It took me quite a while to make my nomination for the Read This! selection—I was looking for something a little unusual, a book that would shake things up a bit, one that would truly resonate with me. When I came across Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Embroideries, I knew had to make it my pick.
In this loosely autobiographical book, Satrapi tells of a long afternoon in her grandmother’s salon in Tehran, where nine women (aunts, friends, neighbors) gather for a glass of strong black tea. They share their stories and those of others, for, as Satrapi’s grandmother tells us, “To speak behind others’ back is the ventilator of the heart,” and these women are dying for some fresh air.
Marji is in charge of the samovar for the tea, while her grandmother is the mistress of ceremonies, teasing the women to share their tales of life, love, sex, and marriage. There’s Nahid, whose pre-marital tryst with a boyfriend forces her to take a drastic step on her wedding night, with highly comic results; Parvine, who flees an arranged marriage to an old army general; Amineh, whose husband, exiled in Germany, cheats on her; Azzi, who agrees to marry a man, sight unseen, because he lives in Switzerland and can offer her a life like the one she sees on MTV; and even Marji’s own hilarious story—she tells of how a friend uses the counsel of a magician to get her boyfriend to marry her.
Many readers, confronted with the clichés shown on TV news channels, have a very particular image of Muslim women—quiet, covered, submissive. Not only does Satrapi challenge that stereotype (as have many other women writers of the Muslim world) but, by drawing on her own family’s history, she takes the reader into the lives of real women, with their faults and their dreams, their vanity and their pride. Her characters talk about sex with seriousness and humor coiled together, much in the way that life is lived. Even when they discuss embroideries (the popular surgical procedure that restores a certain part of women’s anatomy) they do so with disarming pragmatism.
Although the Persepolis series is hugely popular in the U.S., in some ways I think Embroideries is a better book, showcasing Satrapi’s natural storytelling ability and her knack for nuanced observation. And it’s also, by virtue of its theme, a more intimate book, a book that can be experienced on a very personal level.
I should warn you, though, that Embroideries may not fare well with die-hard graphic novel readers: the stark, black and white art isn’t sophisticated, and the book is more of a collection of narratives than a novel. But, to be honest, I didn’t really concern myself with whether this book had a neat label on it like memoir or novel or collection—I only asked myself whether it brought up emotion in me, whether the characters were well crafted, whether the story was well told. With Embroideries, the answer to each one of those questions was an unequivocal yes.