Morgan Engelmann

Drawn Out Dissent

In the spirit of Banned Books Week, we have another scandalous review to share. Enjoy!

Written by Morgan Engelmann


There is a collective outcry going on right now about Things Happening Far Away from Here. Things that have been Happening Far Away for some time, and will continue to happen for many more times. It’s tricky to understand the Things Happening Far Away from Here because we are not There. It is not our life, our experience, our world. It is terribly hard to be in something so tangibly removed from our physical selves. This is where brave books become our tiny window, our sliver of light. In honor of Banned Books Week, I’d like to make some space in our consciousness for the beam that comes from Persepolis, a graphic novel/memoir of Marjane Satrapi published in 2000. This book has been shuttered in Iran (naturally), and the United States is sadly following suit.

Revolving around a girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution, Persepolis is at once a charming coming-of-age story and a frank, frustrating peek into a world of compounding oppressions. The graphic component engages the reader by lending the voice of the narrator through simple but telling facial expressions and with literal or embellished illustrations of her memories. The artwork is both effective and affecting, establishing a crucial emotional connection to the characters. The insight provided by Satrapi envelopes religious identity/adherence, gender conformity and equality, refugee adaptation, youth revolution/activism under a powerful regime, and how an artist’s voice is essential in a censored environment.

These important viewpoints alone are enough to make the novel indispensable, but the true magic comes from how all of this is woven into the typical narrative of a developing young adult. Ignorance blooming into enlightenment. Childhood blooming into awkward adolescence. Self-worth. Depression. Rebellion. Expression. Yes, in Marji’s life there is a side of torture and executions--but I dare you to find a middle schooler who doesn’t identify with this character despite their physical and cultural distance. However, in March of this year, the third largest school district in the US (Chicago) had Persepolis removed from classroom shelves in grades 7-10, protecting 7th graders from its “inappropriate” material and requiring further review on how to tackle its weighty issues with students as they move through their education. There is no timeframe currently set for this, or expected date to reintroduce the material into the curriculum. To understand why a public school district is so afraid of a comic book, one need only to experience the honesty of this beautiful literary contribution. The candid reality that is made so accessible to students is not an easy thing to teach. They won’t get bogged down with words and difficult language, instead they will be excited by flipping through a familiar format that just so happens to address the real, heavy parts of humanity.

Perhaps this is what makes Persepolis so dangerous. Not the inherent violence of the tale, not the mention of sex or drugs. There are far more graphic and disturbing images in almost every corner of your typical Chicago teenager’s life. What may be frightening our public schools is the possibility that children will begin to question what they are seeing in their own communities. And what better time to encourage them to do so? What other outlet do young minds have to ask the big questions and be given an opportunity to gather facts? Through the extra/ordinary life of one child in Iran, future generations can open into discussions of global identification, US foreign policy, religious oppression, censoring of information--all while recognizing the inherent human struggle we all face, thereby helping to dismantle racial fear. Fear of the “other”. Bringing things that were Far Away, right Here.

Education and exposure does not directly result in the youth of America adopting radical ideas and organizing. But maybe it could result in a more thorough understanding of the world we live in, and provide students with the tools or incentives to think for themselves. All that said--comics aren’t just for kids, and neither are these takeaways. More adults need to read Persepolis, too.