People from different cultures often struggle with conflicting values; some value religious customs while others prioritize freedom and individuality. In Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies, Marjane Satrapi and Jhumpa Lahiri explore many cultural obstacles. Lahiri presents universally isolating features, including an outsider’s confusion, allowing her to write from the characters’ differing perspectives. Throughout Persepolis, Marji- Satrapi’s portrayal of her young self -struggles with balancing her ancestry’s tradition with society’s contemporary culture.
Satrapi illustrates the estrangement that affects individuals in an unstable political environment like Iran. Lahiri and Satrapi address the isolating nature of a multicultural upbringing as the characters discover the truth about the balance between the solace and suffocation of tradition.
In Persepolis, the veil suffocates Marji’s identity, but she learns to compromise as a survival method. The Islamic Revolution overturned a Westernized Iran into a country where it became obligatory for women to wear a veil.
The veil symbolizes Marji’s transition from conformity to rebellion, ultimately leading to her freedom. In panels one and two, Satrapi depicts herself as somber, looking directly at the reader, as a prisoner would, her arms folded to physically confine herself (Satrapi 3). Marji sits “on the far left so you don’t see [her]” (Satrapi 3). Satrapi deliberately crops herself out from the class photo to stress her classmates’ uniformity while wearing the veil. Satrapi highlights each classmates’ differing facial expressions, revealing that underneath, they’re individual women wanting to break free from the veil’s burden.
However, Marji learns to express herself despite restrictions. Satrapi embraces both cultures by putting her “1983 Nikes on…and [her] denim jacket” but acknowledges her need to compromise by “of course [wearing] her headscarf” (Satrapi 131). Addressing both her modern and traditional garments, Marji highlights the tension between tradition and modernity: following middle-eastern customs while sharing western values. The clash of western and Persian culture catalyzes Satrapi’s rebellion, for she asserts her personal identity by defying traditions and rules.
As an interpreter, Mr. Kapasi feels perplexed because he has an incomplete understanding of both traditional and Western cultures. The vignette “Interpreter of Maladies” explores identity loss when a gap occurs between two cultures. During a trip to India, Mr. Kapasi observes that the Das family “[is] very young” and that, though they “look Indian,” they “[dress] as foreigners” (Lahiri 43-44). Mr. Kapasi’s knowledge of the couple’s youth prompts him to question their caretaking ability. The family’s mixed appearance alludes to their bicultural identity: they possess Indian roots and ties to America. Mr. Kapasi perceives the Das family as a cultural contradiction. Mr. Das surprised Mr. Kapasi by “[referring] to his wife by her first name when speaking” to his daughter (Lahiri 45). Mr. Kapasi’s shock points to the cultural gulf that exists between his Indian heritage and the Americanized family he chaperones. Knowing that Mr. Kapasi’s an interpreter to a doctor, Mrs. Das confesses that her isolation compelled her to cheat on her husband. Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das’s unity builds upon a misunderstanding of their respective cultures; she indicates that her American identity urges her to take an extramarital affair lightly, but her Indian consciousness reminds her of the sanctity of marriage. Mrs. Das’ psychological trauma results from her confused bicultural identity. Due to Kapasi’s Indian background, he cannot understand her complicated situation. He believes her indifference results from unfaithfulness rather than the dullness of her marriage. Marji suffering from the veil and Mr. Kapasi suffering from his multicultural misperceptions reveals that sometimes people need to compromise to fit into societal norms. Isolation forces the characters to discover their purpose. Marji views the veil as a survival tactic that restricts her and Mr. Kapasi decides not to express his feelings to Mrs. Das. Although individuals may need to sacrifice modernity, they can find comfort in tradition.
As fundamentalism takes root in Iran, Marji never completely conforms or surrenders her culture; she finds comfort and meaning in her family. Marji’s family doesn’t follow society’s rules and expectations, allowing Marji to grow in her own right. Marji’s mother, Taji, influences Marji’s life, teaching her strength and independence. Through Taji’s attendance at a protest, Satrapi presents her as individualistic and rebellious (Satrapi 5). Marji fluctuates between admiring her mother and accusing her of restricting her freedoms, yet her mother allows Marji to become her own person. In fact, Taji wants to take Marji to a protest so she can learn to “defend her rights as a woman” (Satrapi 76). Taji teaches Marji that she, as a woman, can revolt in a patriarchal society, thus Marji never hesitates to speak her opinions and won’t allow herself to become another veiled traditionalist. She wears jeans and jewelry to school, resulting in admonishment for wearing forbidden clothing (Satrapi 113). Although a closer eye on Marji could’ve prevented her warning, Taji urges her daughter to present individuality. However, Taji advises Marji to give the appearance that they adhere to the Islamic Revolution’s provisions in order to survive. Still, Satrapi embraces both cultures, illustrating western culture through rock band posters in her room and clothing. The Western culture’s presentation allows Marji to showcase her identity, reflecting the western political and social values her family holds.
Lahiri uses food and dining to reveal the truth about a failing marriage; through the resulting communication, the characters find solace in their alienated situation. In the vignette “A Temporary Matter,” Shoba and Shukumar reel from their stillborn child, growing estranged from one another despite their marriage. They no longer eat or cook meals together, until with “no lights, they would have to eat together” (Lahiri 8). Systematic power outages allow intimacy between the couple not achieved since their son’s death. Before the notice, Shukumar “[takes] his plate into his study· while Shoba [takes] her plate to the living room” (Lahiri 8). Lahiri depicts the marital boredom more common in American society. The marriage bond, considered sacred in India, gradually loses importance in the American lifestyle; one manifestation is the lack of family dinners. With no power, Shukumar surprises Shoba while making dinner; Shoba comments that “it looks lovely” and that “it’s like India” (Lahiri 11). At times, Shukumar and Shoba behave like Indians- physically in America and psychologically in South Asia. These enforced dinners bring the two closer together and result in the conversation being therapeutic to their relationship. Americanization isolates Shoba and Shukumar, but sharing a traditional meal helps them realize their growing disengagement. Likewise, Marji’s family helps her understand how to navigate the restrictions in fundamentalist Iran while still maintaining her individuality. Both novels portray that traditions help the characters understand their situation and how to cope with it. Attempts to adjust to isolating multicultural factors aren’t always successful. Marji leaves Iran, Mr. Kapasi misperceives, and Shoba and Shukumar break up amicably. Nonetheless, Marji still needs to adapt to her society to protect herself, and Kapasi, Shoba, and Shukumar still suffer through intercultural hardships. Both novels balance the suffocation and solace of tradition; as a result, these characters’ customs both facilitate and limit them from their isolating circumstance.
Imbued with explicit details of multiple cultures, Persepolis and Interpreter of Maladies speak with universal articulateness and empathy to anyone who feels alienated. In a diverse society, more people identify with multiple ethnicities and struggle with their cultural identity. This fact begs the question: does the multicultural experience enhance or trivialize ethnic cultures? Neither of these novels provide a definitive answer to this question. Instead, they reveal that identity is both global and local; the characters connect to a global world where many cultures surround them. Iran and Marji are subject to foreign domination, but manage to retain their Persian culture; likewise, Shoba, Shukumar, and Mr. Kapasi are subject to cultural divide, but still celebrate both nationalities in unison.