The Spin rolled up to MTSU feeling what everyone who went to MTSU surely feels years after they've moved away: a mix of nostalgia and dread. OK, we're speaking for ourselves, but nothing makes you remember why you moved away from the 'Boro like a drizzly cold night and a tedious haul down I-24 East.
It was nearing 6:45 p.m. as we grabbed a parking spot near the Boutwell Dramatic Arts building and made a beeline for the KUC, home to so many outdoor shows on that grassiest of knolls. (Are we making it up when we swear we remember seeing Atari Teenage Riot there? That'd be weird, right?) Coffee in hand, we headed into the Business & Aerospace building to check out Marjane Satrapi's lecture--author of the comic book Persepolis, her vibrant coming of age tale of growing up in pre-Islamic Revolution Iran.
It was our first time inside the building, and once we navigated that labyrinth to the State Farm building and made our way inside, we saw a jam-packed lecture hall filled with cool-looking undergrads: you know, literary types with scruffy hair and tattered clothes, all sitting intently to be enlightened by Satrapi herself, a slam-dunk candidate for one of the Coolest Chicks of All Time with her raspy voice, thick wavy hair and deeply curious, alert gaze.
She waltzed in, took a seat, and waited patiently while Dr. Hibbard (Intro to the Modern Novel--holla!) introduced her as the sort of writer gifted at merging the image with the word so eloquently that it transcends the particular and becomes universal. Then it was time for Satrapi to bust out a few good theories about the world, and she didn't fail us.
Satrapi covered a true intellectual's range--culture, education, politics, humor, humanism, art, discourse. Right off the bat, she explained why, as a cartoonist and comic book author, that she needed to justify her medium of choice. Too often, she said, the cartoonist or comic book author is asked why he or she chose this medium and not novels. But rarely is the director asked why he does not dance, or the novelist asked why he does not sing songs instead.
She pointed out that in all cultures, human beings draw until about the age of 10, at which point only those intended to pursue an artist's status will continue. And so because of the 99% of humans who abandon the form, it is still considered a child's medium by and large. But that images communicate in ways the written word cannot. (All cultures understand a sad face, for instance.) But humor, she stressed, was born of provincialism. Though she apologized for her lack of fluency in English, she said it wasn't until she understood American humor and was able to make an American laugh that she felt she truly understood American culture.
The rest of the hour-long lecture focused on culture, and education and the negative portrayal of Middle Easterners, whose very geographical description implies ethnocentrism. The world is round she said, not flat--we are all always east or west of something. She talked of the Americanization of Iran even in the '70s--she grew up on hamburgers and even read American comics. And that even the French (Satrapi lived there abroad as a teenager and resides there now), purveyors of such high-minded intellectualism and sophistication, are not always so open-minded. Take away their gas and electricity and in 10 days they will be eating each other, she said. The French are not more civilized; they are just less hungry. It was a point about economics mattering as much as culture and education. If you are hungry, you are not so concerned with feeding your mind as your belly.
But when it came to discussing Persepolis, she mainly stressed that she was not trying to tell a political tale, nor a sociological one, but merely a story of a girl coming of age, something that any reader anywhere could relate to. And that using images--where the reader is actively engaged as opposed to passively receiving, as in film--forced the reader to engage and relate. She was afraid of turning her comics into a film for that reason, but she was impressed with the result nonetheless. She fought off Holly wood offers that would turn the comic into the equivalent of Beverly Hills, 90210--rich kids in Iran driving nice cars, laughing off bombings nonchalantly. But when she said she wanted a hand-animated film, black and white, with Catherine Deneuve (the voice of the grandmother), and was told she could have it, she felt she had to move forward with the movie.
In the end, Satrapi came off as the best kind of intellectual--the kind who feels as much as she thinks, and who knows how to sort through it all with a grace and elegance of mind that is beyond borders, something all too rare in public American intellectual thought--if we can even say we have such a thing.