Iranian Love Stories

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
ISBN: 9781637790045

Publisher Age Rating: 16+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Representation: Iranian

Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories From a New Europe

In her memoir Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe, Ali Fitzgerald teaches comic classes to refugees in an emergency shelter called The Bubble. She quickly learns that not all drawing prompts are universal—a playfully intended “what’s under the boat” evokes capsized rafts and missing people and is quickly replaced with “my favorite food memories.” Students don’t always want to create art in the workshops; they often wish to practice language learning, a vital survival skill. Fitzgerald has learned how to speak in reassuring but vague “soft words,” carefully phrased optimistic responses to difficult questions she receives, particularly those related to the future or opportunities for refugees to move to the United States or return to school. These well-intentioned lies drain her spirit.

The whole book is underscored by Fitzgerald’s deep-seated worry and uncertainty about how to help. She makes many comparisons to Jewish refugees, measuring Germany’s unconscionable history with racism and refugees with a tenuous, uncertain future. She highlights geographical “in-between spaces” in the memory of World War II and how they’ve changed and transformed, how they reflect or deflect history, and the inherent symbolism of their transformation. She describes Tempelhof, “where the horrors of war are repurposed” from an airport built by Nazis to a public park with community gardens, bird sanctuaries, and the largest refugee shelter in Berlin. She describes Berlin as, “a place where history sits with itself not comfortably but with a soft melancholy hum.” This tone is carried throughout the book.

The art is very strong, with a bold black and white style akin to Charles Burns’s style in Black Hole. Fitzgerald even brings Burns’s work The Hive with her to her comics classes to share with her students. Her art wonderfully conveys very expressive faces, which is crucial in trying to understand the range of emotions of her students, from childish glee to a numbness to tragedies they’ve endured. She also recreates the drawings her students made in classes, mimicking a heavily detailed ship with fine crosshatching and stick figures surrounded by sharks and the police. These contrasting art styles make it feel as if her students are truly a part of the book, rather than an afterthought in her story.

Fitzgerald writes from the frame of memoir and does not claim this book as a work of journalism, describing it as “surreal graphic nonfiction, a collection of illustrated observations, and/or akin to memoir.” As a result, there are occasional details that seem to stray too far from the story at hand—what relevance does taking Ecstasy in a sex club have to teaching comics classes to refugees?—but these details serve to characterize Berlin and give it some modern context, providing a very different set of expectations and reality of the city, and building a sharp contrast to life inside The Bubble.

The memoir framing asserts ownership over the story and an explicit resistance to co-opting, reducing, or exploiting the stories of refugees. Fitzgerald takes care in the way she represents the refugees she has met; she never puts words in their mouths, using only quotations taken from her notes, and gives everyone new names, which serves to both protect privacy and serve as a representation of her subjective experiences with that person. She strives always to depict the people she has met, rather than a homogeneous group. Yet she still acknowledges an uncertainty as to how she fits in to the story—to the historical context of the country, to a frightening potential future, to the stagnant life of The Bubble. The way Fitzgerald entwines her experience of Berlin with what is experienced by her students begs the question: whose story is it? In a meta moment near the end of the book, someone asks her, “But this is your story too, isn’t it?”

In general, I expected less memoir and personal anecdotes from Fitzgerald and more focus on the lives of individual refugees, but perhaps this is a voyeuristic expectation. In her meta moments, Fitzgerald briefly discusses her concerns around exploiting the stories of the people she has met. She seems to mitigate this by drawing historical parallels to WWII Germany, making the story as much about the social and political landscape and Germany’s legacy as much as it is about the refugees who she meets in her work. The past informs the present in an eerie way, from full-on anti-immigrant attacks to typography in popular culture, with Nazi-era Fraktur typefaces creeping back into popularity. This discussion of national history seems to assert an insistence of responsibility. The world promised, “never again,” but we are facing a poorly handled international crisis that questions our respect and regard for human life.

While the book ends on a tentatively hopeful note, it is weighed down by the horrors experienced by refugees in their journeys to safety, and the difficult decision for some to return to where they fled from. Drawn to Berlin doesn’t promise actions, solutions, or moral lessons. It meditates on lives spent in an unending transition, a limbo where your fate is still being decided. It captures a reality most readers won’t have to confront, even in the news, capturing just a brief glimpse of what asylum seekers must endure to try to find peace, safety, and a new sense of home.

Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories From a New Europe
By Ali Fitzgerald
ISBN: 9781683961321
Fantagraphics, 2018

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Middle Eastern Lesbian, Queer

Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood

As a child, Marjane Satrapi wanted to be a prophet when she grew up. She even began writing her own holy book; among her dictates were such rules as “no old person should have to suffer” and “all maids should eat at the table with the others.” Raised by modern, Marxist-leaning parents, Marji was an outspoken child who eagerly embraced new ideas. She would have the chance to wrestle with a lot of them: she was 10 years old when the events of Iran’s Islamic Revolution began. Persepolis has received tons of hype from both comics fans and the mainstream press; like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Persepolis won over people who had never thought a comic book could convey serious subject matter. Marjane Satrapi’ s funny, wise, heart-wrenching book deserves every bit of praise it has received. Her stark, witty black and white forms have the power to make you laugh in one panel and gasp with horror in the next. Her writing is full of subtle insight as she shows us a child and a country caught up in revolution, fundamentalism, and war. Most importantly, she shows us how ordinary lives go on amid uncertainty and violence. She’s also unbelievably funny. U.S. fans eagerly await the second volume of Satrapi’s memoir, which was originally written and published in France (where the author now lives). Curse those lucky French! While adults are more likely to pick up Persepolis, politically- or historically-minded teens will love it too. It’s a natural choice for teachers and librarians. If you need to convince someone that comics can educate as well as entertain, go buy this book right now.

Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood
ISBN: 9780375714573
By Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon Books, 2003