Welcome to my blog about books and the classroom.
A teacher's opinions on YA literature and the state of public education in America.

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Funny in Farsi

Seven-year-old Firoozeh Dumas moved from Iran to America with her family in the 1970s. Her father, an oilfield engineer, had gone to school in the States, and her brother recently had moved in with relatives in Pennsylvania to do the same, but curious-and-precocious Firoozeh had nothing more to go on than her dad’s “when I was in college” memories of her new home. Imagine the overwhelming tasks of both learning a new country, with its intricate systems and processes, and explaining your home country, with its location virtually a mystery to most Americans (and its pronunciation the same). If it hadn’t have been for her driving sense of wonder and thriving sense of humor, even at such a young age, Firoozeh may have had a different story. Funny in Farsi owes its humor and pace to those very attributes.

But there is more to this memoir than just a small girl’s journey through the lighthearted attempts at understanding America, and even at understanding real political turmoil when she witnessed the riots surrounding the Iranian Shah’s visit in 1977 (I mean, have you seen Argo?); it is her strong characters who dance in and out of the pages that make readers laugh until the lines blur, leaving a familiarity that surpasses culture, time, and parchment. Though this dynamic of characters keeps the reading light, the author shares family insights that reach deeper than readers may realize. Firoozeh learns from her father that religion must evolve to make sense in a modern world. She learns too that good, and bad, people abide in every country, every church house, every family. These snatched gifts of universal truth that stayed with the author as a young girl will stay with readers as well, reminding subtly (often juxtaposed to scandalously grilled lobster or an 70’s metallic fat suit) that humans are bound together by shared experience.

Even without the current push for nonfiction, as a result of the Common Core State Standards, teachers would find this read an absolute treasure—a gift to students who do need to read more nonfiction but who also need read what interests them. The way in which Dumas crosses cultural boundaries and softly integrates the faith of her upbringing makes for excellent class discussion that, in this political climate, is necessary.  Rooted in tolerance, acceptance, and bouts of excellent humor, Funny in Farsi should be on classroom shelves all over America.

 

Interview with Firoozeh Dumas

Firoozeh

Funny in Farsi is one of the funniest memoirs I’ve ever read. And reading is kind of my thing. From start to finish, I couldn’t put it down. My students enjoyed it, too. Literature circles with such a voicey read of nonfiction buoyed them through the unknown words, culture, and era. I’m so excited to offer this interview with such a talented memoirist! And I cannot wait to read her newest book Laughing Without an Accent, sitting in my queue as we speak. Enjoy!

 

1.) Thanks for joining me.  I am anxious to hear your voice pop even in interview questions. It was your voice, so clear and hilarious, that had me laughing out loud every other page. Is real-person Firoozeh Dumas always this funny or do you assume the jovial voice for tone’s sake?

My writing voice is my only voice. I’m the same person in my books as I am at the grocery store.  I wish I could say, “In real life, I am a sultry woman of mystery,” but alas, that’s not true although I’m working on it.

 

2.) I can imagine chapters from your book being read at family gatherings and passed around to never-ending laughter. Has your family enjoyed their stories being immortalized?

Some of my family members have enjoyed it,  others are annoyed that I did not write about them. Do you how hard it is to please Iranian relatives?!?

 

3.) Likewise, have you ever gotten any resistance from family members or others mentioned in your memoir?

I have one relative who constantly reminds me that she never wants to be in my books again. But she’s the only one. Others constantly corner me at family events and tell me stories, followed by, “You should put that in your next book.”

 

4.) What is the process for writing about other people? Do you have to change names, get permission, write a disclaimer? How exactly does that work?

My first two books were non-fiction, so this was a big issue for me. I tried to be fair. I did not use by books as a vehicle to get even for past wrongs. I wanted to tell my story and sometimes that requires writing unflattering stories about others. Again, I tried very hard to only say what I had to say, and not get carried away. Except for a few exceptions, I let people read what I had written about them and gave them a chance to comment. Everyone that I wrote about was a relative so I was not worried about being sued, otherwise I would have written a disclaimer. It seems like this has become a bigger issue lately which is one reason why I am relieved to have switched to fiction for my current book.

 

5.) What made you decide to collect your funny pieces from childhood via narrative?

I never consciously made that decision. I started to write without any plans or goals, and what came out is what came out.

 

6.) The part about the Shah’s visit to America wasn’t very funny; it was terrifying. What is most important for students to take away from this piece of your story?

I hope that by reading my books, students realize that there is a difference between the people of a country and its leaders. People’s hatred for a leader of a country should not automatically extend to its people.

 

7.) Sometimes it’s difficult to help students differentiate between the genres of writing. Would you explain that nuance in regard to whether your own book is fiction or nonfiction?

My first two books are 100% true but I do tell students that memoirs are one person’s truth. My brother might write a totally different book about the same events. His perspective would be different but the facts would all be the same.

 

8.) Would you tell us a little about your newest book, Laughing Without an Accent?

Laughing Without An Accent is another series of vignettes. I am currently working on a middle grade novel which has been great fun, but very challenging.

 

9.) And finally, what is your favorite aspect about being a writer?

There is so much I love about writing…I love telling stories. I love using just the right words to paint pictures. I love connecting with readers and seeing how my experience resonates with theirs. There is something very honest about reading and writing and I feel honored to be a part of that community.

 

Quick round!

Favorite drink? Depends on the time of day! Coffee, red wine, tea

Guilty pleasure? Watching Whose Line is it Anyway for hours.

Something on your bucket list? My life has exceeded any expectation I ever had. I have no bucket list. I’m just grateful!

Best vacation? The first time I left Iran, we went to London for a few days. I was seven years old and the sheer wonder of that trip is still unmatched.

Last book you read? The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole.

Paper, electronic, or audio book? Paper FOREVER.

Languages you speak? Persian, French, English and enough Spanish to embarrass myself.

 

Thank you for interviewing with me, Firoozeh! Thanks for sharing your memories.

Interview with Tom Leveen

See my interview from 2011with Tom here. And check out the article which spawned his title manicpixiedreamgirl.

Manicpixiedreamgirl by Tom Leveen

 
Tom Leveen has done it again. I swear he is the master of voice, and he has created one of the most honest stories I’ve ever read featuring the archetype of the unattainable, broken damsel, a.k.a the “manic pixie dream girl.” I’m a high school teacher, so I see students when they go through their ultimate crushes, and every once and again I see one struggling to breathe in a world full of air because of desire—desire for what they don’t even know or understand. And there’s not an adult in this world that can break that spell, or that can inject Truth into the visceral fiction floating overhead that simply does not parallel reality. This book does that: smashes Realism into Romanticism’s face like cake at a marriage where the bride doesn’t show—but it does so gently (and with one of the funniest secondary characters you’ll ever meet).
Through a narrative that pulses like a heartbeat, Tom has created real people that are the embodiment of the teenage learning curve, or in Becky’s case, the pitiable result of selfish parenting. Readers will become attached to them all, but especially Tyler who only tries to create a relationship in which he isn’t the “asshead” but the hero. And maybe in the end, he did.
Kudos, Tom. You’ve wowed me again.

Interview with April Henry

I know my readers are ready to hear from April, so I won’t make you wait any longer. 🙂 Please be sure to get a copy of The Night She Disappeared as well as her newest book (in June) The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die. And if you happen to be in San Antonio for this year’s International Reading Association conference, you should track April down and get your book signed. She really is the coolest! (I mean, check out her answer to #6.)
1.)Where were you when you go the idea to write The Night She Disappeared? Can you walk us through that “Ah hah!” moment for an author?
Thirty years ago, a teenager went out to deliver pizzas in a town about 45 minutes away from where I live.
Just like in The Night She Disappeared, her car was found with the keys in the ignition, her purse on the seat, and the pizza boxes on the ground. And just like in my book, it came out that the caller had asked if a different girl was working that night on delivery. I always wondered what it felt like that to be that other girl, knowing that the person had called for you. Would you feel marked? Guilty?

When I was in high school, I worked for two years at Pietro’s Pizza as a cashier. So I was able to take some of my own memories – playing Frisbee in the back parking lot with the pizza skins, the joy of working a very busy rush – and put those into the book.
2.) When you first set out to write this book, did you know which characters would emerge? How do you plot a novel with so many voices?
I knew I wanted the two girl’s voices – the girl who is really taken and the girl who was supposed to be. And I wanted to bring in a guy’s voice. Those are the three main point-of-view characters, but there are others, like the people who find the missing girl’s car, or the diver who looks for her body in the river. Whenever I write a scene, I like to tell it from the point of view of the person who knows the least (or is finding out the most) or the person who has the most to lose.

3.) In a lot of thrillers, there seems to be some redeeming quality—however buried in the antagonist; yet, in this story I didn’t find it. Was it a conscious choice to create “John Robertson” as a flat, though believable and terrifying, villain?
“John Robertson” is a sociopath. As such, he was born without the ability to care about other human beings. To him, a human being has about as much value as the wrapper his hamburger comes in. Not all – or even most – sociopaths are killers. Many are people who have left a trail of broken promises and broken people behind them. I have a relative who is a sociopath, although it took a long time for that to become clear. As I was trying to figure out what that person was, I did a lot of reading about sociopathy. As a person who cares about others, it’s hard to believe that some people don’t – and probably can’t.

4.) One of the most heartbreaking, interesting and personally important issues in The Night She Disappeared is this issue of drug usage, its long-term effects, and society’s perspective toward those who have become lost in their addictions. We see this in Drew, whose involvement is learned but slight; Drew’s mother, who use has escalated to complete addiction; and again in the sad character of young-adult Cody Renfrew, who wanted to stop but couldn’t and who, because of it, made a perfect suspect for the community. What message did you want to send to your readers about drugs?
I graduated from high school in 1977. I don’t know if it was the era, or growing up in a town that did not have a lot of money, but when I go to high school reunions, I would estimate that at least a third of the guys have been through some kind of rehab, some multiple times, and probably half should have gone. So many people who had had so much potential, kids who were popular and funny and smart, and their lives got derailed or lost altogether.

5.) How much research did it take for you to create the epistolary documents that appear between chapters? Did you plan for them initially or did they come about later?
I always wanted to make the book like a collage. I kept a running list of ideas, some of which I didn’t use, like diary entries. I love the way the graphic designer, April Ward, brought them to life in the book.

6.) This book is heavy in a content-sense—kidnapping, drugs, suicide—yet it’s such a real, accessible, and respectful read. Have you encountered much opposition to this novel? Any instances of it having been banned?
Not yet, knock on wood. I do make a conscious choice to keep the language basically clean, and the sexual situations don’t progress all the way. (Actually, part of the reason I make that choice is because of you. I’m writing books that are mostly meant to be entertainment, and I would hate to have a teacher or librarian have their job at risk because of something I wrote.)
7.) How long did it take you, from inception to completion, to write this novel? What was your biggest challenge during that time?
Nine months, I think, like a pregnancy. I worried that no one would like it as much as Girl, Stolen. And I’m sure I was juggling another deadline on an adult book at the same time, because I always am.

8.) For every YA author I know, the real perks to writing don’t come from the awards and accolades—though those are nice, too—but from the responses they get from their readers. What has been your most rewarding reader response so far? (This is my favorite question to ask!)
I get a lot of notes from kids who don’t like to read. They are often like this one: “I have read girl stolen and the night she disappeared and I have to say they were so good! I couldent put the book down! I read both these books in three days which is a pretty big achievement for me because it usually takes me a month but ur books are just to thrilling and intresting to put down!!

9.) Last question: When/What is your next book coming out?
June 11. The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.

Quick round:
Favorite animal:
Cat (spouse is sadly now allergic)
Favorite hobby (other than writing): Kung fu
Favorite quote: Robert Bloch: “Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
Favorite painting: Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter
Favorite band: The Heavy