by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
When two countries go to war, their “us” versus “them” mentality make their differences seem irreconcilable. So when I saw Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir, “Funny in Farsi, Growing up Iranian in America” it appealed to me instantly. I wanted to laugh at the differences instead of fight over them. But how can you laugh about something so serious as the differences between Americans and Iranians?
At a meeting of the National Speakers Association in Philadelphia, after an introduction that repeatedly cracked up the audience, Ron Culberson explained that humor happens when your mind sets you up to expect one thing, and then the punch line suddenly shifts the ground you thought you were standing on. That’s what creates the laughter in “Funny in Farsi.” One culture sets up an expectation, and the other culture spins that expectation in a surprising direction.
Firoozeh came to the United States from Iran when she was seven, with a father who believed America was the promised land, a land of infinite wisdom, compassion, and possibilities. That’s a familiar theme for me. Three of my four grandparents moved across the globe from Russia to the melting pot of America. In the early days of their immigration, there was enormous suspicion against them. Their Jewish names and manner and their foreign accents isolated them. But the melting pot blurred the differences especially among the children, and by the second or third generation, the accents were gone, the suspicion eased, and people started to relate to each other as people. The self-effacing humor of Jewish immigrants was an important tool as they struggled to become part of their new home, and helped create a sense of bonding and strength.
So I was prepared to appreciate Firoozeh’s humor. For example, when Firoozeh was a little girl, visiting Disneyland with her family, she became preoccupied by a bright red telephone and when she looked up, her family had moved on. At the lost-and-found for children there was another child who didn’t speak English. The caretaker begged Firoozeh to speak to the little boy. When Firoozeh spoke to him in Farsi, which the boy didn’t understand, he cried even harder. It was comical to think that the American woman assumed that any two foreign children would understand each other’s language.
On Firoozeh’s first day in second grade, her mother went along. The teacher invited them both to the front of the class and then gestured for Firoozeh’s mother to point out their country of origin on the world map. Firoozeh’s mom stood there smiling politely but not moving. The teacher assumed any woman would naturally know where her own country was on the map. She was wrong. What she expected did not match reality.
When I watch a movie or read a book, situations of identity confusion embarrass me so badly, I want to jump up and pace. I was feeling this jumpiness when I read Firoozeh’s memoir, and I wanted to understand how this dramatic tension works. So I pondered other dramatic situations in which identity confusion makes me crazy, and I realized that identity confusion plays a central role throughout Shakespeare’s plays. So I took a closer look at Shakespeare’s comedy “As you like it,” in which Rosalind, was forced into exile, and dressed up as a boy. In this disguise she meets Orlando who was madly in love with her. Taken in by her disguise, he enters into a second relationship with her, now as a friend and confidante. The resulting confusion has been driving audiences crazy for centuries.
Confusion about identity is especially relevant in the great melting pot of modernity, when people cross boundaries, exiled from their own culture and try to enter another. We wonder about each other, “How am I supposed to speak or act towards this person? What parts are the same? What parts are different?” The concern about a person’s identity creates tension, and then when the identity is exposed, we breathe a sigh of relief. “Ah, now I understand.”
While Firoozeh’s neighbors in the United States weren’t sure how to relate to her, I had no such confusion. She took me into her confidence and I saw for myself who she was, thanks to her superb command of the English language, and her clever, ironic insights. “She’s one of us.” I thought. And even better, as a recent entrant into the melting pot, she could share her observations about contrasts between two cultures more clearly than someone limited to seeing things only from within one.
At the end of the play “As You Like It,” just as at the end of all of his comedies, Shakespeare resolves the confusion by marrying the characters. I suppose he figured once they were living and sleeping together, all the masks would be removed. Firoozeh married too, but in her case, the wedding was yet another opportunity for misunderstanding. Her parents wanted the celebration to be the same as in Iran, where animal sacrifice is considered essential. The caterers, who were not experts in the nuances of this ritual, decided to carve the animal first. The carcass they wheeled out, stripped of its meat, was appropriate neither for an Iranian or an American celebration. It switched from being a symbol of joy, to a symbol of foreigners trying to hang on to their old identity in a new land.
The ending of Firoozeh’s memoir differs from a Shakespearean comedy in another way. Her husband is French, so even after they married they can never return together to a single homeland. Instead, they must continue to seek the universal qualities of love and laughter in each other, and in their adopted neighbors or else forever remain foreigners. And that is precisely what provides the lift at the end of Firoozeh’s drama of confusion and mixing. Amidst the differences of people, she offers us this opportunity too, to understand the things we share.
Writing Prompt: List the decades of your life. For each period, list examples of cultural mixing. For example, what neighbor, lover, teacher, or co-worker entered your life from another culture? How did you behave towards that person? Curious? Suspicious? Confused?
Writing Prompt: List vacations or journeys to other countries, regions or neighborhoods where others might have looked at you as a foreigner. What is it about you that people might have thought was different from them? (Color, features, accent, religion.) How did you reach out? What were some of the confusions? What humor or love relieved the tension? What did you learn? What surprised you? What still makes you wonder?
Note: For more information about Ron Culberson, the speaker who got me thinking about humor, see his website. www.funsulting.com
Note: I listened to the audio version of the book, read by Firoozeh herself, so I was treated by her lovely voice and slight accent, along with the authentic pronunciation of the few names and words she mentions in Farsi. This book is available from www.audible.com.
Here are a few other memoirs in which the mixing of cultures plays a central role. Click the links to read my essay.
More memoir writing resources
Memoir-lovers in my experience intuitively recognize the potential that this genre has for healing us individually and collectively. My book, Memoir Revolution, backs up these intuitive views with research and examples about how the cultural passion for life stories serves us all.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.