Humorist Firouzeh Dumas, author of two bestselling memoirs about growing up as an Iranian immigrant in America, Funny in Farsi (Random House, 2003) and Laughing Without an Accent (Random House 2008), now mines her childhood in her debut middle-grade novel, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel (Clarion, May). Currently living in Munich, she spoke from there with PW about how Iran has changed since the 1970s, the difference between writing straight memoir and fictionalized memoir, and the importance of kindness.
Let’s start with geography. Iran, California, now Germany – where else have you lived? What took you to these different places? And where do you call home?
My husband was working in Silicon Valley and four years ago he lost his job. He’s French and had always wanted to work in high tech in Europe, so he got a job in Germany. Our second child was a senior in high school at the time, and I stayed with her in California until she finished. I didn’t want to leave – I’m on the lecture circuit and I knew it would be hard to do that from Europe. Many of the places that book me are high schools and universities, and don’t have the budget to bring me from Germany. So I moved reluctantly. This is not a permanent move; I really miss the lecture circuit. One of the reasons I’m especially excited about my new book is that it will bring me to the U.S.A. a lot.
I originally came to America because my father was an engineer who worked for the National Iranian Oil Company, and back in the day when Iran and the U.S.A. had good relations, he came to California to help an American company set up an oil refinery in Iran. We came when I was in second grade and stayed for two years, then went back to Iran for two years, and then came back and simply stayed. After the Iranian Revolution, my father lost his job and traveled to Texas and other states – wherever he could get work. My mother and I stayed in California.
As for home – my home is where my children are. We have three and right now two are in the U.S.A. Even though we’d be living in different cities if I were in the U.S.A., there is something about being in the same country. America is definitely home! I lived most of my life in California and am so used to the diversity there, which I really miss – especially when it comes to food and restaurants. I especially miss guacamole! Avocadoes are ridiculously expensive in Germany, so it’s a real treat to have guacamole.
You’ve written two memoirs about growing up in the U.S. as an Iranian immigrant. What made you want to fictionalize your memories? And why for a middle-grade audience?
My first book, Funny in Farsi, was written for adults, but it ended up being used in middle schools and high schools. When I was visiting a middle school 13 years ago, I realized there was another story I needed to tell this audience. I consider myself a well-adjusted immigrant, but it’s all due to the many kindnesses I experienced as an immigrant. I can’t even describe the generosity I experienced. The point of the story I wanted to write is kindness.
I chose to write a fictional book because I knew that I needed to tell the story with fewer characters. I wanted to write a concise story. I was 13 and older than the character in It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel during the Iranian Revolution and I was faced with hardships nobody around me had experienced. Nobody I knew had a father without a job. Nobody I knew was from a country that had just had a revolution. I had no support network of relatives nearby. I survived because of my friends and community. In fact, I’m still friends with Carolyn and Howie [two characters in the book] today. You can see their pictures on my website, as well as another close friend, Tracy. Unfortunately, I ended up having to cut Tracy out of the book.
Another reason I wrote for this audience is because I am the only Iranian-American humorist writer. My one gripe – and it’s huge – is that every time a book is published about the Middle East, it’s so depressing. It doesn’t have to be depressing. I wanted to write a character kids would fall in love with.
How was the process of writing fiction different from writing memoir?
It was really hard! I’m not so much a writer as a reteller. I have a very good memory for detail, but this book involved plot. And I had to condense time, so everything takes place in less time than it actually did in my life. I wrote 26 versions of this book – I just couldn’t get it right. I worked for one full year on integrating Iranian history into the story. Originally I had way too much. It took over the plot. I went through many rewrites just to find out how much history should be in the book. And the jury is still out on this: middle-schoolers haven’t read it yet. I’m waiting for them to read it and let me know if I got it right.
Did you keep a diary when you were young? Or is your memory just that good?
I did not keep a diary. I have always been very introspective; memories stay with me. And when you start writing about your past every day, you start remembering everything. It’s like going down a tunnel.
How do your parents feel about how you depict them in this book?
They haven’t read it yet!
Are you worried about how they will react?
It took me seven years to write this book and I spent two of them worrying about that – especially about my mother. Depression is very taboo in our culture, and in my family. But I thought about all the kids who have depressed parents and decided it’s time to be honest about that. Depression exists in every culture. I wanted to do my part in acknowledging that. When you watch The Brady Bunch, the kids go to their parents when they have a problem. When you have a depressed parent, you can’t do that. I feel that the one thing I owe my readers is authenticity.
The main character in Falafel speaks excellent English. What was it like for you to learn English?
I knew seven words when I arrived in America: white, yellow, red, orange, blue, green, purple. That was because in my kindergarten, the color chart was in English. When I met my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Sandberg, my father said: “Tell her what you know,” and I recited the colors in my thick accent. But within a month I was fluent. Mrs. Sandberg confirms this. Children are like sponges. My youngest daughter came to Germany when she was seven and now she speaks like a native. I, on the other hand, have not mastered the language at all. So now my daughter is in the position of translating for me, as I did for my mother. But she has the audacity to say “I’m tired of translating for you!” German is a very difficult language, and so many Germans speak excellent English, so I haven’t had to really learn it. I speak several languages, and I used to say I’m good at languages, but I don’t say that anymore!
Were you brought up as a Muslim?
I was born into a Muslim family, like most Iranians. But my family never practiced any religion, which was very controversial. My father was a huge advocate of education. He always said if he could give people only religion or only education, he would give them education. And now I say that myself.
It’s important to understand that when I lived in Iran, it was a very different country. It was a country of all kinds of people: people who were devoutly religious and people who wore mini-skirts. It didn’t have the rules and laws that exist now. The Iran I knew no longer exists.
Yes, your characters express disbelief and grief at the changes that overtake Iran.
And it is grief – you see it in the older generations of Iranian communities all over the United States. The older generation is still grieving for what happened to Iran.
Even though your book is set in 1979, it’s very relevant today, when the country is filled with controversy about immigrants, and particularly Muslim immigrants. What are your thoughts about that?
I hope this book adds depth and nuance to conversations about the Middle East. Generally everything we hear and read on the news is in sound bites. So I’m excited that Time magazine is reviewing my book! I’m also a little worried about it. [The review, “Are You There, Allah? It’s Me, Cindy,” ran on April 25.]
One thing I’m really proud of as a writer is that my readers tell me they laugh out loud when they’re reading my books. I want middle-grade readers to know how much humor there is in every culture. I want to expand the view of Middle Eastern culture and to show how big a part humor plays. You have to hook kids with something to get them involved in a story, so as a humorist I’m very grateful to have that secret tool – it’s my superpower!
Also, as I wrote this book I realized it would be great for educators. I’ve included a lot of material for educators on my website, including videos and music from that era.
You didn’t start writing until you were 36. What kind of work did you do before then, and what made you start writing when you did?
I had been working since I was 14 – my first job was delivering newspapers. For me, work was always something you did to pay the bills. Many years ago I was watching Oprah and her guests were saying something I absolutely couldn’t understand: they said they loved their work so much they would do it even if they didn’t get paid. My last job before I had kids was in marketing in a big company. Then I was a full-time mom for eight years. We had no relatives nearby and couldn’t afford babysitters, so for eight years I walked around with a child Velcro-ed to my hip. I was so excited when the youngest went to kindergarten. I remember trying not to look exuberant at the idea of finally having two and a half hours to myself! That’s when I joined a writers group.
What made you join a writers group at that time?
I wanted to be with a group of adults who weren’t always talking about their children! But also, I decided I wanted to write stories for my children for when they were older. I didn’t want them to be afraid of people who are different. That’s the one thing I learned as a child: the human experience is entirely universal. No matter what we eat, what we wear, what language we speak, we all want to be the best versions of ourselves. Every mother wants that for her child.
What are you working on now?
At this moment, nothing, but ideas are percolating. I’m really interested, for example, in the differences between how people eat in Germany and America – it’s very different. I’m shocked. Especially children! It’s not that they’re healthier, it’s just that their minds aren’t polluted yet. For example, I have to pack my daughter a snack every day. I asked her what is the most popular snack among her friends and she said, “cherry tomatoes.” So every day I have to pack her cherry tomatoes – in fact, I have to pack extra so she can share. And I have yet to see chicken nuggets on any menu. Of course they have fast-food places, but I’m talking about real restaurants. Kids here eat real food.
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas. Clarion, $16.99 May ISBN 978-0-544-61231-0