SCOTT SIMON, host:
Firoozeh Dumas' first book "Funny in Farsi" was nominated for James Thurber Award. She was born in Iran, but her family moved to the United States when she was seven. Her father was an engineer who'd gone to Texas A&M and once met Albert Einstein. She has a new collection of essays out now about her family life which ranged from recollections of a pet monkey she had for about three hours to feeling out of place in college, and touring Iowa with a woman that was once a hostage in Tehran. Her new book is "Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian-American at Home and Abroad." Firoozeh Dumas is also an occasional NPR commentator who joins us know from Palo Alto, California. Thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. FIROOZEH DUMAS (Writer, "Laughing Without an Accent"): Well, thank you for having me, Scott.
SIMON: You are so funny. Why is it that when you came to the United States, you could never understand what was so funny about a pie in the face?
Ms. DUMAS: Well, you know, we used to watch television non-stop, and that was the one thing that we never understood because a pie thrown in someone's face to us just seemed like it's a terrible waste of a pie. And yet the laugh tracks would always tell us, it was supposed to be very funny. But I still don't get that.
SIMON: I love the stories in here about your father who just sounds like a wonderful man. He wears suits on an airplane, blue velour leisure suits for special occasions. What's the blue leisure suit preoccupation that he has? Because I mean, he's asked you to shop for blue leisure suits all over.
Ms. DUMAS: A few years ago, my uncle Nematola(ph) went to Las Vegas. And he bought this blue velour leisure suit. And for some reason, this just caught on with all the males in my family. And they would stand around at family gatherings and they would be touching each other's forearms. And commenting, oh wow, this is really thick velour look. It doesn't even wrinkle. And they will just have conversations, endless conversations about the qualities of blue velour pant suits. And my father has so many of them, and they all look exactly alike to me. But apparently there is a lot of nuance between different types.
SIMON: And he - but he will wear a full suit and tie on an airplane.
Ms. DUMAS: Always. You know, my dad in his 80s, and to him flying is a special occasion. So he always wears a suit on airplanes, and is always very polite to the flight attendants, and he always thanks them for whatever they bring him, which is not very much these days on airplanes. But nonetheless you know, he'll get a cup of coffee. And he says, oh this is very good coffee. Thank you very much.
SIMON: I want to ask about your days as a U.S. college student. You went to Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley.
Ms. DUMAS: I did.
SIMON : And didn't feel as if you exactly fit in.
Ms. DUMAS: No. Because I thought that when I went to Berkeley, it would be a whole bunch of really smart kids sitting around, having interesting conversations. And as a freshman, I discovered there was a lot of smart kids drinking. And it's not that I had anything against drinking, but it's not like the European way of enjoying a glass of wine. It is drinking, so that they don't remember the weekend, which seems really stupid to me.
So, I kept looking for groups that didn't drink, and I like, I joined this church group at one point, and I was right: they didn't drink. But they - when they found out I was Muslim, they were so excited because they thought wow, here's a project sent from above. So, that idea ended, and I kept going from group to group. And oddly enough, and only enough this whole changed for me when I met - the man who is now my husband, because - he's European, he's from France. And his idea of fun was exactly what mine was, which was to go to a movie, go to a foreign movie, go out to an ethnic restaurant and then discuss the movie afterwards for hours, so...
SIMON: He had the most extraordinary subtle line to you, didn't he? One of your first conversations.
Ms. DUMAS: He did. We had just recently met, and he said to me - we were actually having a deep conversation, and in the middle of it he said, well, I thought he said, you've quite a chest there, and I was very offended. I thought it was a very creepy thing to say in the middle of a conversation about something that has nothing to do with chests. And so I told him that I thought that was very creepy. And then he said, but no I meant it as a compliment. And I said, well, it's still creepy, and it just went back and forth, and then he said, but all I said is you're quite a jester. So...
SIMON: Do you always have your mind in the gutter?
Ms. DUMAS: But then I told him no, that he shouldn't use the word jester. I said nobody in America uses the word jester. So, I made him feel like it was his fault.
SIMON: Tell us how you became a professional writer, because this wasn't a straight path for you.
Ms. DUMAS: No, not at all. My father is a storyteller. And he is actually the funniest person that I know. And I never ever, ever grew up thinking that I was even remotely funny. And when I was about 36 years old, and I had two children by then, I wanted my children to know my stories just like I knew my father's stories. But because I lived in America, and in America people don't get together with their families all the time the way my extended family does. So, I decided I was going to write down my stories. And when my then youngest started kindergarten, I joined the writers group, and this was after eight years of being a stay-at-home mom. And I remember that first day of kindergarten so, well because I was the only mom not crying, and I joined this writers group. And I..
SIMON: As if you're not - not crying because you were so glad to have a little peace and quiet?
Ms. DUMAS: Listen, eight years of having someone velcroed to your hip. And you know, getting all of a sudden two and half hours to yourself or three hours just seemed like a week in Hawaii to me. So, you know, I joined this writer's group, and I started writing these stories about my life. And after September 11 happened, a friend of mine suggested that I should try to get them published because as she pointed out there was nothing out there that - had anything to do with the Middle East that was remotely funny. Although now there are two books.
SIMON: Yours and...?
Ms. DUMAS: Both are mine.
SIMON: All right. Fair enough. You have an essay in here where you, the mother of an adolescent girl - and you say that you're grateful that your daughter doesn't have to wear a headscarf. But you're alarmed with what adolescent girls can sometimes find themselves wearing in this country. If I could get you to talk about what happened going clothes shopping.
Ms. DUMAS: Well, I just, you know, my daughter is almost 13. And when she was younger, it was fine going clothes shopping because the clothes were appropriate for her age. And around the time she turned about eight or nine, I noticed that the fashions for her were, well, let's just say inappropriate. And it always surprises me that in this country where girls are supposed to be empowered, that the clothing for them is getting them ready for careers at Hooters. So, before we go shopping, there's always this lecture I have to give on what I think is appropriate and what I think is inappropriate.
SIMON: You set down some rules, don't you?
Ms. DUMAS: I do. So, I said...
SIMON: One rule maybe, I think in particular?
Ms. DUMAS: Well, one rule I had was nothing could be written on the derriere because I have noticed there was a trend where there were pants who said juicy on the bottom. And you know, if an adult woman chooses to wear that, that's one thing. But nine, 10, 11-year-old girls, I don't think they really understand the full effect of wearing something that says juicy on the bottom.
SIMON: Can you tell us about Ms. Sandberg(ph), your old teacher?
Ms. DUMAS: Oh, I love Mrs. Sandberg. Mrs. Sandberg was my second grade teacher. I still keep in touch with her. She now lives in Utah, and it's so funny because now whenever we talk, she says, oh, call me Bonnie. And I was always like, no, Mrs. Sandberg, I don't think so. She was the teacher I had when I came to America when I didn't speak any English. And she really prepared her students ahead of time, she told them that there was this new student coming, that didn't speak the language. And she told the students to be nice to me and to include me in everything. And they did, and I always say it's just amazing the difference that one good teacher can make at a pivotal time in your life.
Ms. DUMAS: And I certainly did my part in trying to ingratiate myself with my new American classmates. And I used to always write their names on the board in Persian, and in Persia we write from right to left. So, it's very impressive. And the kids would say, oh you write backwards. And then all the boys would always chase me at recess and they say, teach us some bad words in your language.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DUMAS: But I tell you, though, I think I had the last laugh because one day, I said, OK, fine. I'm going to teach you something, but it's so bad you've got to promise never to repeat it. And they said, OK, we promise. I said OK, manharam(ph). Never repeat that. And of course from that day on, they ran out and say manharam, manharam which means I'm an idiot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Well, all right. So, now you're a well-known humorist, and they're probably still running around yelling, I'm an idiot.
Ms. DUMAS: Well, I think, actually, I think they're in bars trying to pick up on Iranian woman and say manharam and wondering why it's not working.
(Soundbite of laugh)
SIMON: Firoozeh, very nice talking to you.
Ms. DUMAS: Thank you.
SIMON: Firoozeh Dumas, her new book is "Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American at Home and Abroad." This is Weekend Edition from NPR news, manharam. I'm Scott Simon.
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