Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2260
AUTHOR: Satrapi, Marjane
ARTIST: Marjane Satrapi (illustrator)
PUBLISHERS: L’Association (French); Pantheon Books (English)
FIRST BOOK PUBLICATION: 2003 (English translation, 2005)
While working on Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi wrote and drew a memoir entitled Embroideries, which was released in France as the one-volume Broderies in 2003 by L’Association, the publisher that also released Persepolis and Poulet aux prunes (2004; Chicken with Plums, 2006). L’Association had a history of publishing successful comics titles during the 1990’s; this success continued into the twenty-first century with Satrapi’s work. Featured as part of L’Association’s “Collection Côtelette” of small-format graphic narratives, Broderies enjoyed multiple editions in the years following its first release.
Like Persepolis, the text of Broderies was translated and published in a variety of languages. The Italian version, Taglia e cuci, was also released the same year. In 2004, the Spanish publisher Norma Editorial released Castillian and Catalan editions, Bordados and Brodats (translated by Marta Marfany) as part of their Cómic Europeo collection. The following year, Broderies was translated into both English and German. Anjali Singh translated the English-language edition, Embroideries, which was distributed by Pantheon Books in the United States and Canada and by Jonathan Cape in the United Kingdom. Martin Budde translated the German Sticheleien, published in Zurich by Édition Moderne. In 2006, the novel was released in five more languages: Danish, Dutch, Indonesian, Japanese, and Swedish. In 2008, Satrapi’s text reached farther across Europe, being published in Czech, Greek, and Polish. In 2010, Hungarian, Finnish, and Portuguese editions were published.
Following the success of Satrapi’s Persepolis, an autobiographical bildungsroman relating the story of a young Iranian girl living through the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath, Embroideries intervenes in a specific moment near the end of the time span covered in Persepolis. The year is 1991, and a twenty-something Marji is taking part in the tradition of samovar (afternoon tea) in a living room full of Iranian women linked by familial and affective ties. In this space, bookended by the men’s departure after the midday meal and return after their naps, Marji’s grandmother dominates, entreating the other women to engage in gossip-laden discussion, “the ventilator of the heart.”
This particular long session covers matters of sex and sexuality, as the women tell their own stories and share those of other friends. The women, who range in age and experience, tell of their problems with virginity, weddings, unfaithful and inadequate husbands, divorces, affairs, and plastic surgery, among other issues. One story prompts another in this narrative, which is very much Sex in the City (1998-2004) meets Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). In fact, as one critic has pointed out, one story echoes Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” as a woman reveals her plastic surgery transformation, which reduced her buttocks and increased her breast size by transferring fat from the former to the latter area. The woman jokes, “Of course this idiot [my husband] doesn’t know that every time he kisses my breasts, it’s actually my a--s he’s kissing.”
This coupling of humor and revelation pervades the narrative and explains the title, Embroideries, which itself contains both a hidden meaning and a punch line. Pictured on the title page, embroidery, a traditionally female art, is the kind of activity expected of such a gathering. Instead, the women weave explicit stories, in which “a full embroidery,” what Grandmother jokingly asks for as a gift from Marji, euphemistically refers to the surgery that restores the vagina to its virginal state. This climactic moment near the novel’s end displays the open and friendly camaraderie among the three generations of women that fills this entire story, which serves as a vignette that opens onto a larger world of female relationships.
•Marjane, a.k.a. Marji, the protagonist and narrator, is a slender twenty-something woman pictured with shoulder-length dark hair and clad in collared top and pants. As the author’s autobiographical avatar, Marji relates the importance of the samovar tradition and the story of her grandmother’s life, thereby centralizing Grandmother in the tale. She also participates in the women’s gossip, sharing the story of her friend Shideh.
•Grandmother, Marji’s unnamed grandmother, is an elderly woman with cropped hair and still-pert breasts, whose dress and pearl necklace are respectable yet fashionable. An opium addict who began taking the drug in her youth to attract men, she now must “dissolve a small bit of burnt opium” in her morning tea to “regain her sense of humor and her natural kindness.” This thrice-married woman directs the gossip session, wherein she relates the story of her friend Nahid and discloses her desire for a full embroidery, showing herself in these instances to be worldly, cosmopolitan, and ever youthful.
•Satrapi, Grandmother’s third husband, is a bespectacled elderly man who is deferential to his wife. He appears at the novel’s beginning and end, framing the gossip session. He is unable to penetrate the women’s interior world.
•Parvine is Marji’s chatty middle-aged aunt, who, with her long, wavy hair, full makeup, and revealing v-neck dress, comes across as the most sexually liberal woman of the group. Much of her life story is revealed as she liberally interjects in others’ narratives, spreading her advice and experience. After surviving her first marriage to General Mafakherolmolouk, who was fifty-six years her senior, she moved to Europe to become a painter. There, it is suggested, she experienced the pleasures of sexuality, which inform her opinions about penises. She believes that being a mistress is “the better role,” since husbands mistreat their wives, not their mistresses.
•Amineh Arshadian, a participant in the samovar discussion, has chin-length hair and wears a dress. Her contributions to the discussion revolve around the fidelity of the men in her life. Married first for love, she discovered that her husband Houshang was cheating on her when she moved in with him in Germany. In response, she left him and took her married dance partner, Herbert, as her lover. Eventually, she returned to Iran because Herbert would not leave his wife. She believes that her new husband, Hossein, is unfaithful too.
•Taji, Marji’s mother, has a pixie haircut and wears a long-sleeve shirt and pants. Near the story’s end, she recounts the tale of Bahar, the daughter of her cousin Pavaneh. The story concerns Bahar’s marital troubles that arise because she weds an unfamiliar man. Throughout the story, Taji presents herself as one with a more modern and enlightened idea of marriage than her relatives, whose old-fashioned notions land them in trouble.
•Azzi, a discreet neighbor, who appears similar in dress and age to Marji, remains silent for most of the discussion. Upon hearing of Bahar’s troubles, she relates her own marital ordeal, in which her former husband ran off with her jewels and then demanded a divorce.
•Two unnamed women also participate in the discussion. One with a shorter hairdo is relatively ignorant about the penis despite being a wife and mother, but she knows what “a full embroidery” is. The other, who wears her long hair in a bun, lauds the wonders of plastic surgery for improving her figure and helping to keep her husband faithful.
As in Persepolis, Satrapi drew Embroideries in black and white, but the artistic style in Embroideries departs from that in Persepolis. Most obviously, no strict panels exist to separate moments, and the unnumbered pages further complicate attempts to demarcate and isolate instances. Rather, one experience flows into another, as the women spin tales of their personal experience and others’. This narrative style, which incorporates a large amount of dialogue, has been described as a “comic play” and “graphic drama.” Satrapi arranges the women on the page in a manner that visualizes this mode of exchange. When sharing a story, the speaker is present as a talking head (often at the top of the page), which illustrates the process of gossip, since the one who has intervened in someone else’s private affairs is pictured on the same page as the other person’s actions. Moreover, this visual voice-over moves out of dialogue boxes, such that each woman’s voice slinks through the events she relates.
These stories begin and end in discussions among the larger group, which is pictured in various configurations, both as seated figures and as disembodied heads. This profusion of representation demonstrates that the women are active in the discussion; they are not just passively reclining and sniping behind others’ backs but are sharing and learning from this exchange with one another. All of these elements reflect the fact that these women weave stories rather than garments.
In the original French and in many translations, the font is a cursive script, which echoes the interweaving and interpenetrating experiences that touch each woman and tease out her inner concerns. In the North American translation, the text is rendered in plain print; the letters do not connect to each other and thus do not show the movement of ideas through the words themselves. Rather, the presence of the cursive is preserved only in the title cards that introduce Embroideries on an embroidered surface, detracting from the textual and visual representation of the gossip and wrongly implying a confinement of this type of experience. By contrast, in the French version, the cursive text flows out of the living room and into the framing moments, representing the persistence of this unifying energy even after the tea is finished.
By limiting the space and time of Embroideries to afternoon tea, Satrapi is able to present concerns that not only are particular to the women in the room but also are more generally applicable to women around the world. In this living room, Satrapi represents family and friends of various ages, allowing the exploration of generational issues and camaraderie among women. Moreover, the flow, intent, and engagement in discussion revise a negative notion of gossip. Here, gossip is productive and unveils a number of matters important to all the women, which is shown by how the stories overlap, as one often provokes another.
Sex and sexuality permeate every thread of discussion, as the women talk about the problematic dimensions of male-female relationships, fidelity to a sense of self or tradition, bodily alterations and beauty, negotiating the concerns of Iran versus those of Europe, and the cycle of marriage and divorce. Through these concerns rooted in the personal, the women reach outward in trying to express a stable notion of modernity. Their many viewpoints and beliefs prevent such an articulation, but the use of humor in their tales creates a unified womanhood toward which feminism continually strives. Their world is one that deals in hybridity, as each woman holds a different view but integrates these other views into her understanding of the world. The image of embroidery encapsulates this entire experience, as all these singular threads of existence are woven into a cohesive yet multifaceted whole.
Unlike the much acclaimed Persepolis and Chicken with Plums, Embroideries experienced a mixed reception among critics. While Satrapi’s other works were awarded prizes at the annual Angoulême International Comics Festival, Embroideries lost the 2004 prize for best album to the first portion of Emmanuel Larcenet’s Le Combat ordinaire (2003; Ordinary Victories, 2005). Even so, Embroideries went on to be translated into numerous languages.
Arguably more so than the other texts, Embroideries fits into a Western cultural moment obsessed with the Middle Eastern woman’s experience in general and the Iranian woman’s memoir in particular. This fact is echoed in the critical discourse surrounding the text; Embroideries is often reviewed alongside or compared with memoirs such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) and Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad (2005). These texts allow people to see through the “axis of evil” and beyond the veil to understand these women not as others but as people. Embroideries is especially pertinent in this regard, as Satrapi visually ushers the reader into a private space in which women speak to one another without the bother of chadors, hijabs, or the men who necessitate them. The candor found in this private space is not unlike the bare honesty that pervades many other graphic memoirs, a genre that has become an increasingly popular form following the success of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1972-1991) and Satrapi’s own Persepolis.
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EmbroideriesCritical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independents & Underground Classics Bart H. Beaty Stephen Weiner 2012 Salem Press