Iranian Love Stories is a journalistic look at Iranians in their 20s heavily controlled by a conservative regime. Ten vignettes cover individuals and couples, their dreams, fears, and political angst. Jane Deuxard is the pseudonym of two journalists, a man and a woman, who conducted the interviews that make up the script of the graphic novel. They are also a romantic couple, opening the book by talking about the rings they purchased to make them appear married as part of the costume that would allow them to move freely in Iran, along with the woman’s veil and ¾ length coat. Most of the women in the book, including the blonde female journalist, are shown wearing loose headscarves in public in accordance with the local law. Originally published in 2016 in France, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Green Movement of 2009 are discussed by interviewees, but the book predates the political unrest and bloody governmental responses that have occurred in the last 5 years.
The unspoken word in the title is “forbidden.” The writers sought out specific kinds of stories that are outside of the accepted traditional social structure. One of the brief interludes between profiles shows a handful of people the authors try to talk to giving pat answers such as, “I want a good, pious husband. I’d like an interesting job and children… etc., blah blah blah.” While their work mostly likely does reveal concerns felt by a large swath of Iranian youth, the book makes no attempt to give a balanced look at all Iranians. I appreciate that the authors made their goal clear in their approach. The anger in the stories is targeted at the regime; there’s less discussion of Islam in general. It’s not about bashing Islam. Instead, it’s a nuanced look at the different perspectives of a wide variety of men and women with complex ideas about the roles of men, women, and religion in their lives. No LGBTQ subjects are covered.
Many of the interviews reveal details of sex lives and purity tests, others focus on family conflicts and precise dances between obeying and breaking laws. It’s stressed many times that simply discussing all of these matters is not allowed, let alone performing the specific acts. In one astonishing vignette, a woman discovers from the authors’ conversation with her partner that he disagrees completely on their future, where they will live, and what their roles will be. She admits to the journalists that, even though they’ve been together for more than a year, they’re allowed so little time to speak openly that she didn’t know how he thought about these things at all. Throughout there are references to revolutions of the past and frustration with the political system, especially a feeling that future mass actions are not worth the danger. It’s jarring to see the degree to which the government is tied to their romantic lives. The stories vary in length and give their characters depth and development. Between each focused profile is a page or two that places in context some of what the journalists had to do to find subjects and their time together, including a stint of being held and questioned about their motives and cavorting in their hotel room. While they are present in all of the discussions, the journalists focus on their subjects’ stories more than their own.
The art by Deloupy is arresting. With thick lines and a muted color palette, the stories come to life with a dynamism unexpected from largely depicted conversations. He captures a great deal of expression in eyes, mouths, and body language. Backgrounds provide sweeping views from the Isfahan cable cars to stark cemeteries, juxtaposed with claustrophobic interiors. You feel like you’re traveling the country with the journalists. The vignettes each start with the names of the subjects, their ages, and location. The interludes are shown surrounded by a notebook corner, similar to a moleskin, giving the impression of a journal and visually separating the sections. In the stories there are realistic depictions of the lives described as well as political cartoon style flights of fantasy, such as Pez dispenser politicians and arachnid mother-in-laws. The stories unfold in panels without lined borders, often delineated by colored backgrounds or leaving heads and shoulders floating on the page. This adds to the travelogue feel and provides opportunities for a contrasting shock in the moments the images bleed to the edges of the page. The pages are frequently dense with illustration.
This is an excellent addition to any adult nonfiction graphic novel collection. Readers of Marjane Sartrapi and Joe Sacco will especially enjoy it. The subject matter and presence of a few sexually graphic parts make it better suited to adults, though older teens may find it interesting. It could be a deep conversation starter for weighty book clubs and college classes. For a broader comparison of approaches to marriage in Muslim culture, try reading this alongside the bubbly and cartoonish memoir That Can Be Arranged by Huda Fahmy.
Iranian Love Stories
By Jane Deuxard
Art by Deloupy
Graphic Mundi, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 16+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Representation: Iranian