Interview: Find Another Dream’s Maysoon Zayid

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Maysoon Zayid’s funny, inspiring, and heartwarming new book, Find Another Dream, is now available from Audible, with Zayid herself, an actress, dancer, and stand-up comedian, telling her own story.

Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine released the book, about Zayid’s life as a child with cerebral palsy born to immigrant parents who grew up to tap-dance on Broadway, appear on General Hospital and provide commentary on Keith Olberman’s show Countdown. Her philosophy: If your dream turns into a nightmare, find another dream.

In an interview, Zayid talked about the lessons from her family, why it is important to find humor in what happens to you, and why representation matters — but only if it is the right kind of representation.

Your parents have very different approaches to life and to parenting. What was the most important lesson you learned from your father? From your mother?

The most important lesson I learned from my father was to enjoy life. He always had fun. Even when things were looking down, he found a way to laugh. He approached life with love and hope. I’m a lot more cynical but I try to emulate his joy.

I learned from my mother that failure is not an option. She held me to a very high standard and I am grateful because it made me tough enough to battle Hollywood and win.

Who in your family made you laugh?

My dad was hysterically funny. I have two uncles on my mother’s side who easily could have been standup comedians and all of my aunts on my father’s side were hysterically funny. When I grew up I spent my summers in Palestine. There were no TVs and no internet. My aunts would sit around, cross-stitch and gossip. They were so funny and I would love to sit in and drag the locals with them.

When did you discover that you could make other people laugh?

I had no idea that I was funny. Quite frankly, I was a drama queen. I discovered I could make people laugh when I signed up for a standup class at Caroline’s on Broadway. While many of my classmates struggled, I was a natural. Even at open mics, I would kill it, which is tough because most of your audience are other comics and they are hard to make laugh. I am blessed.

Does having a sense of humor help make you less self-conscious?

I’m not self-conscious. I’m missing that gene. I’ve never cared what people thought of how I dressed or if I was cool. When I was younger, my focus was academia and by the time I got to college, I was a cool kid and got away with not caring.

You write about Mary Ingalls as the first disabled character you saw on television. What did you learn from her about the importance of representation and how it can skew the audience’s understanding instead of enhancing it? How was Geri Jewell on Facts of Life different?

Mary was one of the first characters to make me passionate about having actually disabled actors play disabled on screen. She was never convincing to me. She also helped me be a better disabled person. Her whining annoyed me so no matter how much my chronic pain hurt, I always fought to not be like Mary.

Geri Jewell was funny. I never felt any sympathy for her. She showed me that being disabled didn’t mean you had to be miserable.

What do you want kids — with and without disabilities — to learn from seeing you?

I want them to learn that there is no shame in being disabled and it is okay to sometimes have your disability win. It’s okay to sit down if you’re tired or to optionally use a wheelchair. I want them to know that it’s hard to live in an inaccessible world but that the fight is worth fighting so that it gets better every day. I also need them to not vote for Donald Trump, otherwise it’s going to get worse.

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In the book you talk about the graduation speech you never got to give. What did you want to say?

Our graduation song was Imagine by John Lennon, so my favorite line was a play on the lyrics, “Imagine all the Palestinians living life in peace.” I would have included the whoo-hoo-hoo, too. I also had some tear jerkers thanking my parents and exploiting my disability I’m too ashamed to share, but they would have been crowd-pleasers.

What is your dream role?

My dream is not a role; it’s a seat. My dream in life is to be one of the co-hosts on The View. My General Hospital dream came true so I have to find another dream, and it is The View.

Has your dance training helped your stage technique as a stand-up comedian?

Yes, definitely. I think the reason I have no fear when I step on stage is because I’ve been performing since I was five years old. I also think it taught me how to be an entertainer. How to smile even when you’re not happy. Tap dancing taught me to have a musicality in how I communicate and you can hear that in my standup comedy today.

What was your first joke as a standup comedian?

I have it in the book. It was a terrible trying to be edgy, misogynistic, slut-shaming joke. Jesus comes home to the Virgin Mary and he’s got Mary of Magdalene with him. The Virgin Mary shrieks, “You’re the son of God and you couldn’t find anyone better than a whore?!” There it is. That was my first joke. I’ve come a long way, baby.

What is your advice to parents of a child with disabilities?

My advice to parents of a kid with disabilities is not to compare their child to anyone else’s. Have their milestones be theirs. Have them strive to be the best that they can be, not as good as someone else that they saw. Listen to and follow adults with disabilities. They will give you priceless insight.

The world gets mean when disabled kids turn 18. Be prepared for services to disappear and have a plan. Understand that disabled kids grow up to be disabled adults.

Allow them to live the life that anyone their age is entitled to. They are not eternal babies regardless of intellectual ability and you need to let them grow up.

Finally, don’t post embarrassing things about your kid’s medical condition online. They have a right to privacy that is more important than your right to martyr them.

Movie critic, corporate critic and shareholder advocate, critic/editor at @ebertvoices @moviemom, and #corpgov #movies and editor at @miniverpress

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