exile in a Western country.

She creates a character that both Westerners and Easterners can identify with, therefore deconstructing the boundaries and stereotypes separating the East from the West.

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Edward Said wrote Orientalism in 1978 in which he notes the same struggles as Satrapi by living in a Western country as a native to the Near East. In the introduction, Said claims disunity between his view and the American’s:

My own experiences of these matters are in part what made me write this book. The life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening. There exists here an almost unanimous consensus that politically he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental. The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny. (27)

Said is disheartened by how the West views the Near East because of the ‘web of racism’ that nobody has bothered to unpack. The fact that Satrapi wrote Persepolis because of her experience of living in an ignorant society shows that neither Said nor Satrapi encountered an anomaly. Clearly there is a wrongful marginalization about the perception of their respective countries and Muslim cultures; they try to fight, and more or less overcome this ‘punishing destiny’ from the literature they successfully released; thereafter providing a closer identification for Westerners. Said later remarks that “no person academically involved with the Near East—no Orientalist, that is—has ever in the United States culturally and politically identified himself wholeheartedly with the Arabs” (27).

This essential quality of identification is important for the power of cultural recognition; without identification, the perception of the ‘Other’ will be based off stereotypes created by the dominant culture. This misperception creates a confusing binary, and dangerous stereotypes will only continue to grow. If Orientalism is Said’s response to the political cry for identification of Palestine, and the Near East in general, then Persepolis is Satrapi’s response to the cultural roar for identification with Iranian women.

Where Said and Satrapi differ is in their approach to form. Persepolis describes Satrapi’s time from ages nine to fifteen (1978-1984) in which she was living in conflict-stricken Iran. The novel ends on a sad note with Marji moving to Vienna alone because her parents feared for her future in Iran; Marji looks on in terror as her father carries her weakened mother at the airport (Satrapi 153). The sequel, Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return, focuses on teenage Marji as she ventures around Europe, returns to Tehran in 1989, and experiences love. This novel ends in 1994 just before Satrapi leaves to live in exile in France. After receiving her master’s degree in visual communication from Islamic Azad University in Iran, Satrapi publishes Persepolis six years into her exile (Schroeder 136).

The graphic novel form allows Satrapi to communicate her ideas visually to the audience she wants most to appeal towards: Westerners. For example, Manuela Costantino points out that “Satrapi’s depiction of Muslim leaders as uneducated, primitive, and narrow-minded brutes strengthens her connection with her Western readers whose perception of Muslim extremists might indeed be quite similar to the one crafted in the autobiography” (432). Satrapi fully understands Western audience’s image of her home and people, and includes this rendition in response to the visual narrative she engages. By telling the story through the eyes and thoughts of a young girl in the middle of Iran’s cultural and political crises, it allegorizes the way her Western audience (for the most part) understands the situation in Iran: as naïve children.

Another clue that sheds light on the appeal of Persepolis to a Western audience, America specifically, is the cover of the graphic novel for the English print release, which Costantino also points out in her essay. The original French language editions released in 2000 in four volumes features revolutionary type warriors riding horses for the first two covers, and the last two display Marji riding a horse. Costantino explains these covers appeal to the French because of their “subconscious” feeling of pride of freedom fighters battling evil forces that try to invade their country (433). Released in 2003 to America, Persepolis centers a veiled Marji in black and white (the same drawing that appears in the first frame) enclosed in a diamond-shaped border surrounded by arrows pointing towards Marji. Costantino argues that ‘the ‘open window’ revealing the child beckons the reader inside the book. In this way, opening the memoir and/or removing the dust jacket functions as a form of metaphorical unveiling” (436).

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Americans, through the rise of reality television and wide Internet usage, adopted a culture of trying to understand the unknown. This cover allows Americans to “metaphorically unveil” the oppressed and subdued appearance of the Iranian woman in the wake of former President Bush’s State of the Union Address in 2002, where he placed Iran on the list of Axis of Evil countries along with Iraq and North Korea. This chance of viewing an oppressed figure inside an ‘evil’ country appeals to the interest of the American that wishes to experience and support the underdog character. America came from a long history of rooting for the underdog, starting with the War for Independence; Persepolis becomes part of that tradition by forming an identity of a nation out of the oppression of another.

Satrapi, although appealing to her Western audience, still includes icons and experiences specific to Iranian culture. In Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley’s essay, they talk about the front cover in terms of the tulip drawn below the window of Marji. They suggest that “tulips, which have a universal association with springtime, are popular flowers in Iran where they grow in abundance” (Naghibi and O’Malley 230). To the Western audience, tulips have no immediate significance beyond their natural beauty. For Iranians and the history of Persian culture, Tulips are essential to their history; Persian poets as far back as Omar Khayyam in the 12th century have “celebrated the beauty of tulips” (Christenhusz 282). Naghibi and O’Malley’s argument focuses on the use of that symbol from this history; they argue “[the tulip’s] universal signifier of new life, however, shifts in the context of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war when tulips became potent symbols of martyrdom” (Naghibi and O’Malley 230).

This makes sense that the tulip appears upside-down on the front cover: at once, it is an Iranian symbol of beauty and unified culture, but Satrapi grew up in a counter-culture that celebrated the West as a symbol of hope and escape, effectively damaging and subverting her connection to Iranian culture. She includes subtle clues, like the upside-down tulip, to symbolize the partition with her own identity between the binaries of the East and West. The use of the tulip breaks down the binary by having a dual identification between Iranian’s historic culture and recent counter culture that embraces Western culture; showing the reader that the two cultures have matching qualities—also evident in young Marji’s embracement in Western idols such as Kim Wilde and Iron Maiden. By matching the symbol of the tulip and displaying it upside down on the front cover, Satrapi is showing the uselessness of binary construction.

Persepolis is a classic bildungsroman, featuring of a young girl going through an extreme case of existential crisis at the same time as her home country. There happen to be two essential reasons that made Persepolis popular among American audiences; first is America’s increased interest in Iran due to their position in the Axis of Evil; second is in Satrapi’s exile to France, which associated her understanding of the way in which Westerners falsely viewed Iranians. Without studying or spending time in Iran, a Westerner will not have the proper empirical evidence to make a judgment on the people of that country. This is potentially destructive because it reinforces the Oriental stereotype, as explained by Said, for nations and religions in the Near East and Asia.

Although Satrapi caters to the Western audience, which justifies her ‘teaching’ them the ways of Iranian life, there still appears cultural clues of Iranian culture, like the icon of the tulip to provide a symbolic identification and unification between East and West; and through this the binaries are weakened and rendered useless. Whether Iranians agree to the order of events of their culture that appear in the graphic novel, Persepolis provides an undoubtedly distinct perspective to a previously veiled segment of society.

Sources:

Christenhusz, Maarten J. M. “Tiptoe through the Tulips – Cultural History, Molecular Phylogenetics and Classification of Tulipa (Liliaceae).” Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 172 (2013): 280-328. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Costantino, Manuela. “Marji: Popular Commix Heroine Breathing Life into the Writing of History.” Canadian Review of American Studies 38.3 (2008): 429-47. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Naghibi, Nima, and Andrew O’Malley. “Estranging the Familiar: “East” and “West” in Satrapi’s Persepolis.” (2007): 223-48. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York, NY: Pantheon, 2003. Print.

Said, Edward W. “Introduction.” Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

Schroeder, Heather Lee. A Reader’s Guide to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Melrose Park: Enslow, 2010. Print.

Genre in A Song of Ice and Fire

Fantasy as a genre is a problematic discussion to most critics because of their inability to cooperatively locate a coalesced definition. They oftentimes examine the fantastic in their research in order to understand the nature of the genre from different novels and stories in the fantasy canon. Todorov defines the fantastic as the hesitation created when “there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world” (26). He later argues three conditions that contribute to the fantastic: the hesitation, the identification between the reader and the character experiencing the hesitation, and the rejection of “allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations;” he adds, “The first and the third constitute the genre; the second may not be fulfilled” (33). Eric S. Rabkin acknowledges but departs from Todorov by claiming the fantastic “occurs when the ground rules of a narrative are forced to make a 180 reversal, when prevailing perspectives are directly contradicted” (12). Though both Todorov and Rabkin provide insight into better ways to detect the fantastical in literature, they suffer from their specificity and non-inclusive assertions. What happens when there is an allegorical or poetic device at play in the world of the story; or rather, what if there are no completely contradictory, 180 perspectives? Furthermore, where does George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga fit when it comes to the genre of fantasy, or the fantastic; and how flexible is the series when it comes to assimilating devices from other genres?

Moving away from the fantastic and into the broader genre of fantasy, Roger C. Schlobin argues that fantasy has suffered from entering into the mainstream literary world because “most modern criticism emphasizes genres and specific literary aspects or tropes. Fantasy, however, is not detectable by such tools as theme, character, style, or structure” (x). Schlobin approves the broader use of the term fantasy so that it “can be found in all types of fiction” (x). Parallel to Schlobin but also in direct response to both Rabkin and Todorov, Kathryn Hume gives her definition of fantasy as being “any departure from consensus reality, an impulse native to literature and manifested in innumerable variations, from monster to metaphor” (21). Though vague in terms of defining the genre, Hume “would like to propose a working definition of fantasy whose aim is to be as inclusive and flexible as possible” (20). Her goal is to correct the exclusive definitions of her contemporaries so to better serve the literary world with a unified definition of fantasy. Following Schlobin and Hume, Jane Mobley finds that “magic is the key informing principle in fantasy and delineates both the focus (subject) and form (treatment) of the genre” (120). Without magic governing the laws of nature for the secondary world created in fantasy texts, the reader would not derive an absolute separation between worlds, therefore compromising the validity of the secondary world existing separate from the primary (real) world. Mobley ends with providing six “provocative, not definite” elements that widely appear in fantasy texts: poetic quality, creation of secondary magical worlds, multidimensionality, essential extravagance, spirit of carnival, and mythic dimension (122-124). These elements are important in the classifying of fantasy texts—with the first two being essential. My overall goal in this essay is to properly relate Ice and Fire to other discourses on the fantasy genre in an effort to locate a suitable definition.

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So how do we being to categorize the genre of A Song of Ice and Fire? Do we examine the elements of plot, the humans and nonhumans, the first-person perspectives for eight characters per book, or maybe the larger “quasi-medieval” themes as an allegory to modern life? In a sense, excluding any of these aspects will render a faulty view into the category the series falls. In The Origin of Genres, Todorov explains “genres are therefore units that one can describe from two different points of view, that of empirical observation and that of abstract analysis…a genre, literary or otherwise, is nothing but this codification of discursive properties” (162). If we want to go towards an analysis of Ice and Fire in terms of its genre, it will be relevant to consider all the different codes at play—whether they pertain to fantasy or not. Is it safe to assume that rather than Ice and Fire abandoning fantastic elements, it instead embraces the tradition of furthering the boundaries of fantasy? Jacques Derrida approaches genre in a different fashion by stating, “One owes it to oneself not to get mixed up in mixing genres. Or, more rigorously: genres should not intermix” (57). He finds a great fault in defining works of literature within genres because they are “precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy” (59). However, he later explains his hypothesis in that “every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging” (65). How are we then to examine Ice and Fire according to the fantasy genre in relation to the countless other genres that result from the series’ makeup?

To lay the foundation for the numerous codes at play within the fantasy genre, Dieter Petzoid offers four ways (relevant to Ice and Fire) that reality and fantastic texts relate with each other according to secondary worlds—parallel to Mobley’s second element. The first instance appears when “a text is related to commonly accepted reality in a subversive way, its secondary world is shaped so that it tends to challenge the reader’s concept of reality and his sense of security based on it” (17). He explains that the author presents a secondary world that is similar to reality, but the former employs supernatural or magical elements to disrupt our feelings of reality. This is evident in Ice and Fire through the disruption of dragons in the history of the realm. Countless folk-stories and songs explain the once great Targaryen families conquering of Westeros with the help of dragons hundreds of years prior. The reader may draw a connection to Genghis Khan and his brutal conquering of our past world—also told through stories; similar to those recalling the Targaryen past. The glaring difference is the dragon; it unsettles the reader to think of a reality in which Khan could use dragons to assume larger, more destructive victories; but in the end, the reader makes a clear distinction between the two worlds. The second instance steps away from the supernatural and focuses on the secondary world as being an “alternative to existing reality…ideally without violating existing laws of nature” (17). This mode is common in science fiction in which the uncanny dominates the laws of the secondary world, and makes it appear as if the secondary world could have existed if history took an alternative course. This is problematic for the world of Ice and Fire because there is no rational explanation in our laws of nature to explain the existence of dragons or direwolves (wolves the size of a horse) to ever exist in our primary world—evolution or not. Other fantasy texts may subscribe to this alternative existing reality, but Ice and Fire clearly does not.

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Moving to the third instance, Petzoid finds a combination between the alternative and “desiderative, whose basic attitude is: ‘this (secondary) world is better than our familiar world’ ” (17). A connection to Freud’s wish-fulfillment occurs in this mode because of the texts ability of exploring desires in the secondary world that are near-impossible to achieve in the primary world; the reader is presented a world to live out their fantasies. Such fantasies include: “eternal youth, strength, power, regression to a state of childlike innocence or of uterine security, or for a life in perfect harmony in nature” (18). Not so much eternal youth, but eternal life occurs frequently in Ice and Fire, specifically with Thoros of Myr’s ability of reviving dead or near death victims due his supernatural powers of being a red priest. Strength and power are the major themes in the series using tournaments, wars, and other acts of aggression as signs of worth for knights and their families. One of the seven major houses of the kingdoms, the Starks, find little to no childhood security because of the murder of the father and mother while their children are still relatively young. Throughout the novels, the remaining kids are in one way or another looking for a home again among their displaced lives in the desolate wasteland of Westeros; this creates an emotional connection to the readers who also feel detached from their childhoods and are looking for guidance. Finally, the “life in perfect harmony” is evident in the overall theme of the series. The reader immediately arrives in a world of turmoil and socio-political ruin between different cities and families—not to mention the constant threat of nonhuman figures to the realm. Every chance the story gets to dive further away from perfect harmony, it does, which makes the series hard for readers to feel fulfilled, leading to Martin’s ability of continuously releasing sequels that will not fail to captivate the readers wish for fulfillment.

The fourth and final instance between realistic and fantastic texts is that “such texts are informed by the applicative mode, which implies some kind of correspondence between the primary and the secondary world,” and that fantasy fiction’s “applicability rests in their expressing certain basic human experiences through the very structure of the narrative and the constellation of characters” (18). Petzoid claims this to be broader than other instances because of the ambiguity of the correspondence between “pure allegory” and “deep levels of abstraction.” Ice and Fire takes a neutral position between allegory and abstraction. To begin with the latter, the “grey characters” of the secondary world provide an idea of how humans operate in the real world. In an interview with Guardian, Martin claims to have “always been attracted to grey characters rather than black and white characters. You read about these people who perform a heroic act and then…perform a horrible act.” Nobody in the primary or secondary world is pure good or pure evil. The characters represent the ideas of the internal strife of humans in the face of conflict, multi-spatial relationships, and redemption. They find humanity in Martin’s language; the chapters in the novels cycle from the point-of-view of multiple interchanging characters. In the fifth book of the saga, A Dance with Dragons, Martin writes, “The Wall itself turned red and pink and orange, as waves of color danced across the ice. Is this the power of the king’s blood?” (138). He writes not from a distance, but through the point-of-view of John Snow and uses italics for every bit of inner dialogue. The characters have unique psychologies according to their features (sex, age, family, and land) and personalities (stoic v. feeble, smart v. dull, ambitious v. lazy, etc.), which manifests through the italics of the series. From this web of complex human interaction and point-of-view, the characters become just as familiar and unpredictable as real humans; and by this association, “deep levels of abstraction” surface from the application of the secondary world characters.

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One instance (from many) that deals with a more direct allegorical approach is the Wall and its relationship to modern day immigration borders. The people north of the Wall, named wildlings because of their uncivilized lifestyles, represent the lesser of the two forces in a hegemonic relationship. The land they live on is fraught with constant blizzards and threats from various supernatural beats. Humans are generally not supposed to live beyond the Wall in the frozen wasteland, but the people south of the Wall view the wildlings as “other” and therefore subject them to a punishing life. This point of allegory directly contradicts Todorov’s third condition of the fantastic, in which “[the reader] must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations” (33). I, along with Petzoid and Mobley, refute this condition based on the inevitably of the secondary world existing as an allegorical extension to its poetic construction. Mobley argues her first element of fantasy fiction—poetic quality—in that “the incantatory nature of the narrative also works on the reader, seeking to enchant, not merely to suspend disbelief (as any art must do), but to promote new belief” (122). This textual enchantment allows for the secondary world of fantasy to exist under its own laws of nature, separate from reality; and is recognizable due to the allegorization of events from the real world.

In closing Petzoid’s approach to fantasy fiction, he argues it “is the result of a combination of the desiderative and the applicative mode” (19). The desiderative applies in Ice and Fire’s ability to represent certain aspects like eternal life, strength, and power. As for the applicative, the secondary world (with respect to reality) is able to come to life with the unpredictability with the characters. According to Petzoid, it is safe to assume Ice and Fire to be fantasy fiction. Specific to Ice and Fire, Ricarda Schultchen argues that the popularity of the saga is the result between the blending of fantasy and a “modern narrative perspective” where “central fantastic features like magic and mythological creatures are used to thicken the plot rather than as elements of the core narrative, which is shaped by politics, war and diplomacy” (122). She quickly premises that the series is in fact fantasy, but goes on to explore the ways Martin utilizes human conflict in achieving popularity to a modern day audience. The predominant storylines affecting our view of the saga involves the politics of power from a distinctly modernist perspective. The importance of this predomination only comes from the secondary world, which is an illusion created by the text; therefore, the modern politics of the novel becomes an allegorization or abstraction of the politics of today.

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Returning to Todorov to conclude this essay, his three-condition approach to the fantastic almost holds true. The first two conditions (hesitation and identification) eventuate in the point-of-view writing style, but the third to “reject allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations,” does not. From the previous argument with Petzoid, Ice and Fire finds an allegorical approach in displaying the connection between moments in the text to bring together the secondary world and reality. To argue using Todorov against his own condition, he speaks of art and science having evolutionary qualities in which “every work modifies the sum of possible works, each new example alters the species” (6). Let not a few moments of allegory hinder its potential for consideration in the fantasy genre. In a broader sense, although the series takes many basic elements from other genres, it does not alter the fact that Ice and Fire is a fantasy text. Going back to Todorov’s Origin of Genres, he briefly mentions “at the heart of [the fantastic’s] universe an event occurs for which it is difficult to find a natural explanation” (167)—I like this definition for its inclusiveness better than his three conditions for the fantastic. These events include: the children’s folk-tales, the embellished oral history of battles and tournaments, the unpredictable characters, and the myth of the realm’s existence. René Descartes famously stated, “a whole cannot exist without all its parts, its parts can exist apart from each other” (213). Because parts can exist separately, many different texts can be included in the fantasy genre that does not share a rigid structure; the importance of defining fantasy (and genres in general) comes from its flexible nonexclusivity. The definition for fantasy I conclude with is the basic creation and recognition of a secondary world independent from our own. Specifically for Ice and Fire, the allegorization of a secondary world that defies Todorov’s third condition is essential in the creation of the fantastic for the saga and the more general contribution to the genre as a whole. Returning to Derrida, he states, “Genres are not to be mixed” (55). It is not that genres mix in a text to form some hybrid genre, but rather the basic parts of their makeup mix. Genres are concrete categories defined by the sum of their basic parts, but those basic parts do not wholly subscribe to one category. Fantasy is a broad genre in which many works constitute as fantasy texts, and more contribute to the characterization of the genre’s makeup everyday, including Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Critical Inquiry 7.1 (1980): 55-81. The University of Chicago Press. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Descartes, René. “The Identity of Ideas.” A Companion to Descartes. Singapore: Blackwell, 2008. 230. Print.

Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis. Cambridge: Methuen, 1984. Print.

Martin, George R. R. A Dance with Dragons. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

—. “Martin Talks about New Series Game of Thrones.” Interview. Guardian. Trinidad and Tobago Guardian Online, 11 June 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <http://www.guardian.co.tt/entertainment/2011/06/10/martin-talks-about-new-series-game-thrones&gt;.

Mobley, Jane. “Toward a Definition of Fantasy Fiction.” Extrapolation 15 (1974): 117-28. Western Washington University. Web. 7 May 2015.

Petzoid, Dieter. “Fantasy Fiction and Related Genres.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 32.1 (1986): 11-20. John Hopkins University Press. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Rabkin, Eric S. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976. Print.

Schlobin, Roger C. “Preface.” The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art. Harvester Limited, 1982. Print.

Schultchen, Ricarda. “A Game of Thrones, Indeed: A Lot of Politics and Just a Bit of Magic in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.” Inklings 30 (2012): 122-34. Web. 11 May 2015.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Origin of Genres.” New Literary History 8.1 (1976): 159-70. The John Hopkins University Press. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Todorov, Tzvetan, and Richard Howard. The Fantastic. Press of Case Western Reserve U, 1973. Print.