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With no background as a writer whatsoever, Firoozeh Dumas sat down to record the funny stories from her childhood for the benefit of her two daughters. Dumas’s tales of her Iranian-American childhood in the shadow of the Iranian Revolution wound up striking a universally human note. Her first book, Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America (2003) has been embraced by communities around the country and even in Iran.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in America During the Iranian Revolution
Firoozeh Dumas (born Firoozeh Jazayeri) was seven years old in 1972 when her father, an Iranian petroleum engineer, brought her family to America. They lived for two years in the town of Whittier, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, before heading back to Tehran, Iran, where the family stayed for another two years. They returned permanently to Southern California, first settling in Whittier and then Newport Beach, and began a long process of assimilation that taught Dumas a great deal about the American character as well as her own place in the world as an Iranian-American.
Dumas’s family left Iran during the oppressive regime of the U.S.-backed dictator Shah Muhammed Reza Pahlavi, when corruption, inflation, and shortages often made for a tough life. Life in California was, by contrast, full of freedom, abundance, and opportunity. The family watched from afar as the Iranian Revolution took hold in 1979, overthrowing the shah’s monarchy and instituting an Islamic republic under the control of Muslim cleric Ayatollah Khomeini in its place. Unfortunately for Iranians living in America, the revolutionaries were hostile to the influence of the West in their country. In the United States, the public was appalled by what they saw as an extremist, ultra-religious uprising against a pro-U.S. government. Public opinion turned sharply against Iran when a group of militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days, provoking an international crisis. Iranians who managed to emigrate at this time, including some of Dumas’s relatives, were received coldly, if not with hostility, by Americans.
College and Beyond
When Dumas headed north for college, to attend the University of California, Berkeley, she entered a university still humming with the spirit of the student protests of the late 1960s. Berkeley had been famed for its student activism since the free-speech movement of 1964 and the clash between the students and the university in 1969 over a plot of land known as People’s Park. Dumas was prepared for the politicized atmosphere of Berkeley college life; what she was not prepared for was all the partying and binge drinking. As a non-drinker, Dumas had to find other ways to socialize, which produced its share of comedy: she once joined a church group, thinking it might provide some nonalcoholic fun. As she writes in Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian-American, at Home and Abroad (2008), her second book, ”They probably would have been fun if there had been more than six of them and if I had not mentioned that I was Muslim.”
Dumas met her husband at college and refers to him as ”the Frenchman.” The relationship meant yet another encounter with culture shock, but they formed what Dumas refers to as a one-couple melting pot. Dumas and her family currently live in Palo Alto, California, with Dumas traveling regularly to speaking engagements across the country. She also performs Laughing Without an Accent as a one-woman show.
Works in Literary Context
The Immigrant Experience
Dumas’s books carry on a powerful tradition of documenting the immigrant experience in America, and are at home with such works as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and Junot Diaz’s Drown (1996). Dumas’s first book, Funny in Farsi is a quintessential immigrant story, complete with the tug-of-war between cultures, the shedding of old skin and fitting uneasily into the new. Dumas makes her points about assimilation and cultural displacement without underlining them with a heavy hand, but takes care to show her readers the prejudices and cultural ignorance her family had to deal with. Dumas writes about her relatives who immigrated after the Iranian Revolution of 1979: ”The Americans they met rarely invited them to their houses. These Americans felt that they knew all about Iran and its people, and they had no questions, just opinions.”
Dumas’s second book, Laughing Without an Accent continues in the same vein as Funny in Farsi, this time going deeper into the experience of culture shock that extended into her college years, but also presenting stories of life back in Iran. Both books are part humor, part memoir, and as such, they belong to the traditions of both literary genres. It is rare, however, to find the same book acclaimed as humor and as non-fiction: Funny in Farsi was a finalist for both the PEN/USA Award and the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
Works in Critical Context
Funny in Farsi
Both of Dumas’s literary efforts have been received warmly immediately upon their release. According to Kristine Huntley in Booklist, Funny in Farsi provides ”a unique perspective on American culture.” The book has sold very well among Iranian-Americans but has also found a mainstream audience of readers seeking to learn more about the immigrant experience. A Kirkus Reviews critic described the work as ”light-as-air essays” that are ”warm and engaging.” Library Journal correspondent Debra Moore dubbed the book ”a valuable glimpse into the immigrant experiences of one very entertaining family.” Susan H. Woodcock in School Library Journal felt that Dumas’s humor ”allows natives and non-natives alike to look at America with new insight.”
Laughing Without an Accent As for Dumas’s follow-up collection, Lee Thomas, in The San Francisco Chronicle, writes that in Laughing Without an Accent Dumas ”exudes undeniable charm” even if ”the stories can seem a bit rambling at times, a bit unevenly paced, as if the reader were tagging along to a friend’s family reunion.” Dumas was interviewed about the book on NPR on June 21, 2008, and has spent the past five years traveling the country, speaking at graduation ceremonies, libraries, churches, synagogues, and mosques.
- Huntley, Kristine. Review of Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. Booklist, June 1, 2003.
- Review of Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2003.
- Moore, Debra. Review of Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. Library Journal, April 1, 2003.
- Saidi, Janet. ”Comedy of Growing Up Unveiled”. Christian Science Monitor, July 10, 2003.
- Silverstone, Mina. ”Funny in Farsi: Author in LA.” Salam Worldwide, July 2, 2003.
- ”This American Life.” LA Weekly, July 31, 2003.
- Thomas, Lee. ”Memoir Review: Laughing Without an Accent’. San Francisco Chronicle, May 28, 2008.
- Toosi, Nahal. ”Memoir Shows Culture Shock Can Be a Laughing Matter. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 28, 2003.
- Woodcock, Susan H. Review of Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. School Library Journal, November, 2003.
- Dumas, Firoozeh. http://www.firoozehdumas.com.
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