Emma Watson Interviews Persepolis Author Marjane Satrapi

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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?”

“No.”

And then again: “Do you have a child?”

“No.”

“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?

[They laugh]

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?

EW: Yeah!

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 behavior, and they respond, “Oh, it’s such masculine behavior.” 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 toward 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 . . .

EW: Serious!

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 in 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 a 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: 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.

Credit : vogue.com

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