For any autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, comparisons to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are inevitable, and with Parsua Bashi’s Nylon Road, they’re pretty appropriate. Both books are about being female in a repressive regime that the characters don’t agree with religiously, and they both feature a pretty simplistic art style. Considering Satrapi’s acclaim, both in the United States and internationally, anybody covering this subject is going to be working in her shadow. But while Bashi isn’t going to make anybody forget the more famous work, she has her own style and unique view on the subject, and she’s an interesting voice, bringing a more philosophical, almost nostalgic look at her formative years in the Middle East.
While Satrapi focused on history and society along with her personal life story, Bashi stays almost completely internal, viewing everything through her own experiences. She uses a unique flashback structure to tell her story, looking back at moments from her past from the perspective of an expatriate living in Switzerland. In fact, she starts off the book oddly, making it seem almost as if she’s having a mental breakdown after feeling isolated as a foreigner who doesn’t fit in with Europeans or speak the language very well. She portrays herself as being visited by past versions of herself, which, if taken literally (as she seems to do at times, even spending several pages questioning her own sanity), makes her seem kind of crazy, but does work pretty well as a storytelling device once it gets moving. These “visitations” are often triggered by experiences with her life in Europe that contrast with her Iranian past: the lightweight stories on the news and frivolous conversations with her friends remind her of the constant fear, danger, and difficulties of living in a country at war, and hearing another Iranian immigrant rant about the misconceptions people have about Persian history make her recall her own youthful idealism.
Although the book starts off slowly, once the formula sets in, things pick up considerably, with each chapter seeing a visit from a past version of Bashi that sparks memories allowing her to relate some aspect of her past and expound upon an aspect of her life or personality. While these tales often don’t make the best use of the comics form, seeing many pages taken up mostly by text-filled word balloons surrounding static images of the people speaking, the information imparted is often fascinating, putting a very human face on the people that Westerners often only see in crowd scenes on the news. Bashi, being non-religious, did not agree with the extremist views of the Islamic regime, so her views on the actions of the government are non-traditional, but she tells of how she was vehemently against people emigrating from the country, believing that people should try to stay and change things from within rather than flee the increasingly oppressive leadership.
Bashi also relates her experiences, which become more and more harrowing as she grows older. Small infractions like running an errand in public with a male college classmate lead to disproportionate repercussions, and the sheltered lifestyle that resulted from most of her friends and family leaving the country lead her to marry a man who turned out to be abusively conservative in his religious views, and her eventual divorce meant that she was separated from her daughter. It’s hard to watch her go through all this, and the emotional damage that she shows at the beginning of the book becomes understandable after hearing what happened to her. And the sad thing is, this is not a unique experience; millions of other women in Iran suffer through the same treatment, and often have to deal with much worse.
The book ends up feeling like a confessional, a bit of therapy that allowed Bashi to get all this out of her system and onto the page. She’s able to exorcise her demons, or at least keep them at bay, by refusing to keep them bottled up inside. And at the same time, she’s able to make her feelings known about Western culture and its excesses, along with reciprocating reactions from the other side of the divide, including how she was as ignorant of the West as we often are of Iran. It’s interesting stuff, sometimes feeling almost a bit too personal, as if we’re stealing a glimpse inside someone’s private diary.
On the less positive side, the structure of the book does call attention to the choppy storytelling; the chapters are so disconnected from each other, one wonders if they were originally serialized as magazine articles or something similar. Bashi does her best to introduce each new topic (and each new past version of herself), but these chapter opening-interactions can often seem a bit contrived. The somewhat simplistic art style works pretty well from a character standpoint, with the different-aged versions of Bashi being distinguishable through a variety of means, including subtle age lines on the face and differing hairstyles, but images sometimes seem rushed and sloppy when depicting something other than conversations between a small group of people. Bashi’s art works best when tending toward the realistic; frequent exaggerations and cartoony abstractions look awkward, although they do demonstrate a good sense of humor about her life, which must have been necessary to survive it.
Overall, it’s a very interesting book, and a great look into Iranian life for those of us on the outside, but it can’t help but pale in comparison to the more famous work by Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis managed to tell a similar personal story, but it provided historical sweep and context, making the book feel like it was about an entire culture rather than just one person. Bashi, on the other hand is almost solipsistic in her take, with everything filtered through her emotion and experiences. It still makes for an arresting tale, but one in which the reader has to remind themselves is not unique, rather than one that places itself within the context of a wider culture. But even though there are criticisms to be had, it’s still a vital, interesting work, and one that shouldn’t be ignored in favor of something more popular.
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