As those of you who have already read the book know, Funny in Farsi [See excerpt] is a hilarious account of growing up Iranian in America. The writing flows and the energy is contagious.
With cunning wit, Firoozeh Dumas spins poignant social commentary about Americans — and to some extent the French — and life in America. Her observations strike at the heart of the immigrant experience, but they also cast a ray of sunshine in the face of adversity. In between teary bouts of laughter, the philosopher in everyone may see an Iranian Sisyphus rolling a rock to the top of the mountain, but finding the effort not so futile after all.
Portraits of the author's family are honest, charming and intelligent. What others may seek to hide, Ms. Dumas brings out boastingly.
Funny in Farsi recently hit the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list. The book was also selected for “Orange County Reads One Book” in 2004. Since the publication of her book, Ms. Dumas has been busy writing for NPR, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Lifetime magazine. This interview with Ms. Dumas first appeared in the Payvand Times, a publication in Cupertino, California.
Golnoosh: How did this book come about?
Firoozeh: My father has always been a storyteller. I grew up listening to his stories all the time. He told me so many stories about his childhood that I felt like I grew up with him. When I had children, I knew I wanted them to know my story. When my youngest went to kindergarten, I joined a writers' group. I started writing in January of 2001, and that's how this project happened.
G: How does your family feel about this book, do they like it?
F: My extended family is very pleased with it. They all have a great sense of humor so they of course find it very amusing. My children and my husband are also quite tickled by the whole thing. My husband is stunned, more than anything else.
G: By what aspect of it?
F: I'd never written before, and he really thought that this was another hobby, my writing stories. He's French. This is all something outside of his culture. So the whole time I was writing it — when I got an agent, when I got a publisher, every step of the way — he said, ëOh my God, I can't believe this is happening.' I feel like I've lived the American dream, in a way.
G: It was intriguing to see a review of your book by Jimmy Carter.
F: Everyone asks me about that. Of course Jimmy Carter was president during the revolution. When I used to watch him on television, he always struck me as a very honest person. When the revolution happened, and the whole hostage [crisis], Ö he was getting blamed for everything. Even though I was 12 or 13, I thought this guy was really being used as a scapegoat. When he lost the presidency because of the hostages, and my dad lost his job at the same time, I always felt like there were these two men who were really at the wrong place at the wrong time.
So when I finished my book, my agent said, ë Think about someone who might be able to give you a quote — you're a first time author, no one has heard of you.' I said, 'I want Jimmy Carter.' She said, ëJimmy Carter? Forget it. Why in the world would he give you a quote?'
I'm a human rights activist through and through. What he has done after his presidency, I have so much respect for. So I wrote him a letter and sent it to the Carter Center in Georgia. Three weeks later, I get this letter from him. It was really amazing. I was so touched. The man is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, so I am so honored.
G: Is there another book in store?
F: Right now I'm so deluged with appearances. [She is preparing for appearances in Orange County for ìOrange County Reads One Book Year Twoî. Festivities kick off in February.]
Orange County consists of 34 cities. Every year they pick one book. So this year they have picked my book. They have all these cultural programs around this book. This is the year of Iran in Orange County. They are going to be teaching about Iran in schools.
They're going to have endless programs about it, stuff in museums, all kinds of cultural programs. It's, I think, the most positive publicity Iran has gotten in that area. So I am very involved with that program. I have to fly here and there, because I live in Northern California.
I'm [also] right now working on a story for an anthology. UC Berkeley has asked me to be the editor of a book there, which is a story about reactions to 9/11. I am overcome with requests to do things. I'm touched in that people really want to hear about the Middle East in a positive light.
As an American friend of mine once put it, ë Every time I see an Iranian movie, or read an Iranian book, it's depressing.' I think because I write a lot of times about what's right about our culture, people are just thirsty for that. I'm really pleased.
G: You have a very positive spin on everything.
F: I think we have a fantastic culture, but we have a lot to learn. We have a lot to offer. Same with America. America has a lot to teach us, and they have a lot to learn from us.
G: Have you read the other Iranian memoirs in English?
F: I have, absolutely. I think they're fantastic. [Unlike when I was growing up] there are so many good ones out there now. I'm so proud.
G: It's interesting. They're all written by women.
F: You know, I have a theory on that. I think it's because we're so used to being beaten down, in a way. Once we stand up, it's like, 'All right! I'm going to stand up as far as I want to stand up.' There's an inherent struggle in being a Middle Eastern woman.
G: Anything else you would like to add before we wrap up?
F: I very much would like to see Iranians have a more positive image of America. I encourage Iranians to get involved in their communities. When we came to America, there were no Iranians living where we were. So we definitely had to get involved.
Because there are so many Iranians living here, I feel in a way it is both a blessing and a curse because you can come here and create a little Iran and never really step out of that. I always tell Iranians, 'Vote! Definitely vote.' There is no excuse for an Iranian. Look at what people will do in Iran for the right to vote. They've risked their lives going out in the streets and having demonstrations and getting beaten to a pulp. For any of us to be here and not to vote is shameless.
G: I think if we did that we would have a lot more political power. There is so much we could do. We are a very large and educated community. And we have a great deal of economic power.