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Interview: August 27, 2018

Adib Khorram's heartfelt and hilarious debut, DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY, releases on August 28, 2018, but it has already been earning rave reviews and praise. As one of the 2018 BookExpo Young Adult Buzz picks, DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY offers a meaningful exploration of heritage, identity and self-worth. Already struggling with depression and the stress of finding somewhere to fit in, he expects his first trip to Iran will only add to his sense of loneliness. So it comes as a surprise when he meets Sohrab, the Iranian teen living next door who opens his arms to Darius. But Darius' time in Iran is only temporary, and eventually he'll have to figure out how to be the person Sohrab discovered in him. In celebration of the release of the book, we spoke with Adib Khorram about Iranian culture, nerdiness and relationships. Check out our interview for the full scoop! Your debut, DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY, is about a nerdy half-Persian teen and the spring he spends in Iran, learning about himself, his family and what it means to feel accepted. Can you introduce us to Darius? Did you base anything about him off someone you know in real life?

Adib Khorram: Darius Kellner is Iranian on his mother’s side and white European-American on his father’s side. He’s into tea, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings. He’s overweight and doesn’t fit in. He loves his little sister. He’s clinically depressed and feels like he doesn’t have any friends. At least, that’s how he feels in the beginning.

I think it’s impossible to write any character without giving bits of yourself to them, whether on purpose or on accident, so Darius does have little bits of me in him, and also little bits of my younger cousins who are his age and growing up in today’s world rather than the 1990s.

TRC: One of the first ways Darius describes himself to the reader is as a “Fractional Persian.” Can you tell us a bit about what it means for Darius to identify as “Fractional” and how it sets him apart?

AK: As a child of diaspora, and especially as a child of mixed heritage, Darius doesn’t see himself as fully belonging to one group or another. To Americans he’s always going to be Iranian; and to Iranians he’s always going to be American.

TRC: There is another thing that makes Darius feel a bit like an outsider and that is his clinical depression, a diagnosis he shares with his father, Stephen. Why did you choose to incorporate mental illness into DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY? How does it affect Darius’s interactions with the world?

AK: So many young people (and older people, too) live with mental illness, but while I was writing Darius it felt like most of what I was seeing in depictions of mental illness were stories of crisis. I wasn’t seeing stories about how it can be just another part of your life, one that you manage and that doesn’t define you.

And while it doesn’t define Darius, it definitely does influence the way he sees the world. It makes him more sensitive, but it also makes him doubt himself. It makes him crave connection but unable to reach out for it. And it definitely complicates his relationship with his father.

TRC: Darius’s father, Stephen, is a real man’s man who is often critical about Darius’s appearance, weight and behaviors. Yet he and Darius also share one really positive tradition: watching one episode of Star Trek every night. Despite their shared diagnoses and love of Star Trek, their relationship is very complicated. Can you tell us a bit about their relationship at the start of the book, or lack thereof?

AK: It’s been my experience that we often hate in others that which we hate in ourselves, and so Stephen Kellner has a hard time dealing with Darius’s depression. He knows what it took for him to deal with it, and he’s worried Darius isn’t dealing with it in the right way.

As for Darius, I read once that part of the teenage psyche is that when we are teens, we respond to the perception of behavior, rather than the behavior itself. Since Darius perceives his dad as being judgmental and disapproving, he reacts that way, even if his Dad isn’t actively disapproving at the time.

TRC: The way you write Darius’s nerdiness is so natural and heartfelt that it feels very personal. Can you talk about your own nerddom and why you chose it as both a personality trait for Darius and as a vehicle for Darius and his father’s relationship?

AK: Like a lot of kids my age who love sci-fi, I got my sense of morality and adventure and humanity and compassion from Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D. (Swapna Krishna wrote a fantastic piece on this very phenomenon:

The fact is that I’m closer in age to Stephen Kellner than Darius Kellner. And I know that, if I have kids, they’ll be watching Star Trek with me. So giving this love of Star Trek to Stephen and Darius felt like a natural fit.

The other thing is, as adults we so often discount the passion and intensity that teenagers love with. It’s every bit as valid as our adult obsessions, and I wanted to give voice to that love.

TRC: DARIUS really kicks off when Darius and his family travel to Iran together for the first time, to visit his sick grandparent. When they arrive, Darius definitely experiences some expected tension, but what truly surprises him is how very normal everyday Iran is, and how the people are living normal lives, which is something that will probably surprise many American readers. Can you talk about this revelation and why you felt it was so important to include?

AK: I’m a little embarrassed to say, it’s because I had a similar moment of revelation myself. I was talking to my aunt and uncle in Iran over Skype, and I had never really seen anything except for their floating heads in the screen, but they interrupted the call because someone was at their door. It was this moment of extreme disconnection when I was confronted with the realization that they had a door, and that there were other people around them I had no idea about.

I think that recognition of the humanity of others, and the humanity that exists outside our own narrow lenses, is a crucial one for all of us.

TRC: Another aspect of your book that feels really personal is the tea and food Darius enjoys, especially when he is visiting Iran. Are you a tea-lover like Darius? What are some of your favorite teas and Persian foods, and why was it important for you to incorporate them into the book?

AK: I am a huge tea lover! When I first started writing Darius I was my friend in Seattle who is also a huge tea lover, and we took a road trip down to Portland to Smith Tea, one of our favorite producers. That timing is responsible for Darius’s tea love—and for me setting Darius’s home in Portland, Oregon. And most of Darius’s favorites in the book are also my favorites.

Hospitality and food are such integral parts of Persian culture, so I wouldn’t say it was important to me to include them, so much as it would have been impossible to leave them out and still have the book ring true.

TRC: After feeling like an outsider in both countries, Darius meets Sohrab, a teen who knows his grandparents and takes Darius under his wing. Sohrab really goes above and beyond when it comes to making Darius feel included, in part because he is also an outsider in some ways. Can you tell us a bit about their relationship? Did you have a friend like Sohrab growing up?

AK: Sohrab is a Bahá’í boy in Yazd whose mom was friends with Darius’s mom growing up, and who has been treated as a sort of surrogate grandson by Darius’s grandparents. He’s a bit ostracized due to being in the religious minority, and so he can easily recognize how lonely Darius is.

I never really had a friend like Sohrab growing up. I had great, close friends, and have since I was very young, but our friendships grew and blossomed much more gradually. I didn’t have the sort of intense, instantaneous friendship that Darius has with Sohrab until I was an adult.

TRC: Another huge component of Sohrab and Darius’s relationship is that Sohrab calls Darius “Darioush,” the original Persian version of his name. Why did you choose to make this distinction? What effect does Darius’s new name have on him?

AK: There’s no separate Anglicized spelling of Adib, but there are differences in pronunciation between Americans and Iranians. When I’m around mostly Iranians, I find myself thinking of myself with the Iranian pronunciation; and then, when I’m home again that feeling lingers for a while. Our names are so personal, and for most people they hear the same name all the time. It can be a weird feeling to suddenly hear something different and still have it mean you.

TRC: When he returns to America, Darius has to figure out how to blend the best parts of both Darius and Darioush. Can you talk about these different sides of his personality and what it means for Darius to start to converge them?

AK: I never really thought of it as Darius converging them; he comes to the realization that he had always had these parts of himself, and he is learning to accept them. He learns that it’s okay to be Iranian, and yet not; that it’s okay to be depressed; that his family is complicated but they still love him; and that people can surprise him, if he gives them the chance.

TRC: Last of all, can you give us any hints about what you are working on next? Do you have any advice for other aspiring authors?

AK: No hints about what I’m working on next, I’m afraid…I tend to play things pretty close while I’ve got something in the works. What I can say is that I am, indeed, working on something.

It’s been my experience that no one piece of advice works for everyone, so my advice is: try out lots of advice and see what works for you.

But I will add that the best advice I’ve ever gotten was from Janet Reid, who said to take a favorite book and type the whole thing out for myself. Doing so taught me more about the craft of writing than anything else.