Iranian-American Author’s YA Debut Addresses Impact of Harmful Racial Media Stereotypes

Author Susan Azim Boyer. Image by Kyle Christensen

In ‘Jasmine Zumideh Needs A Win’ (out November 1, 2022, Wednesday Books) Iranian American debut author Susan Azim Boyer depicts a high school election derailed by negative media coverage of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis to address the impact of harmful racial media stereotypes similar to those that have affected Muslims after 9/11, Chinese Americans in the wake of Covid, and LGBTQIA+ youth.

Described a a cross between ‘Darius The Great Is Not Okay’ and the cult-classic ‘Election’, the book explores issues of shame around identity. “Shame around some aspect of identity – whether it’s racial, cultural, sexual etc. – is a hallmark of high school,” says Azim Boyer. “It’s made much worse with constant negative media coverage like that impacting, for instance, trans youth today.” Using a lightly satirical tone, the book’s main character runs for senior class president – and from her Iranian American heritage — when the hostage crisis (whose 43rd anniversary is on November 4th) explodes across the nightly news, and her opponent stirs up anti-Iranian hysteria among the electorate at school.

In this excerpt, Iranian American Jasmine Zumideh has declared her candidacy for senior class president just as the Iran Hostage Crisis explodes across the nightly news while her best friend, Bridget, tries to persuade her to date Mike, the new transfer student.

The only homework I had this weekend was baking banana bread for home ec, so I’ve been working on my campaign kickoff speech, muscling in several quotes about democracy from Alexis de Tocqueville (I restrain myself from saying that electing my opponent would usher in a “reign of terror”) when Bridget calls. 

I hop on the new cordless we just got because Dad gets all the latest gadgets first. It’s awesome as long as you point the antenna in the exact right direction. I lie down on the bed with my head hanging over the side. “Bridget?” Not the right direction. I sit up. “Bridget?” 

“I said, is your mom going to stay in Kansas?” Bridget asks. “Like, for good?” 

I exhale. “I don’t know. She hasn’t mentioned it again. I don’t want to ask.” 

“If you had to move, you could always stay with me,” she says. It almost sounds like a plea. 

Suddenly, I’m filled with a happy, warm feeling in my chest that makes me want to cry. “Remember when your mom used to read us bedtime stories whenever I would sleep over? Until we were way too old for them.” 

“She did all the voices for Charlotte’s Web,” Bridget says wistfully. 

It’s like we can both feel our childhood slipping away. 

Before things get too melancholy, Bridget brightens. “Anyway, what about our double date?” 

I’m not getting sidetracked by Mike. He’s not even my usual type: a long-haired rocker dude with attitude. Mike’s much more . . . evolved, but— 

“Oh no! No! Oh my God!” All of a sudden, Auntie Minah is shouting from the living room. 

Is she hurt? Did she fall? 

“Bridget, I—something’s wrong. I have to go.” I jam the antenna down on the cordless phone without waiting for her reply. 

When I get to the living room, Auntie and Ali are glued to the TV, stunned looks on their faces, speaking rapid-fire Farsi. “What happened?” I ask, out of breath. 

“The Iranian student, they take Americans hostage!” Auntie Minah gestures dramatically. 


Ali keeps running his fingers through his hair. “Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran. They’re holding everybody hostage, all the Americans.” 

This makes no sense. Iranian students took American hostages? “But, but . . . why?” 

“Because. The United States let the shah in,” Auntie says with her hand to her mouth. 

The house isn’t rumbling, but it feels like an earthquake, everything tossed off-kilter. I turn to the TV. 

Ali says, “He was exiled in Mexico, but he wanted to come here for cancer treatment. President Carter let him in. Now the Iranian students say the US is harboring a dictator.” 

He quickly flips through all the channels. On every network, a news anchor narrates footage of the US Embassy overrun with angry Iranian students. 

We settle on CBS and Ed Bradley. He says the Iranian religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, told the students to seize the US Embassy in retaliation for President Carter letting the shah come to America for medical treatment. They’re holding all the American employees of the embassy hostage until we kick the shah out. 

It looks bad. Really bad. A feeling of dread, like cowering under the bed, waiting for the walls to come crumbling down, envelops me. “What about Grandma Zumideh? Is she okay?” 

“We can’t get through to her,” Ali says grimly. 

Auntie looks like she’s going to faint. “Here, Auntie, sit down.” I guide her to the recliner. 

  We continue watching what looks like the same news footage of the hostages over and over in silence. “Is it as bad as it looks?” I finally ask Ali under my breath. 

Just then, the phone rings. Ali runs to the kitchen to answer it. “Dad,” he says, breathless. “Yes. We’ve been watching the whole thing on TV.” 

I hurry over and Ali hands me the phone. “Dad, how is Grandma Zumideh? Is she okay?” 

“She’s okay,” he says. “The demonstrations are in Tehran. She’s outside the city.” 

I glance back at the television, at the deep furrow of concern across Ed Bradley’s brow. “What does it all mean?” 

“Well, it’s not good,” he says, stating the obvious. “But they’re just kids. The media always exaggerates everything. As soon as these Iranian students realize they’ve riled up the US military, they’ll let the hostages go.”

This is supposed to be reassuring. And yes. The shaking has stopped. But that only means it’s time to brace for the aftershocks. 

I hand the phone to Auntie Minah. Thankfully, Dad is able to calm her down. 

It’s almost ten o’clock before I call Bridget back. 

“We saw it, too,” she says. “What does it mean? Is your grandma okay?” 

My stomach is still in knots. “My dad says she’s okay, the media is exaggerating everything. It’ll be over soon.” 

The knots loosen. Until I remember Dad said “everything is fine” right before he and Mom announced their separation. Ali believed him. I did, too—until Mom took her cigarettes out of hiding. The smoke curling up to the ceiling from the tips of her Eve Menthols was a signal: everything was not fine. In fact, everything was about to fall apart. 


When I get downstairs the next morning, Auntie Minah is asleep on the living room couch. She must have watched the news all night. Ali is in the kitchen frying an egg. “Oh, man,” he says with a manic smile, “those Iranian students are so radical.” 

Radical? Ali, they’re holding American citizens hostage,” I snap at him.

“I know. It’s payback.” He flips his egg in the skillet. “The CIA overthrew that prime minister, Mossadegh, in the fifties and propped up the shah for the oil. Remember? Dad taught us all this stuff.” 

Dad did teach us about Russia and Britain interfering with Iran for the oil since the late 1800s—and America, too—but I say, “No, I don’t remember. And anyway, that doesn’t justify taking Americans hostage.” 

He slides his egg onto a plate with burnt toast. “People should know the whole story before everyone goes around making Iranian students out to be the bad guys.” 

I snatch my keys and folder. “‘Everyone’ is not doing anything, Ali. No one cares about Iran.” At least, they never did. 

“You should care,” he yells at me on my way out the door. “This is our heritage.”

I climb into Mom’s car and immediately pop in the Steve Miller Band cassette to try and forget about Ali and the hostages.  Radical. What is he thinking? And no one cares about Iran. 

But as I park and make my way through the lot, there’s a strange buzz, snippets of animated conversation, and random words like “I-rain-ians” and “hostages.” I pull my folder closer to my chest. 

Everyone is still buzzing when I get to homeroom. My opponent for senior class president, Gerald, is holding a newspaper with a banner headline that reads: American Hostages Seized! “Did you hear about what happened in I-ran?” he asks. “It was on all the networks.” 

I want to tell him it’s pronounced Ee-ron but don’t. 

The homeroom teacher, a substitute, tries to take roll. “What are you squawking about?” 

“Didn’t you hear?” Gerald holds up the paper. “I-rain-ians seized the US Embassy. They’re holding everyone hostage.” He puts the paper down and turns to his ROTC buddies. “My dad said it’s an ‘act of war.’ Like Pearl Harbor. That we should bomb the living crap out of the entire Middle East, so we don’t end up with another Vietnam.” 

This sounds like a gargantuan overstatement, but still, I say nothing. Part of me wants to defend the Iranian students, like Ali, but part of me is mortified by them. 

“Pipe down while I call roll,” says the sub, an older woman with a sky-high bouffant. 

Gerald quietly resumes his discussion with the junior G.I. Joes. The first one says, “I heard those I-rain-ians are religious fanatics.” The second one says, “Yeah, they’re mausoleum, or something.” 

Muslim,” I finally say, but nobody hears me. 

Gerald makes a circling motion around his head. “The women, they all wear sheets around their faces.” 

I can’t help it. “It’s called a chador and they wear it for modesty’s sake,” I say. 

Of course, right then, the sub calls my name. “Jasmine, uh, Zum-ba-duh . . . Zum-ba-day.” She throws her hands up as if she can’t be expected to keep trying. 

“Zumideh.” My stomach roils. 

Gerald looks at me, suspicious. “You’re I-rain-ian, aren’t you?” 

It’s suddenly 1973 again, the last time Grandma and Grandpa Zumideh visited, before Grandpa died, when Gerald told everyone we were weird. 

That was only the beginning. Bridget walked by their room once while Grandma and Grandpa were chanting and praying on their prayer rugs and asked, “What are they doing?” with that look of confusion and disgust you get after a shot of Jägermeister. 

When I told her they were praying, she said, “They’re supposed to be in church.” I was too embarrassed to tell her that Muslims pray in mosques. 

Even Grandma Jean used to refer to Ali and me as her “little brown babies,” as if we were spoiled fruit. Unlike our cousins, who are Wonder Bread white. My cheeks would burn with embarrassment and my stomach would roil. But when people ask, “What kind of name is that?” I’ve always said, “Iranian.” 

While Gerald stares at me, my brain performs an instant series of calculations and spits out the following: “I’m Persian.” 

Does he know Persian and Iranian are the same thing? He doesn’t. My stomach relaxes. A little. 

Preorder a copy of ‘Jasmine Zumideh Needs A Win’ by Susan Azim Boyer HERE.

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