A Conversation with Bestselling Memoirist Firoozeh Dumas

Discover the novel People magazine calls “Insightful, sobering, and hilarious.” It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas mines the author’s personal history as an immigrant growing up in Newport Beach, California during the Iranian Revolution.

We recently chatted with Firoozeh about her thoughts on diversity in children’s lit, weaving humor and history, and growing up in the ’70s. Want to learn more? Visit the Falafel website for an excerpt, discussion guide, and information on Firoozeh’s new anti-bullying initiative, The Falafel Kindness Project. We hope you’ll fall in love with the book Khaled Hosseini, bestselling author of The Kite Runner, called a “tender and compassionate glimpse into the immigrant experience” as much as we did!

FiroozehadultQ.) You are the bestselling author Funny in Farsi and Laughing Without and Accent, but It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel is your first book for young readers. What inspired you to start writing for kids?
A.) When I was thirteen and living in California, the Iranian revolution happened and a group of Americans were taken hostage in Iran. As a result, my father lost his job, and my mother became depressed. All my hopes and dreams disappeared. I survived this period thanks to friends and a caring community. When I grew up, I realized that without the kindness that I had experienced during those difficult times, I would not be the person I am today. I wanted to write this book specifically for a younger audience so they would realize how much power there is in kindness.

Q.) Similar to Zomorod (Cindy) Yousefzadeh, the main character in the book, you were born in Iran and moved to California as a girl. How did this experience shape you?
A.) Being the only Iranian in my school made me an instant outsider, but this became a huge advantage in my life. I learned early on to find commonalities with people who come from entirely different backgrounds. I learned as a child that the human experience is entirely universal. We may speak different languages or eat different foods, but at the end of day, we are looking for a safe place to live and the opportunity to become the best versions of ourselves. To this day, put me in a room full of strangers and I start making friends right away. My husband says that I could find meaningful conversation with a tree. This is true! Now I just need to find a talking tree.

Q.) “Dumas’s semi-autobiographical novel is both funny and affecting, and surprisingly relevant to today’s political climate,” says Booklist in a starred review. What parts of the book most closely resemble your own life?
A.) The book is mostly true. I chose to write it as a fictional novel in order to make the story flow better. For example, in real life, I have two brothers. In the book, Zomorod (Cindy) is an only child. I love my brothers, I truly do, but it was easier to tell this story without them. All the characters in the book are based on real people, although some are composite characters. Cindy’s friends Carolyn and Howie are based on my real friends, Carolyn and Howie, whom I met in sixth grade and who are still my dear friends. (You can see their pictures on my website.) Cindy’s struggles were my own. Even though this book is fiction, it is the most personal book I have ever written.

Falafel_lresQ.) Humor plays a huge role in the book, and in your writing in general. What does humor mean to you?
A.) Simply put, I could not live without humor. As a writer and public speaker, humor allows me to put the audience at ease even when talking about uncomfortable topics. It connects groups of people who think they have nothing in common. When my first book, Funny in Farsi, was published, it got a lot press for being laugh-out-loud funny. Iranians would often ask me, “Why do Americans think the stories are funny? Your humor is so Iranian.” Americans would often ask me, “How is it that Iranians find you funny? Your humor is so American.” I have had Indians, Mexicans, Australians, you name it, ask me the same thing. I was even told by a well-known British humorist that my humor is entirely British. People don’t often realize how universal humor can be. Humor is like music or food; it’s something that we can all enjoy. It’s a bridge that connects us.

Q.) BookRiot included Cindy in a roundup of “50 of the Best Heroines from Middle Grade Books” and TIME magazine called her a “fictional hero” for Muslim-American kids and a “lovable protagonist.” What makes her special in your eyes?
A.) Cindy is a rock star, at least in her own mind. Here is a kid who, at a young age, is faced with some serious problems. There’s no one she can talk to who understands, so she has to figure out what to do on her own. She manages to do the right thing most of the time, while still dreaming of being cool. Cindy is open to new experiences and keeps trying to become a better version of herself. She’s also very, very funny, which is probably the single most endearing quality about her. Both boys and girls can relate to her.

Q.) Recently, there has been a huge push for more diversity in children’s literature. Why is this important to you personally?
A.) Reading books is like traveling. Why travel to the same place every time? Reading about people with different backgrounds widens our worldview; it opens our minds and hearts. Children who grow up reading books with all kinds of characters become global citizens. There is no downside to that.

Q.) The novel takes place in the 1970s as Iran makes U.S. headlines with protests, revolution, and finally the taking of American hostages. Why was it important for you to share this piece of history with young readers?
A.) We live in a democracy, and in order for a democracy to thrive, each citizen must make informed choices. Iran-U.S. relations are very important today, and yet very few Americans know the history of the two countries. I want my readers to be smart and to understand that you cannot judge a country by the evening news. There is so much more to every country, including the U.S.

FirzoozehKidQ.) What books inspired you when you were in middle school?
A.) When I was in sixth grade, I had a class held in the library and taught by the librarian, Mrs. Lillian Hewen. We had to learn the Dewey Decimal System and read a lot of books. Needless to say, no one liked this class. I, however, loved it, although I kept this fact to myself. Here was a class where we had to read all kinds of books. It was my idea of heaven. (It was also where I learned the meaning of the phrase “teacher’s pet.”) Mrs. Hewen made us read books from various genres, which is how I discovered the wonder of autobiographies. My world was never the same! I had no idea there were so many interesting people in the four corners of the world. And I learned something that changed my life: You can be an ordinary person and have an extraordinary life.

I had that class forty years ago, and I wish Mrs. Hewen were alive today so I could thank her and tell her that I have had the most extraordinary life.

Q.) What do you hope readers take away from It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel?
A.) I hope that readers say, “I can’t put this book down!” As a humorist, I hope readers laugh and feel the need to read their favorite parts out loud to their friends and parents. I also hope that readers want to learn more about history. I used to think history was boring until I took a class in college that sparked my interest. Now I think, How can anyone have an opinion of current events without knowing what happened earlier?
And last, I hope that readers feel that sadness I feel when I finish a really good book. But what happens next? I want to know. That is both the best and the worst feeling. Thankfully, there are so many great books out there to read!

It Ain’t So Awful Falafel is available wherever books are sold tomorrow, May 3rd! Click here to order.

And for those of you California, you can meet Firzooeh and get an signed copy in July! She’ll discuss the book at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA on July 19th at 7:00 PM and Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA on July 23rd at 1:00 PM.