Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Ventilating the heart: Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries

"To speak behind others’ backs is the ventilator of the heart" says a grandmother knowingly, and with those words a group of Iranian ladies settle down for a post-prandial session of tea and gossip in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novella Embroideries. In the cinematic style so beloved of this medium, a short prologue is followed by the "credits", in the form of an aerial view of the book’s title embroidered across a table cloth. It’s a homely picture - but "embroideries" has more than one meaning, as we will soon see.

The women narrate their stories, or the stories of other people they know. One woman has given birth to four children but still has no inkling of what the male organ looks like; another was, as a 13-year-old, made up to look "like a little whore" in preparation for her wedding with a 69-year-old man; another seemingly picture-perfect marriage ends with the man stealing the woman’s jewellery and vanishing (though she’s equally concerned about her "lost honour"); a woman thrilled about having married her daughter off to a multi-millionnaire discovers he is homosexual. Virginity, and the need to "preserve" it for your husband - or, if that isn’t possible, to fake it - is the theme that runs through the book (and which eventually gives the title its far edgier double meaning).
Marjane Satrapi has been widely acclaimed for her autobiographical graphic novels Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis II: The Story of a Return, about growing up in Iran under the shadow of the Islamic revolution - and later, as a liberated young woman, dealing with repression and hypocrisy. Those were fully fleshed out creations: one got the sense of a story that had to be urgently told, of a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. Embroideries is a patchwork in comparison - a smaller, more modest book. The story doesn’t cover as wide a canvas (though to be fair it wasn’t intended to - cosiness and intimacy are the bywords here, and by all accounts Embroideries is something of a filler between the author’s bigger projects). Nor are Satrapi’s trademark woodcut illustrations as complex or innovative as in the earlier novels.

Satrapi herself is part of the story, along with her mother, grandmother and aunts, and this book is undoubtedly an amalgamation of many such women’s discussions she has been part of, or has heard about: it’s obvious that she has an insider’s view. But it’s also important to remember that she was part of a progressive family to begin with, and then spent her crucial adolescent years in a liberal setting (living in Austria between the ages of 14 and 18). Consequently, at times the narrative seems patronising, like an easy-to-digest primer on the Sex Lives of Upper Class Women in Islamic Countries, aimed at the western reader. Nonetheless, this is engrossing stuff while it lasts. The talking point of this book is likely to be its sexual frankness. Men, even the ones who consider themselves progressive, will find much to be squeamish about (it’s common knowledge that our tribe is very uncomfortable about how much women tell each other!) while women everywhere will find much here that they can relate to.

But speaking in the context of Islamic societies, one can’t believe the cosy framework of Satrapi’s novella contains the whole picture. There have to be more stories to be told. Personally I much preferred the two Persepolises, which managed to address many of the topics covered in Embroideries, but wove them into a larger, more satisfying narrative framework. If you aren’t familiar with Satrapi’s work, I suggest you devour the first two books and then try to get hold of this one at half-price.


  1. To me, the interesting aspect of how the books were received in the West was that it was automatically assumed that an Iranian woman writing about her experience would necessarily focus on issues of gender. I think most non-Iranian reviewers have overlooked the fact that the first book is essentially a short political history of post-Islamic Revolution Iran. I've discussed the book with my Iranian friends who are near contemporaries of Satrapi in age, and they are amazed by the vividness and accuracy of her potrayal.

    As for women in Islamic countries, I think it is hard to slot Iran with the others. The Iranian cultural norms and experience is very distinct, and I think Satrapi manages to capture it very well. For example, in sharp contrast to the dismal state of higher education for women in other Arab countries, women outnumber men in Iran's engineering schools.

  2. Have you bought Embroideries? Where did you get hold of a copy? Unless of course, you bought it on amazon...?
    And btw, Persepolis 1 is my all time favorite. What about yours?

  3. Soo: it's available in bookstores here (here being Delhi). My books-in-charge status didn't help this time since I couldn't get in touch with the publishers - so I did the decent thing and went out and bought it with my own money :)

    I can't decide between the Persepolises - like them both equally.

  4. I just luckily stumbled upon your blog when I was doing a search on Edward Luce's new book and because of that lucky stumble I have gained a fair share of knowledge on what I need to add to my pile of books to read!

    I cannot agree with you more on Persepolis 1 & 2. Embroideries was a little bit of a let down. I did hear Marjan Satrapi talk in San Francisco and was so taken by her frankness and honesty; it was a pleasure to be in her company.

  5. Jai,
    Stumbled here yesterday and got completely hooked. What are your views on Satrapi's Chicken and Plum? Some parts like the elephant fable were "feh" to my Indian senses, but overall I was very impressed w/ craft.

    Any other comics, er, graphic novels available in India?

  6. Shoda: thanks. check out a couple of other posts - this one and this one.

    (haven't read Chicken and Plum yet)