Essays

Why Chicago’s Persepolis Book Ban Hurts Students Most

Pro-Persepolis protest in Chicago (Image via occupiedchicagotribune.org)
Pro-Persepolis protest in Chicago (Image via occupiedchicagotribune.org)

CHICAGO — In case you haven’t been keeping up with the school closing crisis in Chicago or the continuing escalation of gun violence, the experience of youth in the hella screwed-up public education system just became even more brutal. The Chicago Board of Education is now defending the classroom ban of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis in 7th through 10th grade classrooms, satisfying its desire to dictate and restrict how the book is read and taught.

Persepolis book covers (Image via wikipedia.org)
Persepolis book covers (Image via wikipedia.org)

Persepolis was the second graphic novel I ever had the pleasure of reading, after Art Spiegelman’s Maus landed in my path and accumulated overdue library fines. I didn’t grow up with comic book culture at home or at school, but I found both of them on my own through the public library in the 7th grade — the same grade Chicago’s Board of Education is deeming the book “inappropriate” for in-classroom distribution and instruction.

While my public elementary school days were relatively idyllic, the middle school I attended was a litany of fistfights and post-Columbine bomb threats. I was an 11-year old who walked to my friends’ houses nervous about the district’s gun violence and muggings. After three years of that terrible introversion (and hiding out in the music and art classrooms), the high school in the building attached to my middle school hosted a magnet arts program, and it was split about 50/50 between International Baccalaureate program students, painters, and dancers and kids who lived in the public housing-centered district. The neighborhood we could afford to live in gave me a music theory teacher who harmonically analyzed Pink Floyd’s The Wall and gave the rest of the world the Black Keys and the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde. By the time I attended, the school also garnered headlines for its gun and gang problems.

Harper High School (Image via thisamericanlife.org)
Harper High School (Image via thisamericanlife.org)

Chicago has the best indie comics, zine, and experimental animation community since the Pacific Northwest of the 1990s, in my slanted opinion. After I moved to Chicago, I re-fell in love with illustrators like Edie Fake, Lilli Carre, Chris Ware, and Anders Nilsen, and I ate up the performative comics series Brain Frame as much as I frequented indie comics distributors like Quimby’s — I had open access to a vibrant creative scene. I cried when WBEZ’s This American Life aired its two-part special on Harper High’s South Side gun violence, and not just because I’ve seen gun crime in the South Side firsthand. I am affected because the crisis of illegal gun violence in Chicago is an example of the current underregulation of accessibility to weapons in the U.S. by individuals who should not have them in their hands. Enforcement energies in this country should be spent on eliminating unlicensed weapons, not on Orwellian re-possession of literature and artwork in the public education system. The depiction of a young Iranian girl finding her way out of the dystopia of her violent, oppression-mad adolescent experience shouldn’t be taken out of the access of students seeing and experiencing similar grotesqueries in their own backyards.

#FreePersepolis meme with an image from the book
#FreePersepolis meme with an image from the book (Image via pantheonbooks.tumblr.com)

Although I hold a blistering, unending affection for my current adoptive city (enough to stay and give it back all the love its arts and writing here communities have given me), I don’t know how the public school system is going to withstand the current model it has for combating the epidemic of violence if it spends its energy restricting the arts. I definitely wouldn’t have ended up at the graduate art school I did without books like Persepolis being available or have let hybrid media and storytelling inform my writing, artistic, philosophical, and social practices. I honestly would not have made it through high school. And if I hadn’t survived those years to work in a library, I wouldn’t have so much faith in the public library system as one of the most important institutions that deserve funding. I wouldn’t have such strong opinions on what materials should be protected and supported when government funding is going so far downhill in the recession.

I survived my grade-school nihilism, similar to so many other teenage experiences, through books like Persepolis and other creative media that Chicago’s high schools would likely send me to the principal’s office over. At home, the evidence of my obsession with Riot Grrrl and Nine Inch Nails was hidden away from my parents. Without finding these things by chance in the only venues within walking distance, I absolutely wouldn’t have become such a vocal advocate for social responsibility, anti-censorship, and the inclusion of all arts in general dialogue.
Still from the movie version of Persepolis (Image via buddypuddle.blogspot.com)
Still from the movie version of Persepolis (Image via buddypuddle.blogspot.com)
The school districts are going to change with CPS’s impending closure of 52 schools. With walking distance to school to get even more dramatic for most 7th to 10th graders, it’s important that the new school plans include comprehensive access to the materials that proved crucial to my formative adolescent years, as a female with few known role-model illustrators. The short walk I had to the branch library designed my course of thought simply because I grew up in an area that was otherwise too economically worn down and culturally underprivileged to ensure my right to accessibility of information. My arts-centered high school library did not carry new work by women, let alone graphic novels. For many neighborhoods in Chicago and in other cities, high crime rates and gang activity mean that it’s still simply not safe to make an after-school walk to a library.

The ban is only taking place in Chicago public schools, but articles like this one indicate that the ban is actually increasing sales in bookstores, making the book harder to find on a larger scale. Of course this is going to cause some very awesome, very brave kids to seek it out against the blessings of their teachers (and now, those of paranoid parents) like I did, but the revolutionary spirit of Satrapi’s selfie-protagonist will inspire girls to congregate, make art, and share how they climbed out from under censorship to tell their stories, stories that refuse to be dictated by the ethical poverty of the media headlines. Some will become heroines in their own narratives. That’s precisely what Persepolis is all about.

While the Chicago Public Libraries haven’t been able to take unsolicited donations due to “processing costs” for some time now, used book stores are quickly running out of copies of Persepolis due to the ban. Please contact or donate to the following list of Chicago centers and book stores to ensure the city keeps banned book available in as many alternative outlets as possible, and write to the CPS Board of Education to let them know Persepolis should be available to all classrooms and libraries.

comments (0)