Firoozeh Dumas Talks with Roger

firoozeh dumas talks with roger

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firoozeh dumasAuthor of the bestselling adult memoir Funny in Farsi and its companion Laughing Without an Accent, Firoozeh Dumas debuts in books for young people with It Ain't So Awful, Falafel, a novel based on the author's childhood experience as an Iranian immigrant in 1970s Southern California. The Captain & Tennille were all over the radio, Bonne Belle was on every girl's lips, and a revolution was taking place thousands of miles away that would create a diplomatic crisis between our heroine's homeland and her adopted country.

Roger Sutton: You know, I was in college in LA during the summer of "Love Will Keep Us Together," and I thought you really captured the moment.

Firoozeh Dumas: Thank you. That means a lot to me. It's funny, because most of the early reviewers are adults, and the ones who are between the ages of 40 and 55 are commenting that, for them, it was like a trip back in time.

RS: And thank you — I guess — for making me remember Tab, that nasty stuff. You're right, it tastes like tin.

FD: I also put this in my first book, Funny in Farsi. I used to work in a theater. This was when Tab was very popular, and our Tab machine was always broken. People would come in and they would order a jumbo-size popcorn. They'd say, "I want butter on the bottom, in the middle, on the top," and then they'd say, "I want a large Tab." And I'd say, "Sorry, the Tab machine is broken." People would be like, "What?!" And I'd think to myself, "You're about to consume 2800 calories of butter. Go ahead and splurge on a Coke."

RS: The events of the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis are memories for us but history for kids.

FD: Yes, my book is historical fiction for middle grade, where there's definitely a huge gap in covering that era.

dumas_it ain't so awful falafelRS: How much of Zomorod's story is your story?

FD: What she went through, the emotions, that was one hundred percent my story. Most of the facts are true. My father lost his job just as I said in the book. And my father is exactly the person that he is in the book. My mom was isolated and had a very difficult time. My friends in the book are my real friends — in fact, if you go to my website, you can see recent pictures of us along with our yearbook photos and other artifacts from the era.

RS: You're still friends?

FD: Oh, yeah. We already have plans to get together when I go to Southern California this summer. I met them both in sixth grade at Lincoln Junior High. I met Carolyn in the way that is written in the book. Howie I met in a different way, and the story I tell in the book was actually about meeting somebody else. This is the glory of fiction. You can create composite characters.

RS: Your other two books are nonfiction — memoirs for adult readers.

FD: Yes, they're for adults. Although my first book, Funny in Farsi, is on the California recommended reading list for middle school. It's used in junior highs and high schools all across the U.S. I wrote that book for adults, and twelve-year-olds love it. So this book, Falafel, I wrote for middle grade, and adults are telling me, "Hey, this is great for adults." They're sort of chastising me for calling it middle grade.

I personally hate categorizing a book for an age group. I struggled. It took me a long time to figure out what it means to write a book for middle grade, and honestly, the only two things in this book I specifically geared toward a younger audience were the title and the amount of history that I put in. Otherwise, I have the same voice in all my writing.

RS: How did those events affect you at the time? Terrible things were going on in your country, and yet you were thousands of miles away.

FD: It was really bizarre, because we never thought that our country would have a revolution. We absolutely never saw this coming.

RS: It came very quickly.

FD: People don't realize — and I say this in the book — that when Iranians marched against the shah, their goal was not to have a religious government take over. Everybody marched against the shah. There were communists and feminists and student groups. It's very much like what's going on in the U.S. now, with people following Trump. It's not that they want Trump. They want a radical change, is really what people are saying. With the shah, people were just so sick of the corruption they said just get rid of him.

RS: Not knowing what would happen after.

FD: Yes, not knowing. Many Iranians now are saying the shah wasn't that bad, comparatively. Even if you just look at it from a human rights point of view, the current government is so much worse.

RS: What was it like for you, watching it from afar?

FD: In real life I was about thirteen when all that was happening, so I was a little older than the character in the book. I was mainly watching my father's reaction. He was really scared. He was shocked. I was very much attuned to my parents as a kid. I felt responsible for them. I spoke English, and I've always been parental toward them. I could tell how scared my father was, and how worried he was.

RS: The father in the book is at least able to express himself, whereas the mother is a really tragic figure, hiding from everything, not being able to communicate with people.

FD: Right. When people go to a new country, whether as refugees or immigrants, kids usually assimilate easily, but it's much harder for the grownups. Especially, oftentimes, for the mothers, because they are usually confined to the house. They're not going to school, and they're not necessarily holding down a job. It's tough. It's not easy to assimilate to a new culture when you're an adult.

RS: And that's tough on the kid, who becomes the go-between.

FD: Absolutely.

RS: Did you find yourself being resentful of your mother?

FD: Yes. Because I thought that she wasn't trying. As a kid, that really bothered me. I wanted her to try.

RS: I think when you're a kid you can't see that trying can mean something different to an adult than it does to you.

FD: Exactly. My definition of trying was something else.

RS: Well, she was very lucky to have you. Were you as outgoing as a child as you appear to be now?

FD: I had to be. It was necessary. The thing is, once you practice being outgoing, it becomes easy. My father is very shy. He has a hard time socially. In the book, when the father knows he's going to meet new people and practices what he's going to say in advance — that was taken from reality. My dad would practice, practice, practice, and of course he'd open his mouth and he would completely blow it.

RS: Do you ever mix up what happened in your book and what happened in your life?

FD: No.

RS: Good. I think it would be hard to write a story based on one's own childhood. Because you work so intensely on a book, and then you wonder: Wait, did this happen, or was it just in my book?

FD: Don't forget, I've already written two memoirs. So I've already written the facts. And I've written tons of articles, the New York Times, National Public Radio. All that work is nonfiction.

RS: Does writing tend to fix things in your memory, or does it change them?

FD: For me, it clarifies things. It gives meaning, and it makes me see the connections.

RS: I find I think about something differently once I write it down.

FD: Writing is such a powerful tool. I believe everyone should be writing.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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