2003. Villard. Hardcover. 187 pages.
Dumas’ Laughing Without An Accent caught my attention in the travel writing section of my library. Scanning that book, I saw that her memoir Funny in Farsi was written first and so I picked up that one and read it instead. Funny in Farsi consists of short autobiographical essays – from accounts of Firoozeh’s childhood as an Iranian-American living in California to stories from after her marriage to her French husband.
Funny in Farsi certainly has its merits, which I will describe a little further down, but I found it suffered from a “telling not showing” writing style, especially at the end of the essays. These endings made me think of a parody video online called “Trailer for Every Oscar-Winning Trailer Ever” (I think bookshelves of doom pointed me to it months ago.) At the end of this fake trailer, one of the actors says, “Explicitly stating the moral of the story and awkwardly working in the movie title.” This is basically what Dumas does with most of her essays: she either over-explains the emotional significance an event or conversation, or she drops in a somewhat clunky punchline to finish the essay. Often I found myself wishing she had just let the remembered events speak for themselves and let the poignancy or humor fall more subtly on the reader.
Even though I was disappointed by the writing overall, there were some great moments in Funny in Farsi. Firoozeh’s family lived in California before the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran. Most Americans they met didn’t know anything about Iran but extended a friendly welcome and a benign curiosity about their culture. When more of Firoozeh’s extended family came to the U.S. after 1979, they obviously had a completely different experience. I like how simply she puts it:
“These Americans felt that they knew all about Iran and its people, and they had no questions, just opinions.”
I just like how, in that sentence, she concisely captures the nature of this lost opportunity for connection between Americans and the Iranian newcomers.
Although Dumas uses her essays to point out the discrimination that she and her family have faced because of their ethnicity, she keeps an overall light and good-humored tone. One of the funniest moments for me occurred in her essay, “Save Me, Mickey.” In it, Dumas recounts the story of how she got lost in Disneyland as a child. While waiting for her parents at the ‘lost children’ way-station, another child is brought in screaming and crying. He cannot speak English, and the staff illogically think that because little Firoozeh is also from another country, she should automatically be able to communicate with the boy.
“Is that boy from your country?” she asked me. “Why, yes,” I wanted to tell her. “In my country, which I own, this is National Lose Your Child at Disneyland Day.”
I think some of the best essays involve Dumas’ adult life, including her traditional Persian wedding, a bizarre Caribbean vacation (“Judges Paid Off”), and a story involving an earthquake, bundt cake and a china set from her mother-in-law (“I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet”).
Because Funny in Farsi was just an okay reading experience for me, I’m not sure if I’ll get around to reading Laughing Without An Accent anytime soon, but if you’ve read it, let me know what you thought of it.
5 Minutes for Books – ” . . . the best moments of this memoir were her endearing, yet not overly sentimental, tales of the lessons her father imparted.”
Nose in a Book – “While I enjoyed reading this, there were a few times when I felt like saying, “that’s not growing up Iranian, that’s just growing up.” I have never experienced the racism she has but there were a lot of situations that I could totally relate to.”
Small World Reads – “I loved Dumas’s voice. She is funny and down-to-earth, but beneath her witticisms there is an obvious ache at the hardships of being an Iranian in America.”