For her latest Our Shared Shelf book club choice, Emma Watson chats with author Marjane Satrapi about her groundbreaking autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis.
Emma Watson: In Persepolis you show the relative freedom that women experienced in Iran in the 1970s compared to the strict laws that governed their behavior after the revolution. Do you think life is any easier for women now than it was when you were a child?
Marjane Satrapi: According to the law, we had much more freedom because women could, for example, ask for a divorce. But when a woman is uneducated and is not actually economically independent, you can have all the rights to divorce that you want and it doesn’t make a huge difference. At the end of the day, you know, if you have three kids, no education, no job—what do you do? You don’t divorce; you have to stay with the same asshole all your life!
Today the thing is that the laws are much more anti-women. However, at the same time, it seems that repeating over and over to women “you’re worth half of men, you’re worth half of men” has meant all these women actually go and study much more. So that today two-thirds—70 percent!—of students in Iran are girls.
And so they’re playing a role in all of these domains, like nursing and medicine. In the end, this means that when these girls and women marry, they will be more educated than their own father, their own husband, their own brother—and then they cannot give them shit! They can no longer tell them “You’re worth half of men,” you know?
So if women have the possibility of working for a living, they could actually manage to get a divorce. First you have to have economic independence of women, and then we can talk about the freedom of women. If women are educated, they will be economically independent and they will just accept less shit. That is the first step toward democracy.
The enemy of democracy isn’t one person. The enemy of democracy is patriarchal culture. As with the family, where the father of the family decides and has the last word, so a male leader is the father of the nation.
If we have more educated women, then we have more educated societies. This is without any “feminist prejudice”—it’s fact.
You know, I have to tell you that when I was a child, my mum used to tell me all the time: “Oh, you should never count on your face; count on your intelligence. I don’t care if you get married or not. I want you to study and to be economically independent.”
Now, as a child I thought she was actually selling me this idea of: “You are fucking ugly, you are never going to make it. You are so ugly that you shouldn’t try to be cute . . . the cause is lost and no matter what, nobody is going to marry you!”
EW: That’s how you interpreted it?!
MS: Yes, absolutely. I was like, she’s telling me that the fancy romantic thing would never happen to me, so I should be intelligent and study hard. I talked to her about it when I was 28 and she, of course, told me I was very stupid to think like that. My interpretation was that she’s telling me, “My little girl, you are so fucking ugly. You are my child, I know you, so give it a break! That will never happen; nobody will ever want to marry you.”
EW: But I guess now, understanding the context and time in which she was telling you that, it seems extraordinary that she was giving you this message. What do you think made your mother so empowered? Where did this empowered line of women from which you descended come from?
MS: This has a lot to do with geography—you know, I come from the north of Iran. It’s an area where we plant rice, where the women work beside each other, bent over all day.
My mother grew up in this place and she was very loved by her father and family. But you look around and you see a society that does not say that men and women are equal. That says it can’t use women for causes other than making children or sex. Women are actually using half of their capacity or less; half of their talents or less; half of their brains or less; half of their work or less. So this society works at half speed or less.
But she was a woman of the 1960s and 1970s, and she really didn’t want me to learn those ideas. I was brought up with the idea that “you are a human being.” They never told me “you are a girl” or “you are a boy.” They told me “anything that a human being can do, that is humanly possible, you can do.”
And my parents were clear that the first thing you have to do is study and, if you study, you can do whatever you want. But if you don’t study, we’re going to give you shit! So the calculation was very easy because if I wanted to have peace and do whatever I wanted, I had to be good at school. And that is what I did.
EW: I had that when I grew up as well—my mum was pretty laid-back about a lot of things, but I had to do well in school.
MS: Also, you know I think that we blame lots of things on men and how nasty they are, but there is also the role of women. Who are the ones that raise the children? It’s the women. It’s they who say: “You know, oh my girl, you have to be pretty. My son, you have all the rights,” et cetera. I have seen extremely masculine women and feminist men, so I don’t think it’s a question of gender. It’s a question of intelligence.
And you have these women, all these people, who have plastic surgery—on the buttocks and elsewhere. What kind of human being are you that you think that it is a good idea to cut yourself into pieces? Because a man might get an erection watching you?! You know it is not men who push us to do that. We can also say: “No, we won’t do it.”
Nobody has put a gun to my head and said, “You know you have to do this.” And look at the female magazines, all the female magazines! I never read them because they really piss me off. “How am I going to lose 10 pounds before summertime?” What if I don’t want to lose 10 pounds? Because you know the little crease that I have—I really love it. And what if I don’t want to have perfect skin, because I’m 45 years old and of course I am aging?
But is that really the fault of men? I don’t think so. That is our responsibility, and when we blame it on men, we always put ourselves in the situation of the victim. And we are not victims. We are human beings. We have our brain. Nobody can stop us from being gorgeous, intelligent, thoughtful. Okay, we cannot run in the same category in the Olympic Games because we don’t have the same muscles. But I see specific festivals—like a female literary
festival— and I ask, Why on earth does my nipple make me write differently? Or is it my female condition? I read a lot of books written by men talking about women who I cannot identify with.
Otherwise saying this is a gender thing . . . we need to be a little bit smarter.
So sometimes, I see these young mothers and they are with their daughters, who are about 6 years old. One mother looks to the other and says, “Look how sexy she is!” Is this what you want to teach your 6-year-old? That she needs to be sexy? It’s disgusting!
EW: That is really disturbing. What’s coming through, and what I really identify with, is that you really believe in human beings’ autonomy and their own innate power and ability to govern their circumstances. And I think that’s awesome.
MS: The only person who stops you from being free is you. Nobody can take your freedom. I mean, I have lived in a dictatorship. I know what I am talking about.
EW: I was going to say—it is so difficult for those who haven’t experienced it to comment on or imagine what it is like to live in those conditions, but you have the right to say something like that because you really know; you’ve lived it.
MS: I have lived in a dictatorship. You know, there was a ban on everything! Was I less free in my mind? No, I wasn’t. Did I become a stupid person? No, I didn’t. Because no matter how much they looked at me, they could not get into my mind. That belongs to me. And that is under my control if I decide it is. And I can only decide that if I train it—you know it is like a little muscle. If you don’t use it, it shrinks, and if you use it, it grows. So it is up to us.
We should not have the limit imposed on us. We should ask ourselves the real questions we face.
And I think that women can be and are very, very hard on one another. You know, I turned 30, and in all the interviews I was asked, “Do you have a child?”
And then again: “Do you have a child?”
“Why don’t you have a child?”
“Well, because I don’t want to be anybody’s mother.”
You know, I don’t want to be a mother. I don’t want anybody to call me “Mummy.” But as a woman I have to justify myself all the time. And if I want to say, “I want to dedicate my life to my work,” I am called a slut!
You’re a woman and you don’t want to be a mum?!
They never do that to a man. Never.
And who asks me most of these questions? Women. Fuck that, you know?
We are very, very hard on ourselves, on one another, and, you know, it’s time to consider each other simply as human beings. It’s just a good beginning, I think.
EW: Yeah, it’s a good start. I completely agree. So Uncle Anoosh tells your younger self in the book: “It’s important that you know. Our family memory must not be lost. Even though it’s not easy for you, even if you don’t understand it all.” How much did this idea inform the writing of Persepolis?
MS: Oh, very much so. Forgiveness is a good thing because you cannot go on living your life being angry, because then you become like the people you hate. And that is exactly what is happening in the world that we live in.
Our response to violence is violence. Our response to religiousness is religiousness. If we start playing the same game as the people whom we accuse, that is very dangerous.
Ignorant people I can forgive, because they’re ignorant. But somebody who knows that he’s bad and does it anyway, that is ten times worse. So I tried to forgive, but I realized when I started writing this book that I was full of so much hate and anger—I wanted to kill everyone! Everybody needed to be punished, like in an American film. You know, they had to pay for it.
And I wrote a couple of pages and I was like: Fuck, I’m exactly like them. I’m exactly like them and that is where they have
succeeded—to make me like them. So I decided to take my time, to cool down and to understand what happened. And from the moment you understand something, it’s not that you justify it, but you can analyze it better.
And so it wasn’t so much a matter of autobiography, because normally an autobiography is a book that you write because you hate your family and your friends and you don’t know how to say it to them, so you write a book and let them read it themselves.
EW: That’s the best description of an autobiography I’ve ever heard!
MS: I didn’t have any other way to write about my story. I could not suddenly say, “Oh, this is an analysis of what happened in the’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s,” because I am not a historian and I’m not a politician. I’m a person who was born in a certain place, in a certain time, and I can be unsure about everything, but I am not unsure of what I have lived. I know it.
And it was very personal—a very small thing, which was important. As soon as you start to talk about a nation, what is a nation? I mean, are all British people the same? Of course not. You have nice
people—like you. You have hooligans. You have fucking racists. You have nice people. You have all sorts of people. So one person you—the reader—can identify with; a nation you can’t identify with.
So I had to create it from a very personal point of view, otherwise it would be this boring, anonymous person. People who tell you “I know.” I don’t know; I just know what I have lived. So I tried to understand and describe my experience, which was important because people know so little. They see images on TV and think, Oh, this is the way it is. And they ask me questions, believe me, such as, “How many wives does your father have?” Like—only one! And my parents met in high school, married, and had one child. It was like they have very bizarre ideas, for example, that I practically ride on the back of a camel. I just think, What are you talking about?
EW: What’s the most ridiculous question that you’ve been asked about having come from Iran at the time you did? Is there anything really absurd?
MS: Oh, yeah! I was at this conference in Germany and there was this woman who was a Frau Doktor—an educated woman. And she asked me, “In your book you draw that it’s you and your parents in the apartment . . . where is the rest of the family?” And I was like, “What do you mean by the rest of the family? We’re a family of three people, my parents and me, so . . . ”
“Yes you say so, but where are the rest?”
So she really believed that we had these big tents, with 26 of us living beside one another And she was actually accusing me of lying! And I just thought, Lady, it’s not because you’re ignorant that I am lying. You’re ignorant, and maybe you should know a little bit better.
Another time, there was this woman in America who called me on the phone and told me, “Oh, you know I looked at your picture; you don’t even look bad.” I asked, “What do you mean by this ‘even’?” And she said, “Well, you know . . . ” So then I asked her, “Do you think all of us look like monkeys?” and she said, “Yes, frankly.”
EW: What?! That’s pretty crazy. But I’m interested because obviously in the West, we project all of these quite strange ideas onto what we think things are like in Iran, or what your life may have been like. Do you think women, and particularly Western women, have blind spots in ways that we are oppressed? Do you think that we are quite judgmental about the cultures but don’t really look into our own and miss things?
MS: Well, I think that the situation of the Western woman is much better. Already being able to dispose of your own body. To fight for yourself. These are really the things that are great. But the culture of our society is very much based on the religious culture. Now, the basis of any religion, monotheistic religion, is that it was Adam and Eve, and God said, “Don’t eat the apple”, and bad Eve said to Adam, “Oh, let’s go and eat the apple.” And nobody just states the fact, “Well, Adam could just tell her no…”
The story is that Eve had so much more guts, so she tried because she was curious, and Adam followed her like he was a sheep. That was the reality, but it is described as the fault of Eve. So therefore a woman is bad—we are bad. This is it. It is a problem of the image of women, no matter where you go.
In some countries, they try to cover women up. In other countries, you have to have her naked. When we sell a car, orange juice, or whatever, we will show you a pair of boobs. So it’s a problem with the image of women.
I think that the situation for Western women, of course, is a hundred times better, which is why I came and lived in the West. I can make decisions for myself here. But at the same time, we are far from being equal. Women are still used. Like you use something; we’re an object. And I don’t know why, in all the movies and other media, we show boobs, asses, and everything. Why can’t we see a pair of balls?
MS: Because that’s the same thing. Why is it that the balls are so incredible that you have to hide them? Balls! Oh, my God! But boobs are okay? It’s a problem. So I think that if we could solve the problem of the balls, we can solve the problem of the boobs—it goes together. And it’s up to us to actually solve it. Until we decide to say stop, nobody will stop.
I come from a culture where my mother told me, “If someone touches you in the street, you beat them up.” And I do. If somebody touches me, they have my hand in their face. No problem. But how many times did I see the French women sitting in the metro—they are touched and they just say, “Lower your head.” Don’t lower your head. It’s not you! It’s the guy—he doesn’t have the right to touch you, no matter what. Just scream. Scratch. Beat him up! But we have to teach that to younger girls. Defend yourselves and know that it isn’t going to make you a hysterical person; it will just make you a person who knows how to defend herself. This is all. But we have to teach that to our kids. To the younger generation.
EW: Yes, I agree girls and women have to be able to figure out ways to feel like we’re more empowered.
MS: They have put in our heads that it is hysteria! This is not hysteria. When a man hits another man, the other man hits him back. This means when someone does something to you physically that you don’t want, then you have the right to defend yourself physically. That is just the basic right. But you know, how many times have people said, “Oh, you are such a savage!” about me. I am not just a savage—a savage goes and beats people up for no reason. I defend myself. If somebody says something, then I just tell them [to] shut up. That’s me. But how many times do we really stand up?
And in all this imagery of women in films, how many leading roles do we have that are women that are unrelated to the men? She’s always a wife, a mother, a lover, a grandmother. Can’t she just be her?
We have a long way to go, but I think that is our own decision. We have to bring up our kids telling them, “You are first and foremost human beings.” Your gender matters only when you are in love and when you are with your lover, yes, your gender matters. You can be a woman or a man, whatever you want to be. The rest of the time, just behave like a human being. Full stop.
And other feminist movements don’t help because they lack so much humor. In America, you might see bad behaviour, and they respond, “Oh, it’s such masculine behaviour.” You just think, “Have you really never seen a nasty woman? It has nothing to do with him being a guy.” You know, Simone de Beauvoir said, “You are not born a woman; you become a woman.” And so you are not born a man either—you become a man, as society teaches you how to behave.
The feminist movement for a long time has been there to cut the guys’ dicks off. And this is not a good thing. We cannot make the same mistake as men did with the gentlemen’s clubs—to exclude them. We have to be more intelligent and say, We will make life together with you, we will collaborate, and let’s be together. But there is certainly a lack of humor in the movement.
. . . I need a new kind of feminism where we are brighter than the stupid men of a century ago and we teach them the lessons. That is how good we can be. Let’s construct this world together. Let’s behave to each other in a nice way, in a humanistic way, and maybe we can do something better.
EW: I love that and I completely agree with you about humor. It’s everything. The author who we read before Persepolis was English comedian Caitlin Moran, who wrote a book called How to Be a Woman. You know, in some ways it’s seen as quite controversial and there are things that people are very offended by, but—by god—at the very least it has some humor.
MS: And we should have it!
EW: And we need it
MS: They are so . . .
MS: They attack me, sometimes, especially in North America. They attack me, and I just believe, “We are not there to take the hammer and attack everyone!” We need to be cooler than they are.
. . . I like having long hair. I love to put on lipstick. I love to put my cream and everything on at night, but does that stop me from thinking? No!
And why should I look like my name is Geoffrey? I don’t want to look like Geoffrey!
I’m so happy that I am a woman; I don’t want to have this thing hanging between my legs. I don’t want it. I love being a woman! I think it’s great.
EW: But I think women need to hear that, because growing up, I felt like I was educated a lot that I was going to be in for a shit deal, that being a woman was crap and that being a man would be much better.
Anyway, I’m interested with the growth of social media; I don’t know whether you interact with it at all. Some Iranian millennials are finding refuge in it and using it as a way to express themselves freely. Do you think that is a spark for change? How do you feel about that?
MS: Well, I’m quite skeptical about social media. I remember I was in New York a few years ago and there was a guy who was the chief of new technology for The New York Times. He said, “Oh, you know Facebook enabled them to start the revolution” and all of that. That might be the case, but because of Facebook governments found people and were able to put them in jail, too. As you can communicate with others, they can communicate with you as well. I’m extremely scared of Twitter because I think that having to be so brief—just 140 characters—shrinks the mind.
It’s extremely immediate, so you don’t have time to think, and sometimes we need the time to think. Especially before opening our mouths! So I am not on new media very much—I don’t have Facebook, I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have any of that. I actually need to see people. If I don’t see people with my eyes, I cannot smell them, I cannot hear their voice, I cannot know them. And most of these online things are bullshit—“likes”? Fuck you! What does “like” mean? Write something, you know!
But I think it’s possibly a question of generations as well. I see lots of people who take photos, which they put everywhere. If it’s to communicate with journalists, I do understand. For your book club, I do understand. But there is a lot of bullshit too, huh?
EW: There’s a lot of bullshit. I’m constantly fascinated at the moment by the promotion and propagation of a kind of narcissism that I find really strange.
Anyway, Kendra, from my book club, wants to know: “There are many different opinions about the hijab and Islam in regard to feminism; do you feel that either or both the hijab and Islam are anti-feminist?”
MS: I think that any religion is anti-feminist, to start with. Any religion. Christianity, Judaism, every religion. And even Buddhism and Hinduism. There are these girls whose faces are burnt completely just because they get a divorce. Because they “dishonor the family,” they kill them in India. They are not Muslim; they are Hindu. This is it—it exists across all religions. It’s a really patriarchal thing.
On one hand, I hate the veil because they force me to put it on my head and I hate it. On the other hand, who am I to say to somebody who wants to put a scarf on her head, “Don’t do it”?
This belief is so profound; it is so deep within human beings that when they wanted to ban the veil in France, for example, they thought that I would be with them: “Yeah, yeah! Let’s ban it, let’s do that!”
Well, I don’t think it’s a good idea because you make something that is actually symbol of repression into a symbol of rebellion. Good job! And in that way it was a big success! There are more and more girls who cover their heads to be rebellious.
And I also think there was something inconsistent in the argument, which was all about how religious they were and that they should be emancipated. But if these girls had to be emancipated, how can they be emancipated if they don’t go to school? If you ban them from school because their family forces them to put on a veil, then you achieve the same result that their families wanted—to not be educated and to marry a cousin from a small town somewhere.
So instead of going to school and being emancipated, she is 20 and she already has five kids. Another big success! Instead of banning things, you have to have a real dialogue, and if people really believe in something and they want to cover themselves, let them do it. But my question is that: Why is it that 30 years ago we didn’t have many veiled women, and why do we have it today? This is the question.
EW: Why has it gone up? Why is it increasing?
MS: Because, as in France, it’s a question of identity. In France, even after three generations, they call them “the Arabs,” yet when they go to the country of their parents, they are called “the French.” They are respected nowhere, so where and how do they find an identity? In religion.
So maybe we can offer them another identity, by letting them study, letting them go to the school of the republic, and then they will have the chance to be emancipated. I don’t think you can change anything. Frankly neither revolutions nor the law changes much. The only thing that can change the world is the slow evolution of culture.
If the culture of a society does not change, you cannot change anything. The thinking seems to have been that because you go and throw bombs in Afghanistan and put in Coca-Cola machines that it suddenly becomes a democracy. Bullshit!
Because you see Al Qaeda now has the power again. First the culture of the society has to change, and then you can change the rest. But who cares about culture? Everybody wants to be elected in two years, which is very short to make change. And even though our politicians were so much better before and now seem really nasty, I don’t even think it’s a question of conviction. It’s just so fast that you have information, then you have new information, and then there is something else on Twitter—it all means there is no time for reflection! We need to take our time to think. The brain of a human being needs some time to digest and to understand. If we don’t take this time we head directly into war. That is where we are going.
EW: So therefore do you think that making art, interacting with culture, is the most revolutionary, the most impactful thing that you can do as a human being? If you believe in the slow evolution of culture?
MS: You know, Emma, I come from Iran, and I never learned any English. I speak English because I watch films. That’s the only way that I have learned it—I have never taken one course of English. It’s enabled me to come from Iran, to live in France, and then make an American movie about a serial killer.
It means that being born in a certain place doesn’t have to mean coming to think a certain way, though this is still usually the case. Imagine if they put all the fucking money they put into arms, weapons, and wars into something that says: Any person who is a student, who goes to school, needs to have traveled to one other country in the world before the age of 18. Believe me, the world would be a much better place.
As soon as you know somebody from somewhere else, then it is much more difficult to just consider them as “the enemy” because the person becomes real. It’s not an abstract notion anymore. So I really think that cultural work is extremely, extremely important.
Before the war even happened in my country, I watched a movie called The Deer Hunter. I was a child—I don’t know why my parents thought it was a good idea to show me this as a child, but in any case they did. I knew then that I was extremely anti-war, because I knew it was not even a question of the war itself, but rather what would happen after the war. All the damage caused.
You know, that film changed my life. It did. I read a book, it changes my life. I listen to music, it changes my life. Everything that happens to do with the brain has the power to change your life.
You know why these fundamentalists are so powerful? Because they play with the emotions of people—pressing on the buttons of their emotions. They have people yelling, shouting, and wanting to kill themselves.
But if you ask people to think, it is something different. As soon as you think, you realize it is really much more complicated than it seems to be. You realize it is much more difficult to become
hyper—to yell, to shout, and to kill yourself if you think about it. So if everybody were to make this little effort just to think, I truly believe it would cool people down.
I think culture is important, but at the same time you could see that during the 1930s you had a lot of intellectuals in Germany, but many of them became Nazis. And why was that? They were humiliated and extremely poor.
Poverty can be humiliating. So there needs to be a little base of life for everyone, and then on top of that you have culture—and maybe then we can go in a better direction. However, that will obviously never happen. We are too stupid for that
So I think it’s extremely important that we try to change our lives around ourselves. When I was 30 years old, I said, “I’m going to change this world,” and after 10 years, the world was changing me. I became a cynical person who did not believe in anything anymore. And so I said, “I am losing even myself,” and then decided “Okay, from now on I’m going to change myself, and if I change myself, I have changed a little bit of this world. I will try to be a better person.” I don’t always succeed in that because the nasty side of me is big, but I try . . . I try.
EW: I love what you were saying about teaching people to be independent thinkers, because often you get the message in school that you have to learn what’s in your book by heart and be able to regurgitate it. And actually the most important thing I learned in school was how to think, how to decide for myself, how to have an opinion, how to go away and find the answers for things and compare and contrast different answers that people were giving me. So I loved what you said about independent thinking.
I’m also interested in how you self-identify. When someone says, “Where are you from?” or “Are you French?”—where do you sit with all of those types of questions?
MS: There are parts of me that will always be Iranian. These are things that I cannot change. You know, my hospitality will always be Iranian. I’ve been brought up this way. Somebody comes to my house and I will put everything on the table. I have that sense of hospitality—the doors of my house are always open, because that is the way I have been brought up.
I can never become angry with an old person—it’s impossible. This is a very cultural thing; in my culture, no matter what bullshit an old person says, I will always respect and be extremely patient with them. So these are the parts of my culture that I like.
There are the parts of my culture that are extremely traditional: men have to do certain things and women have to be virgins and all of that—fuck that. I never believed in it, I refused it, and I rejected it because it is insane.
There are many things I like very much in the French people: the sense of rebellion, the fact that they are never happy. I love the humor of the British. I love that Americans really want to be nice. They do a lot of nasty things, but their wish is to be nice people. So there are so many different things that I like from different places. I would simply say: I am a human being who tries to do things as she likes, and she’s a very, very lucky person to be able to do that.
I don’t make a big deal out of the fact that I’m an artist, as that is kind of half cool but can also be very pretentious.
This “Oh, he’s such an artist” just means that he is a selfish prick. I don’t like that.
But frankly, I have spoken to so many Iranians and there are really so many times where we speak the same language—my mother tongue—but I don’t understand them. And from everything I’ve seen in the world, I’ve realized it’s not a question of where you come from, it’s a question of intelligence. And intelligence is something you share with some people in the world that is completely independent of the nationality, color, height— all of that.
You have to find people who have the same sensibility and approach to culture as you, and then it is possible to connect. And therefore I have friends who come from all over the world. I am against the idea of communities. I hate communities. You know, all these people who get together all the Iranians just because of their nationality. I hate that. I cannot choose people by nationalities: “He’s an Iranian, so I will like him better.”
First of all, he has to be a nice person. Finding people that fit me is much easier.
It’s very similar to my thinking on identity. Sometimes at film festivals, people will say, “Oh, we have to vote for her because she is a woman.” And I just think, “She’s a human being who has made a film, so if her film is good we’ll give her a prize. But if it is not good, we are not going to give her a prize and treat her as if she were handicapped.”
It is not a handicap to be a woman, frankly. So I try to think by myself, which means that sometimes I think that I am above the law because I’m like, “Oh, this law seems very stupid to me, so I won’t apply it.” I give myself that certain kind of freedom. I don’t know why I shouldn’t. And so I am basically a human being who works with what she likes and am a lucky person because of that, I guess.
EW: Are your comics available in Iran? Can you buy them in Iran?
MS: Of course, everything is available in Iran. You cannot imagine what is available because of something called the black market. You know, when I was as a teenager I always had the latest music. One week after it was released, we had it on tapes.
EW: That must be so hard because, on the one hand, it’s available to you, but on the other hand, you can’t use it in public—it’s like this double life. It’s crazy.
MS: Of course, all of us are somehow schizophrenic because of this double life, but at the same time everything was so exciting. To get the same degree of excitement here, I’d have to go and rob a bank. Then I might have the same degree of adrenaline coursing through me!
Everything is available in Iran; it’s just a black market. The more you forbid something, the more people want to see it. The more you say, “Don’t do it!” the more people want to do it. Don’t forget the story about Adam and Eve, where they were told do whatever they wanted, but don’t eat the apple! And of course they ate the apple. That is the nature of a human being.
EW: Do you think that applies to other circumstances? For example, at the moment there’s this huge debate about whether prostitution should be decriminalized and legalized. Do you think that this still applies?
MS: I am for whorehouses. I am for brothels. One hundred percent. It’s a question of morality against a question of humanity. The people who are against the brothel are moralists. They are the fucking priests. They always give the example of Sweden. My husband is Swedish and I can assure you that there is as much prostitution in
Sweden—it’s just on the Web. From the moment that prostitution exists, we have to have brothels so that we can protect these women instead of having a pimp take their money. We have to give them police officers, we have to enable them to deal with their own things and give them retirement after the age of 50. This is a humanistic approach.
This approach would mean we see these women as human beings and we need to protect them.
The idea of, “Oh, we are against prostitution” . . . what the fuck? Prostitution has always existed and it’s a very moralistic point of view that has nothing to do with morality. Any woman, any person, any human being who has respect for women also has to respect the prostitute.
How can you disrespect prostitutes by telling them, “Oh, your job is shit. You do this because you are raped by your father, because you are a druggie, you are a heroin addict”? So how are you going to solve the problem? The moment she has been raped, a woman has a problem for life. Often when women are raped in their childhood, they have drug problems and others that follow. Can we go backward and start their lives again? No. Governments and our society have to recognize this situation.
So if we are human beings, what do we do? We protect them. And how do we protect them? We create brothels and we really protect them and we give them retirement. And I hate the idea of prostitution as simply bad. Yes, there are many things that are bad, but it is a reality and how do we deal with reality? With morality? Certainly not. With humanity, yes. So yes, I am for brothels.
EW: You’ve directed and codirected four films including Persepolis. Is film where you see your future? How are you feeling at the moment? What’s most inspiring you? What are you most wanting to do?
MS: For me, the cinema is a machine of creating empathy. There is no media in the world that can create as much empathy as cinema, because when you read a book, you are always active; when you see a film, you are always passive. As a reader, everything is imposed on you. So you let your emotions go.
And also, when I write a book, do you really think that I then read my book and think, Oh! That’s surprising! Of course not, I have written and created it all by myself. But when I make a film there is always an actor who suddenly does something that was not expected, and I’m extremely surprised. At that point I am not a director anymore, but I become the spectator of my own film. Sometimes it’s the production designer who makes a suggestion that I never thought about. So it is a result that is extremely exciting and, yes, surprising for me. It’s very difficult work and right now that is what I like to do. But this is right now; I don’t know about the future. I hope that I will have another two or three lives before I die, as I don’t like to do the same thing all my life. I have lots of hope for myself yet. Maybe I will become a dancer, who knows?
EW: Brilliant! You should.
MS: You never know! I basically think that in your life, you have to do what you really want to do in that moment. Having a career plan and so on is no good because sometimes you have a career plan and 10 years later you don’t feel like doing what you planned, because you’ve changed. So I will see, but cinema is very, very inspiring for me because it is so difficult and my brain functions best when I am very stressed. The more my brain is stressed, the more I like it.
EW: Yeah, that’s good. When did you know that you wanted to write your memoir as a graphic novel? When did the idea come to you that you were going to do that?
MS: I found myself saying the same bullshit over and over and facing so many prejudices. It got to the point where I simply thought, I have to put it in a book, because while I like to talk, constantly repeating myself was so tiring. I really didn’t believe anybody would ever read it, but if people asked me questions after I had written it, I could say, “There is a book; you can read it.”
I never thought, never in my life, that anybody would be interested. I didn’t think it was interesting at all—it was just for me. So it became a success, but I never imagined it. But I didn’t have any other choice than to write it—you know how human beings are: The less they know, the more convinced they are. Ignorance gives you this confidence in yourself. As some people were ignorant about how it was, but so confident in their perception, meant I wanted to give them just another point of view. And it became this unplanned, surprise success.
EW: Often comic books are perceived to be “for men” or within a man’s world, and I’m interested in your experience with that. Are people surprised that you, as a woman, wrote a comic book?
MS: Yes, it is! It is a very male thing because the comic arrived at the same time as cinema. It began with the man coming home, sitting on his couch, reading his newspaper and enjoying the strip at the bottom of the page. So that was the beginning of the comic book. The woman on the other hand was supposed to cook, play the piano, sew. So this was leisure designed for men and naturally there were many more men who were interested in it.
Again, I tell you there are women who say, “Oh, I cannot do it” because they do not believe in themselves, having been told that they cannot do it. My story was different. I ended up in a shared studio in Paris because I could not pay the rent on a studio myself. I also couldn’t work at home, because if I’m at home I just do the laundry, which seems to be an obsession! In the studio, there was a man who actually told me to “write them down.” I always thought that comics were really work for monks, because it is obsessional work—frame after frame. I didn’t think of myself as an obsessive person, but I discovered in this process that I actually am and it suited me for a long time. That’s how I then suddenly discovered cinema and was like, Whoa! I like to be alone, but not for too long—so to work with others? It’s extremely exciting. I need to see and be with other people.
EW: Well in a way comic books are like the perfect training school for film, because that’s what you are doing . . . It’s perfect.
MS: You’re totally right.
EW: I have a question from an Iranian woman who is part of the book club, who wants to know what your hope is for the women and people of Iran and what you think is achievable?
MS: I think lots of things might be achievable because 70 percent of our students are women, which gives me hope. I hear more and more that women—girls—are refusing to marry. Who have decided that you cannot lead a life under the control of your father and then under the control of your husband—decisions that didn’t exist 20 years ago. So as this mentality and culture changes, then we can have real hope. And it is changing. On a historical scale it’s nothing, but in our lifetime it’s something. I would really prefer change for good now, rather than having all this revolution where spilled blood just brings more spilled blood. So I have a lot of hope, yes. I think it’s going be fine.
EW: Did you watch Mustang?
EW: Did you like it?
MS: Yes, very much. So brave: nobody gives you your rights, you have to fight for them. I never thought that people would say to me, “Oh, Marjane, come take that.” If you want something, you have to go and take it.
EW: You did your comics in saturated black ink, and I’m interested: Why did you choose that? And how do you think that conveys different emotions and atmospheres to other comic styles?
MS: As a literary genre, comics are really connected to fine arts. In comics, with the illustration, you write with your drawing, with your images. So whatever you don’t write, you draw and vice versa. So instead of writing, “Well I was sitting in my bed and I was watching out of the window and the bird was singing” and so on, you just draw all of that. So whatever you draw has meaning that people read. If I use color, it has meaning people read. If I draw backgrounds, it has meanings that people read.
I always thought that what I had to say was too much; it was complicated with lots and lots of words. So I had to go very mellow on the other side because otherwise the rhythm of reading would be destroyed. That’s why I went for something black and white, completely, with an extremely minimalistic emphasis, because I thought that was the best for the rhythm of the reading.
Usually when I paint, I use lots of color. You can draw anything and if you put a little color here and there, it will look nice. It is extremely difficult to work in black and white because I cannot cheat. In black and white, you can make any drawing, you put a little color here and there and it looks nice, it is immediately evident whether it’s good or it’s not good. It actually presented a really difficult challenge: How am I going to make it work in only black and white?
EW: A really good challenge. If this is too personal, please tell me to piss off, but I’m interested in what you do when you feel disillusioned or run-down or tired of having to keep fighting. What keeps you going?
MS: I just walk. I walk and walk. You know, the other day I walked about 28 miles.
MS: I walked the whole day and I tried not to think. We have to understand that we have information all over our brain and sometimes you just need to walk so everything finds its place. And then like anyone, every six months I’m sure that I’m over. I’m done. I have nothing else to say. I’m the most boring person in the world. I have that feeling very often, but I walk.
I get very depressed, but then I like to listen to some music that gives me release. I like to listen to the Stooges, and I shout with them like crazy, and then when all of this anger comes out, I feel a little bit better. I listen to music a lot. Not R&B. I hate fucking R&B. I think it should be forbidden in the world. You know, all this “ehhh, ehhh, ehhh, ehhh.” You know, like, sing! Don’t make these nasty noises. So good music and lots of walking go a long way.
There have also been so many times—so many times—that human beings who I didn’t even know helped me so much in my life. They just held my hand for a while through life. I try to think about those people—the good people, who are actually the majority of people. The majority of people are not bad—they’re good.
I think about all of that, and you know when I am dead, I am dead. So I have only this one life to live. I cannot just sit and be depressed because, you know, I’m going to die. Very soon. Maybe not tomorrow hopefully, but I’m not going die in 1,000 years. In decades I’ll be dead. And there are things that I want to do, there are things that I want to eat, there are laughs that I have not had. I hope that I will meet lots of new people. I hope that I will have two or three other professions.
If I can be not too nasty a human being, then I think that is good. Not bad, at least. And I try, you know, I just try. I am very involved with these women’s issues, because I wonder why we don’t believe in ourselves a little bit more. Why do we think that we have to get married to be happy? Why do we think that if we don’t have a boyfriend it’s the end of our world? It isn’t, believe me. It isn’t. Why do we have to always define ourselves by somebody else? Why can’t we just be us? And I try to talk to younger actresses, who always have all these questions, and I just tell them, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay. Just because you don’t have a boyfriend for three months doesn’t mean you are unattractive. It is just not the right moment. It’s fine.”
EW: Someone once told me, as we were talking about, that depression was anger without enthusiasm. And—
MS: I went through a big depression! And do you know what happened? I have to tell you the funniest story. I was so depressed, and when I am depressed I cannot breathe. Breath just doesn’t come to me. So one night I was all alone, and this breathing rhythm comes. That was just before Persepolis, and I called the ambulance and just say, “I cannot breathe.” So they come and put me in aluminum paper like a roasted chicken . . .
EW: Oh, God!
MS: And they put me in this blanket and stretcher and start to carry me down the stairs, which go in circles. I end up falling down, all the way down the stairs, and I broke my head. I needed four stitches! That made me come out of my depression actually. Because I had so much pain there that my breath came back and I decided: Now you have to do something. And then I wrote Persepolis.
EW: That’s so interesting.
MS: If I had not had the four stitches in my head I would have never written it!
EW: And do you think it was just that sometimes you need to be pushed to the edge or . . . ?
MS: You know, we have to accept that we cannot be happy all the time. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be depressed. Sometimes I am depressed—in my pajamas and I put on sad music and start crying. And then I look at myself crying in the mirror, so it makes me cry even more because I’m so sad for myself. And it goes on, but at that moment you have to allow yourself to be sad. We are human beings, we are not robots, we cannot be “happy happy!”
Like the Americans—they are like, “How are you?” “Great!” How is it possible to be great all the time? Most of the time I am not great. If two times per week I can be really happy, then I am really happy. But you know, sadness happens. I mean, how do you want us not to be sad? You are going to die. I mean, what is sadder than that? Whatever you learn, it does not serve you at all. Everything will go into the grave. Whatever you do goes in the grave. It’s so fucking depressing, and I don’t believe in life after life.
So it is very depressing, but when we are alive, we are alive, so I try to do the best. I get depressed very often, but it’s okay. Before, when I was younger, I would worry: “Oh, my God! I am sad.” Now I’m like, “Ah, okay, I am sad.” And so it disappears faster because I am not scared of it anymore.
EW: That’s great. That’s really great. And that’s a perfect ending. This was the most wonderful conversation. You have given me new oomph and I really appreciate that.
MS: I hope that I did not talk too much and I was not too boring for you!
EW: No! You were the opposite of boring. I feel completely energized and empowered as a result of having spoken to you.