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Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in Americaby Firoozeh Dumas
Author Q & A
A Conversation Between Khaled
Hosseini and Firoozeh Dumas
I first met Khaled at a fundraiser for the Berkeley public libraries
in January 2004. Both of our books had been published fairly recently,
but I had not yet read The Kite Runner. I did, however, remember
his name. From the first time I had seen the name
“Khaled Hosseini” in print, I knew that he was from my part of
the world. I was rooting for him without ever having read a word.
Of course, once I read his book, I became an even bigger fan.
Soon after our first meeting, we decided to meet for dinner
with his wife, Roya, and my husband, François. It wasn’t easy selecting
a restaurant. Where do two Afghanis, one Iranian, and a
Frenchman go for dinner? I suggested sushi. We ended up going
to an Afghani restaurant, appropriately named Kabul. We have
been friends since.
Khaled Hosseini: Why did you use humor to write your memoir?
Firoozeh Dumas: I never intended to write a funny book. It just
came out that way. Before I started Funny in Farsi, I asked my
husband one day if I had ever told him the story about the first
time I went to summer camp. He said no. In fact, I had told no
one. So I told him the story and he was laughing so hard that he
was crying. I kept saying, “This is not a funny story. This is a sad
story.” And he kept shaking his head and saying, “This is the
funniest story I’ve ever heard.” And that’s when I realized that
sometimes, if you give something thirty years and if no one was
hurt, some of life’s less shining moments can be quite funny.
KH: You're very funny in person, Firoozeh. Fess up. Have you always
FD: My father is the absolute funniest person I have ever
known. I never felt that I was funny, because compared to him
few people are. People have always said to me, “Oh, you’re so funny,” but it
never really registered. If people compliment you on your feet, it
doesn’t make you think you are going to grow up to be a foot
model. I consider myself an accidental humorist. When I was in labor
with my first child, I had days and days of contractions, followed
by hours of childbirth, followed by an emergency C-section. At
the end of what felt like an eternity, the doctor asked me if I
wanted to see the placenta. Truth was, I didn’t, but I felt like I
should want to, so I said, “No, thank you. I just saw one on public
television.” The doctors and nurses all started laughing, but I was
just trying to be polite. The last thing on my mind was being
KH: Is Funny in Farsi available in Iran? If so, do you know what
the reaction has been?
FD: Iran does not adhere to the international copyright laws,
which means that any book can be translated without permission.
The author has no control over the quality of the book. I
did not want a bad translation of Funny in Farsi, because in writing
my stories I was very careful about being funny without being
insulting, and I was afraid that a bad translation would just be
horribly embarrassing for my family. So I found my own translator
in Iran. Once he finished the translation, he sent the manuscript
to the censor’s office, since no book can be published in
Iran without government permission. Six months later, we got it
back. (We were lucky. The translator of James Joyce’s Ulysses
handed in the manuscript seventeen years ago and is still waiting!)
I had to remove a couple of small parts and the entire chapter
“The Ham Amendment.” I consider that chapter the soul of
the book, so having to remove it was painful. That’s life under an
Islamic theocracy. The book has not yet reached the bookstores,
so I have no idea how people will react. If Funny in Farsi is actually
funny in Farsi, it will bring some levity to its readers in Iran,
and I have the feeling they could use some levity right now.
KH: Since you are writing about real people, do you worry about
the reaction of the people you have mentioned in your book?
Not all the stories are flattering. How have you dealt with the inevitable
“how could you say that about me” questions?
FD: Everybody who is in the book gave his blessing, except for
my husband’s family. We have since reunited with them, but we
have never, ever discussed the book. That’s one subject I will not
be bringing up. Definitely not enough Mylanta in the world for
that conversation. I have had a lot of complaints from relatives who are not in
the book. They assumed it was because they are not important to
me. And in true Middle Eastern fashion, they did not complain
to me but to my parents. The truth is that if I wrote about all my
relatives, it would be a fourteen-volume set.
KH: What has been the reaction of the Iranian community in
America to Funny in Farsi?
FD: They love it. They keep thanking me for showing another
side of the Iranian people to the world. Most Westerners think
Middle Easterners just discuss politics and religion all day. We’re
actually quite fun.
KH: As a mother of two, when do you find the time to write?
Where do you write? Do you have any writing rituals?
FD: I write in spurts. When I’m writing, I get up at 4:00 a.m.
without using an alarm clock. Once a story is in my head, I’m
possessed, and the only thing I can do is write like mad. This
means the house gets very messy and dinner is something frozen.
I do not read or go to the movies when I am writing, because I
can’t concentrate on anything else. I also keep writing in my
head when I’m not actually writing, which means that I become
a terrible listener. It’s really a challenge trying to be a writer and
a decent mom and wife. I’m just grateful to have an understanding
family. Up until a few months ago, we lived in an 850-square-foot
house, with one table that served all our needs. It was also my
writing spot. I would just put my laptop there and type away
until my kids got up.
I once saw a book about writers and their special writing spots.
There were photos of spectacular cottages on lakes and woodpaneled
rooms filled with travel mementos. I just always tried to
make sure that the table was clean before I put down my laptop. I
found out the hard way that glitter left over from my daughter’s
art projects really sticks to computers.
KH: I loved the story about the “F word.” Do you have a favorite
FD: Every time I finished a story, I swore it was my favorite.
Many of the stories still make me laugh out loud even though I
have read them a hundred times. I still can’t read “Girls Just
Wanna Have Funds” without crying at the end.
KH: How has your life changed since the publication of Funny
FD: Because of Funny in Farsi, I have traveled throughout the
United States and met thousands of people. I have spoken in
churches, Jewish temples, Islamic centers, and schools. I have
always believed that there are far more good people in this
world than bad ones and that most people want to be reminded
of our shared humanity rather than our differences. Since the
publication of Funny in Farsi, my theory has been thoroughly
proven. And Khaled, don’t get jealous, but I get the best emails. Because
many schools throughout the United States are now using
Funny in Farsi in the classroom, I get a lot of emails from twelveto
eighteen-year-olds, and they say things like, “You are the best
writer ever!” I write them back and I say, “You are so astute!”
Even though Funny in Farsi is my story, it’s essentially a universal
tale of being an outsider. If you’ve gone through adolescence,
you’ve been there. I get e-mails from teachers all the time telling
me that even their students who normally do not read loved
reading Funny in Farsi. That makes my day every time. Adult
readers tend to invite me to their home. I get a lot of “If you are
ever in the Saint Louis area, our spare bedroom is yours!” It’s
very, very sweet.
KH: What are you working on now?
FD: I just wrote a piece for the New York Times humor section,
and I’ve been editing a book for UC Berkeley’s International
House about the effects of September 11 on ten individuals.
Truth is, I am itching to write my next book but I am currently
traveling full time. I have a bunch of stories in my head, so I am
just waiting for a lull in my schedule so I can put them down on
KH: You remembered so many details from your childhood. Did
you keep a diary growing up, or could you simply tap into your
own memories for this book, as I did in my own?
FD: I was always that quiet kid in a room full of adults that
everyone forgot about. I have always listened and observed, so
when I started writing, details just flooded back to me. And
every time I finished a story, another popped up in its place. It
was like using a vending machine: the candy falls down and is
immediately replaced by another.
KH: On the surface, at least, there is very little about politics in
FD: One of the biggest problems I have faced as an Iranian in
America is that no one knows much about Iran except what is
on the evening news. Politics has grossly overshadowed humanity
in the Middle East and I wanted to write a book that would
shine the light on humanity. When I speak at schools, I often ask
the students what they think of when they hear the words “Middle
East,” and they all say “war” or “terrorism.” That’s like someone
saying that when they hear “America,” they think of the Ku
Klux Klan. So I always make sure that when I’m visiting schools,
I sing “Happy Birthday” in Persian and I remind them that our
commonalities far outweigh our differences. They get it.
KH: “Are you Afghan or American or a hyphenated person?” I
ask you this question because I get it all the time. So, do you
think of yourself as Iranian or American?
FD: There are parts of me that are Iranian and parts of me that
are American. I can’t cook for just four people; I’m always thinking,
“What if someone drops by?” And when I married my husband,
I told him that when my parents get old they will move in
with us. That’s my Iranian side. If I receive good service somewhere, I always write the management and tell them, and if I receive bad service, I let them know
too. That’s my American side. And I vote in every election. That’s
my American side combined with the fear of facing my father.
KH: Are you—and if so how—trying to instill your Iranian culture
in your kids? How about French culture?
FD: Of course, it’s very important for me to have children who
are familiar with their heritage. But more important, I wanted
my children to be citizens of the world. That’s easy for us since
we live in the Bay Area and have friends from all over. We have
always discussed other countries and religions, and my children
have no fear of people who are different than they are. They
think it’s normal to have a dinner party with half a dozen different
accents. They also grew up thinking that dim sum, pad thai,
and chicken tandoori are as ordinary to other kids as pizza or
I always spoke Persian to my children when they were little.
Unfortunately, I do not have family near me, so once my children
started school they insisted on speaking English. I didn’t really
fight because there are enough battles between parents and children
and you have to choose them carefully. I hope someday
they can spend some time in Iran so they can once again learn
My children love Persian food. Who doesn’t? And they are
crazy about my extended family. When they were little, family
gatherings scared them. All that cheek pinching and enthusiastic
kissing was too much for them, but they have come to see beyond
that and appreciate how much my family loves them.
As far as their French side, my husband has instilled a love of
all things French, ranging from food, even escargots (!), to
movies to songs. We have traveled several times to France and
plan to go there more often now that we have reconciled with
his family. My husband’s lucky because he can go back his hometown
and not much has changed. Abadan no longer exists as
I know it, because it was heavily bombed during the Iran-Iraq
KH: Any funny book-tour stories?
FD: Every author has an event that goes terribly wrong. I was invited
as a keynote speaker to an event where I was told there
would be five thousand junior high kids. This was a non profit organization
with no budget, so I bought my own plane ticket,
thinking that the high volume book sales would more than make
up for my expense. Once I got there, I found out that they had allotted
five minutes for my speech and that instead of five thousand
kids, five hundred showed up. I had arranged with a
bookseller to bring six hundred books. This bookseller had also
sent four employees.
When I went to speak, we realized the microphone did not
work. They just said, “Speak loudly.” It was an outdoor event.
I spent the day sitting behind a stack of six hundred books.
People kept walking toward us enthusiastically; then we realized
we were seated in front of the booth that sold funnel cakes. We
sold two copies of Funny in Farsi. I treated the four book sellers to
dinner and apologized profusely. And I helped them put the 598
copies of Funny in Farsi back in the boxes.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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