A Conversation Between Khaled Hosseini and Firoozeh Dumas I first met Khaled at a fundraiser for the Berkeley public libraries in January 2004. Both of our books had been published fairly recently, but I had not yet read The Kite Runner. I did, however, remember his name. From the first time I had seen the name “Khaled Hosseini” in print, I knew that he was from my part of the world. I was rooting for him without ever having read a word. Of course, once I read his book, I became an even bigger fan. Soon after our first meeting, we decided to meet for dinner with his wife, Roya, and my husband, François. It wasn’t easy selecting a restaurant. Where do two Afghanis, one Iranian, and a Frenchman go for dinner? I suggested sushi. We ended up going to an Afghani restaurant, appropriately named Kabul. We have been friends since.
Khaled Hosseini: Why did you use humor to write your memoir?
Firoozeh Dumas: I never intended to write a funny book. It just came out that way. Before I started Funny in Farsi, I asked my husband one day if I had ever told him the story about the first time I went to summer camp. He said no. In fact, I had told no one. So I told him the story and he was laughing so hard that he was crying. I kept saying, “This is not a funny story. This is a sad story.” And he kept shaking his head and saying, “This is the funniest story I’ve ever heard.” And that’s when I realized that sometimes, if you give something thirty years and if no one was hurt, some of life’s less shining moments can be quite funny.
KH: You're very funny in person, Firoozeh. Fess up. Have you always been funny?
FD: My father is the absolute funniest person I have ever known. I never felt that I was funny, because compared to him few people are. People have always said to me, “Oh, you’re so funny,” but it never really registered. If people compliment you on your feet, it doesn’t make you think you are going to grow up to be a foot model. I consider myself an accidental humorist. When I was in labor with my first child, I had days and days of contractions, followed by hours of childbirth, followed by an emergency C-section. At the end of what felt like an eternity, the doctor asked me if I wanted to see the placenta. Truth was, I didn’t, but I felt like I should want to, so I said, “No, thank you. I just saw one on public television.” The doctors and nurses all started laughing, but I was just trying to be polite. The last thing on my mind was being funny.
KH: Is Funny in Farsi available in Iran? If so, do you know what the reaction has been? FD: Iran does not adhere to the international copyright laws, which means that any book can be translated without permission. The author has no control over the quality of the book. I did not want a bad translation of Funny in Farsi, because in writing my stories I was very careful about being funny without being insulting, and I was afraid that a bad translation would just be horribly embarrassing for my family. So I found my own translator in Iran. Once he finished the translation, he sent the manuscript to the censor’s office, since no book can be published in Iran without government permission. Six months later, we got it back. (We were lucky. The translator of James Joyce’s Ulysses handed in the manuscript seventeen years ago and is still waiting!) I had to remove a couple of small parts and the entire chapter “The Ham Amendment.” I consider that chapter the soul of the book, so having to remove it was painful. That’s life under an Islamic theocracy. The book has not yet reached the bookstores, so I have no idea how people will react. If Funny in Farsi is actually funny in Farsi, it will bring some levity to its readers in Iran, and I have the feeling they could use some levity right now.
KH: Since you are writing about real people, do you worry about the reaction of the people you have mentioned in your book? Not all the stories are flattering. How have you dealt with the inevitable “how could you say that about me” questions?
FD: Everybody who is in the book gave his blessing, except for my husband’s family. We have since reunited with them, but we have never, ever discussed the book. That’s one subject I will not be bringing up. Definitely not enough Mylanta in the world for that conversation. I have had a lot of complaints from relatives who are not in the book. They assumed it was because they are not important to me. And in true Middle Eastern fashion, they did not complain to me but to my parents. The truth is that if I wrote about all my relatives, it would be a fourteen-volume set.
KH: What has been the reaction of the Iranian community in America to Funny in Farsi?
FD: They love it. They keep thanking me for showing another side of the Iranian people to the world. Most Westerners think Middle Easterners just discuss politics and religion all day. We’re actually quite fun.
KH: As a mother of two, when do you find the time to write? Where do you write? Do you have any writing rituals?
FD: I write in spurts. When I’m writing, I get up at 4:00 a.m. without using an alarm clock. Once a story is in my head, I’m possessed, and the only thing I can do is write like mad. This means the house gets very messy and dinner is something frozen. I do not read or go to the movies when I am writing, because I can’t concentrate on anything else. I also keep writing in my head when I’m not actually writing, which means that I become a terrible listener. It’s really a challenge trying to be a writer and a decent mom and wife. I’m just grateful to have an understanding family. Up until a few months ago, we lived in an 850-square-foot house, with one table that served all our needs. It was also my writing spot. I would just put my laptop there and type away until my kids got up. I once saw a book about writers and their special writing spots. There were photos of spectacular cottages on lakes and woodpaneled rooms filled with travel mementos. I just always tried to make sure that the table was clean before I put down my laptop. I found out the hard way that glitter left over from my daughter’s art projects really sticks to computers.
KH: I loved the story about the “F word.” Do you have a favorite story?
FD: Every time I finished a story, I swore it was my favorite. Many of the stories still make me laugh out loud even though I have read them a hundred times. I still can’t read “Girls Just Wanna Have Funds” without crying at the end.
KH: How has your life changed since the publication of Funny in Farsi? FD: Because of Funny in Farsi, I have traveled throughout the United States and met thousands of people. I have spoken in churches, Jewish temples, Islamic centers, and schools. I have always believed that there are far more good people in this world than bad ones and that most people want to be reminded of our shared humanity rather than our differences. Since the publication of Funny in Farsi, my theory has been thoroughly proven. And Khaled, don’t get jealous, but I get the best emails. Because many schools throughout the United States are now using Funny in Farsi in the classroom, I get a lot of emails from twelveto eighteen-year-olds, and they say things like, “You are the best writer ever!” I write them back and I say, “You are so astute!” Even though Funny in Farsi is my story, it’s essentially a universal tale of being an outsider. If you’ve gone through adolescence, you’ve been there. I get e-mails from teachers all the time telling me that even their students who normally do not read loved reading Funny in Farsi. That makes my day every time. Adult readers tend to invite me to their home. I get a lot of “If you are ever in the Saint Louis area, our spare bedroom is yours!” It’s very, very sweet.
KH: What are you working on now?
FD: I just wrote a piece for the New York Times humor section, and I’ve been editing a book for UC Berkeley’s International House about the effects of September 11 on ten individuals. Truth is, I am itching to write my next book but I am currently traveling full time. I have a bunch of stories in my head, so I am just waiting for a lull in my schedule so I can put them down on paper.
KH: You remembered so many details from your childhood. Did you keep a diary growing up, or could you simply tap into your own memories for this book, as I did in my own?
FD: I was always that quiet kid in a room full of adults that everyone forgot about. I have always listened and observed, so when I started writing, details just flooded back to me. And every time I finished a story, another popped up in its place. It was like using a vending machine: the candy falls down and is immediately replaced by another.
KH: On the surface, at least, there is very little about politics in
FD: One of the biggest problems I have faced as an Iranian in America is that no one knows much about Iran except what is on the evening news. Politics has grossly overshadowed humanity in the Middle East and I wanted to write a book that would shine the light on humanity. When I speak at schools, I often ask the students what they think of when they hear the words “Middle East,” and they all say “war” or “terrorism.” That’s like someone saying that when they hear “America,” they think of the Ku Klux Klan. So I always make sure that when I’m visiting schools, I sing “Happy Birthday” in Persian and I remind them that our commonalities far outweigh our differences. They get it.
KH: “Are you Afghan or American or a hyphenated person?” I ask you this question because I get it all the time. So, do you think of yourself as Iranian or American?
FD: There are parts of me that are Iranian and parts of me that are American. I can’t cook for just four people; I’m always thinking, “What if someone drops by?” And when I married my husband, I told him that when my parents get old they will move in with us. That’s my Iranian side. If I receive good service somewhere, I always write the management and tell them, and if I receive bad service, I let them know too. That’s my American side. And I vote in every election. That’s my American side combined with the fear of facing my father.
KH: Are you—and if so how—trying to instill your Iranian culture in your kids? How about French culture?
FD: Of course, it’s very important for me to have children who are familiar with their heritage. But more important, I wanted my children to be citizens of the world. That’s easy for us since we live in the Bay Area and have friends from all over. We have always discussed other countries and religions, and my children have no fear of people who are different than they are. They think it’s normal to have a dinner party with half a dozen different accents. They also grew up thinking that dim sum, pad thai, and chicken tandoori are as ordinary to other kids as pizza or chicken strips. I always spoke Persian to my children when they were little. Unfortunately, I do not have family near me, so once my children started school they insisted on speaking English. I didn’t really fight because there are enough battles between parents and children and you have to choose them carefully. I hope someday they can spend some time in Iran so they can once again learn Persian. My children love Persian food. Who doesn’t? And they are crazy about my extended family. When they were little, family gatherings scared them. All that cheek pinching and enthusiastic kissing was too much for them, but they have come to see beyond that and appreciate how much my family loves them. As far as their French side, my husband has instilled a love of all things French, ranging from food, even escargots (!), to movies to songs. We have traveled several times to France and plan to go there more often now that we have reconciled with his family. My husband’s lucky because he can go back his hometown and not much has changed. Abadan no longer exists as I know it, because it was heavily bombed during the Iran-Iraq war.
KH: Any funny book-tour stories?
FD: Every author has an event that goes terribly wrong. I was invited as a keynote speaker to an event where I was told there would be five thousand junior high kids. This was a non profit organization with no budget, so I bought my own plane ticket, thinking that the high volume book sales would more than make up for my expense. Once I got there, I found out that they had allotted five minutes for my speech and that instead of five thousand kids, five hundred showed up. I had arranged with a bookseller to bring six hundred books. This bookseller had also sent four employees. When I went to speak, we realized the microphone did not work. They just said, “Speak loudly.” It was an outdoor event. I spent the day sitting behind a stack of six hundred books. People kept walking toward us enthusiastically; then we realized we were seated in front of the booth that sold funnel cakes. We sold two copies of Funny in Farsi. I treated the four book sellers to dinner and apologized profusely. And I helped them put the 598 copies of Funny in Farsi back in the boxes.