What’s so funny?: Investigating Humor in the Memoirs of Firoozeh Dumas and Marjane Satrapi

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Leila Pazargadi is currently a fourth year graduate student at UCLA in the Comparative Literature Department, who is also pursuing a concentration in Women’s Studies. She focuses on issues of hybridity, immigration, exile and diaspora, especially as they pertain to the social positioning of women. She engages in texts written in English, Persian and French, to extend her research to identity politics in the United States, Britain, France and the Middle East, especially as a part of postcolonial literary study. She has presented at many academic conferences, namely the 6th and 7th Biannual AIS Conferences in London and Toronto, the American Comparative Literature Association Conferences in Puebla and Long Beach, and the Middle Eastern Studies Association 2007 conference in Montreal. In 2004, she graduated with Honors and cum laude from Occidental College in Los Angeles where she received her BA in English and Comparative Literary Studies. Currently, she is a Foreign Language and Area Studies award recipient for Persian language study at UCLA.

In the field of women’s autobiographical writing, Iranian women’s memoirs are collectively emerging as a substantial sub genre of life writing since 9/11.  Literary critic, Nahid Mozaffari, observes, “Memoirs are to the publishing industry what reality shows are to television.”[1] With the recent publication of Iranian women’s memoirs, particularly by those who immigrated to the U.S. and Europe, the question remains: why memoir? Are memoirs becoming our literary form of voyeurism and spectating? Or are Iranian immigrant women writers purposefully donning the role of “native informant” and creating narratives that counter negative stereotypes in the U.S. and Europe about Iranian culture?
 One of the aims of my talk is to challenge imperialistic assumptions about Iranian women amidst the changing political climate of Euro-American politics since 9/11.  By exploring the autobiographical writings of Iranian women immigrants, I want to show the diversity of their lives and the conditions in which they make a life for themselves in America and Europe.  In so doing, I will determine how in autobiographical writing, Iranian women are narrating experiences of traversing cultural borders and creating a cultural identity politics apart from the nation. In addition, I am concerned with the significations of using the genres of memoir and autobiographical writing as vehicles for the “immigrant” experience.   Thus, this talk will investigate representations of the self as part of life writing to trace the journey of how these women represent themselves. Moreover, I seek to ask, what are the strategies that these writers are using to resist marginalization within the subgenre of ethnic women writer’s memoirs? 
Because one of the aims of this project is to explore the varying narrative devices that disrupt the conventions of memoir, I will be exploring the use of humor as a narrative device in the memoirs of Firoozeh Dumas and Marjane Satrapi. By comparing Dumas’ Funny in Farsi and Laughing Without an Accent with Satrapi’s Persepolis series, I will be engaging both author’s use of humor as a narrative technique to facilitate the retelling of their experiences in leaving Iran and living abroad during heightened tension between Iran and the so-called “west.”  In doing so, they are not only manipulating the conventions of the genre of memoir, but they are also invoking the Persian storytelling tradition of humor and satire of tanz.[2]  Humor and the postcolonial intersect at points, which produce interesting novels and memoirs for investigation. Susanne Reichl and Mark Stein assert that because laughter is a “universal phenomenon” present within every society and culture, it is an interesting forum to explore in respects to the postcolonial in determining how each society divides itself from empire and from other societies through its unique expression of humor.[3]  In respects to women’s writing, Reichl and Stein assert that humor can challenge existing patterns of culture and society.  By using humor, both Dumas and Satrapi are able to complicate their past by using a literary form that might mock what is presumably sacred and by what we are not supposed to find funny.  Unlike other Iranian immigrant writers who are publishing their memoirs in the traditional form of the tell-all, these writers are able to engage humor to defy convention and play with the role of the native informant as storyteller.  In her two memoirs, Firoozeh Dumas humorously retells her life story in a collection of short stories that disrupt the chronological format most often structuring memoir.  In her Persepolis series, Marjane Satrapi also elaborates on the conventions of autobiographical writing by creating a graphic memoir that cartoons her past.  They undermine the expectation that the narrator is completely reliable through the use of comedic episodes, which they sometimes embellish or exaggerate. But in doing so, they are able to stretch the elasticity of autobiographical writing, negotiating humor, literary form and the self.

[1] Mozafferi, 516.[2] The Persian word, “tanz” refers to the literary genre of satire.

[3] Cheeky Fictions: Laughter and the Postcolonial , 8.



Academic Discipline : 
Comparative Literature
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