Combating stereotypes

NEWPORT COAST — It was funny in English, as well as in Persian, as Firoozeh Dumas had hundreds of Sage Hill students laughing out loud in the high school's gymnasium on Friday.

The well-known author regaled them with funny bits and pieces about the occasional Iranian American culture clashes.

A successful writer who's published a pair of books, "Laughing Without an Accent" and "Funny in Farsi," Dumas said ABC came awfully close to producing a sitcom on her life but later demurred.

Not one for accepting rejection — she got a lot of that for her writing before getting published — Dumas joked that the ultimate rejection had to be when ABC turned her down for the role in which she would use her own voice for her own part in the pilot sitcom.

When one student stood up and asked her whether she was "furious" at not landing a role that so logically should have been hers, Dumas jokingly quipped, "I got paranoid! I thought, 'What's wrong with my voice?'"

She's since moved to Irvine from Palo Alto and her daughter is a sophomore at Sage Hill. And to update on her career, she's currently putting together a series of short stories for children, which she quickly pointed out is "not about vampires," a quip pointed at the "Twilight" phenomenon.

Her 40-minute presentation was the second in a series of commemorative presentations that are being carried out at the high school to mark the 10th anniversary of its founding on Newport Coast Drive.

Born in the small town of Abadan in southern Iran, Dumas said she and her family moved to Whittier when she was just a child and her father got a job on the periphery of Los Angeles.

Eventually Dumas enrolled in the public school system and recounted to the students how she always remembers being amazed at how she could check out books at the public library without having to pay for them.

The freedom to read eventually bred the ability to write, which she started in earnest at the age of 36, and she hasn't looked back since.

Now, at 45, she's successful, and her tales of how she got there are hilarious — if not an illustration of how stereotypes tend to work in the industry. For example, she joked about how one agent in particular asked her to express "more oppression and a sense of struggle" in her work, to which she responded that not all Middle Eastern women are oppressed.

And while she has uncanny natural ability to pass for a comedian, that's just how much she mesmerized the students, she said she'd like her books to deliver the message that people should not hate others because they talk differently.

As a child, however, she did have to absorb and endure a great deal of hatred during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.

First she'd jokingly tell the folks that "the hostages weren't in my garage," then eventually say, "How do you think I feel? It's awful. They're terrorists."

During that time, she said, one particular morning the family's refrigerator broke down and she and her mother had to call a repairman. He showed up on their doorstep, with his pickup parked in the driveway and sporting a nasty bumper sticker that read, "Wanted: Iranians for target practice."

When the repairman noticed that she and her mother spoke with an accent, he asked them where they were from, to which the mother responded, cautiously and frighteningly and hesitantly, in broken English …."Turkey."

"That's when I realized that this is very, very wrong," said Dumas. "This should not be happening in America."

She then implored teachers to add a homework assignment to their list: Have students pretend they just arrived to America and to sum up what Americans are like after watching a few minutes of the nightly news.

That's exactly the sort of image that some people walk away with regarding Muslims, or the Iranian people as a whole.

Lastly, she left the students with this advice: Don't let people use pejorative words like "retarded" or "gay" in casual contexts. Call them out on it on Facebook. It's a move that will make them feel good in the end.

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