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It is November 1984 when Marjane “Marji” Satrapi’s story resumes in Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. Her previous autobiographical volume, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, ended with Marji leaving home for Vienna after her parents’ painful decision that the ongoing Iran-Iraq war and repressive fundamentalist Islamic regime had made Tehran, Iran too dangerous for fourteen-year-old Marji to remain. So, while it’s expected to find Marji in Vienna, it is surprising when it’s revealed she’s living in a boarding house run by nuns. Marji was supposed to be with the family of her mother’s best friend, Zozo, but when Marji arrived, it was apparent that Zozo didn’t want her in her home.
Marji describes her short stay with Zozo’s family. Marji immediately senses that Zozo isn’t pleased to see her when Zozo and her daughter Shirin pick her up at the airport. Shirin is about Marji’s age, but their similarities end there, as Marji finds Shirin vapid and self-absorbed. Marji is fond of Zozo’s husband, Houshang, who was a wealthy CEO before he fled Iran but has since lost most of his money and all of his prestige. But Houshang can’t be an effective ally for Marji since Zozo loudly disparages her husband as a failure at every opportunity. When Zozo announces that their apartment is too small for all of them and that Marji will immediately be moving into the boarding house, Marji is surprised and unsure of what to expect, but isn’t sad to leave Zozo’s dysfunctional household.
One of the nuns gives Marji a tour of the boarding house, including its shared showers and kitchen. Marji, who had a bedroom to herself at home, is told she’ll have a roommate and that the outside door is locked every night at 9:30. When the nun asks Marji her religion and Marji replies that she doesn’t have one, the nun frowns. The nun gives Marji directions to the local supermarket, and when she arrives, Marji is thrilled by the well-stocked shelves and products like scented detergent—since such things are no longer found in war-torn Iran.
Later, Marji meets her roommate, Lucia, an Austrian girl who doesn’t speak French (just as Marji doesn’t speak German). Despite the language barrier, the roommates do their best to get acquainted. Marji offers Lucia pistachio nuts from Iran, which Marji considers a great treat. In return, Lucia makes Marji instant soup, which Marji considers repellant. Lucia invites Marji to go to a communal room where many of the residents are watching TV in German. Marji quickly loses interest, says goodbye to Lucia, and goes back upstairs, but Lucia doesn’t notice.
Marji has difficulty adjusting to her new life in Vienna. Every morning she’s awoken by Lucia’s hairdryer, and goes to a school where she has no friends—which she ascribes to the fact that she enrolled mid-year, after cliques have already formed. But when she outperforms her fellow students on a math test, Marji gains notoriety, as well as popularity since it will mean she will be sought out for help on math homework. Marji’s talent for drawing caricatures of the teachers also gains her positive attention from her peers. But Marji’s biggest breakthrough comes when she is befriended by Julie, an eighteen-year-old French girl who is impressed that Marji has “known war.” Julie finds the other students to be spoiled and sheltered. Marji is introduced into Julie’s circle of eccentric friends, which includes Momo, who dresses punk and is obsessed with war and death, and Thierry and Olivier, Swiss orphans living with their uncle.
As Christmas vacation draws near, Marji feels let down because her new friends are caught up in their far-flung travel plans while she has nowhere to go and won’t have anything to do during the two-week break. Sensing her unhappiness, Lucia invites Marji to join her and her family in the Tyrol region in the Alps along the Austrian-Italian border. Except for a three-hour Midnight mass that Marji attends with Lucia’s very Catholic family, Marji has a wonderful time on her visit. She’s particularly taken with how kind and attentive Lucia’s family is, and she declares that she now thinks of Lucia as her sister.
As Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return opens, Marjane “Marji” Satrapi introduces the theme of the importance of home and family, and this theme plays out through the graphic memoir. The first image of Marji curled on her side alone on a bed illustrates that she has a place to live, but she has no connection or sense of belonging that makes the place a home. She has a link to her family while staying with Zozo, a friend of her mother’s, though that connection is short-lived. The constant arguing between Zozo and her husband, Houshang, and Marji’s inability to relate to their daughter, Shirin, serve to highlight how different Marji’s new space is from the warmth and intellectual curiosity of her family home. Packed off to a boarding house run by nuns after 10 days, Marji finds the language barrier makes connecting to her roommate, Lucia, and the other young people in the house difficult. The stark images of Marji and Lucia sitting on beds across from each other and Marji missing the joke in the TV room reinforce her newfound role as an outsider. Marji is a stranger alone in a strange land, and she is without the warmth of home or the support of family.
The section “Tyrol” focuses on the theme of identity and culture. While Marji searches for a place and people to soothe her loneliness, she struggles as an outsider to find an identity. Satrapi displays irony when Marji’s identity as an outsider helps her become part of a group. Julie, Momo, Thierry, and Oliver are drawn to Marji because she is different and has known war in Iran. The group’s attention is a form of tokenization, but Marji does not internalize this yet. The panel showing Marji with her newfound friends looks like a family portrait, and she has found a kind of family in Vienna with these other students who also don’t quite belong. For a time, Marji has a sense of place and of self, though this newfound family of misfits sees her only as a tragic survivor of the war in Iran. Her new friends cannot see her as a complete person. Marji experiences temporary comfort with this bunch of misfits, but she still struggles to figure out who she is and where she belongs.
These first chapters explore the culture clash as Marji’s Iranian background meets Western culture. Her classmates’ plans for the Christmas holiday are completely foreign to her. Her interactions with Thierry and Momo as they discuss their plans show that they do not care about her culture outside of her experiences with war. In contrast, Lucia and her family show a genuine interest in Marji as she joins them for the Christmas holiday. It’s telling when Marji notes that she doesn’t have to talk about war when she is around them. In contrast with her friends at school, the interest Lucia’s family has in Marji as an individual shows an incredible amount of respect for her nonwestern culture. The image of Marji clutching a photo in a handmade picture frame and her assertion that she has another set of parents and a sister reveal belonging, care, and comfort. In effect, the family’s welcoming arms allow Marji to finally feel like there is a place for her in Austria.