23 Mar / It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas [in Shelf Awareness]
Zomorod Yousefzadeh hasn’t “met anyone who has moved so many times before sixth grade.” Her peripatetic upbringing has already encompassed long distances – not just in miles, but across cultural, social and political divides, as well. Originally from Abadan, Iran, her family moved to Compton, Calif., back to Iran, back to Compton, and is currently settling into a Newport Beach condo.
That summer of 1978, Zomorod renames herself Cindy, after Brady Bunch Cindy – “the most normal American name I knew”: “It’s not like I’m trying to pretend that I’m not Iranian. I just want people to ask questions about me when we meet, not about where I’m from.” After a brief, less-than-genuine relationship with the girl next door, Cindy’s still-friendless state makes her entry into Lincoln Junior High “a terrible, horrible, very bad day.” Thankfully, Cindy’s evident love of books – she’s clearly quoting from Judith Viorst’s 1972 classic, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day – soon leads her to find fellow book lover Carolyn: “only bookworms get excited over other bookworms.” Cindy adapts to middle school, balancing her parents’ expectations–including being her mother’s translator – with fitting in as a “normal” tween. With Carolyn as her guide and sometime protector, Cindy discovers taco nights, Girl Scouts, Halloween, sleepaway camp and more.
And then her home country is in revolution: the Shah is ousted, Ayatollah Khomeini takes brutal control and Americans are held hostage for 444 days. Being Iranian in the U.S. becomes a matter of survival: Cindy’s father loses his engineering job and can’t find another, family funds quickly dwindle, bumper stickers proclaiming “Iranians: Go Home!” seem ubiquitous. In the midst of such public rage, Cindy will need to remember her inner Blanche Dubois, quoting “the best sentence ever” she learned in drama class: “‘I always depend on the kindness of strangers.'”
Memoirist Firoozeh Dumas – her Funny in Farsi (2003) was a New York Times bestseller – makes her middle-grade fiction debut with familiar content, thoughtfully adapted for younger readers. Her author’s note reveals the semi-autobiographical nature of her novel, with the added clarification that “[a]ll the historical facts are true.” Through Cindy’s feisty, observant voice, Dumas distills a difficult chapter from recent history into an accessible coming-of-age novel infused with resonating issues that continue to affect today’s youth, from bullying to isolation, racism, activism, multi-generational challenges and asserting independence.
Minus the cell phones and social media, Cindy’s 1970s story is just as timely decades later–because, alas, xenophobic myopia hasn’t vanished in the 21st century. Deftly mixing droll humor (“Please excuse Cindy from the test today. Our country just had a revolution.“), reality checks (a dead rodent left on her family’s doorstep as a warning), and gracious empathy (“people… are not truly horrible; they just need a geography class, a passport, and a few foreign friends”), Dumas draws on the nurturing power of family and friends to prove It Ain’t So Awful indeed.
Discover: Memoirist Firoozeh Dumas’s middle-grade fiction debut introduces a spunky Iranian transplant in southern California during the Iranian hostage crisis.