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Darius really is great

darius cover.jpgDarius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram.  Dial Books 2018.

Hardcover, 316 pages.  YA Fiction. Ages 12+

Darius G Kellner is not okay.

In his hometown of Portland, Oregon:

He’s bullied at school (and now at his place of employment) by “Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy.” Darius sarcastic observation of school policies are a gift.

He has no real friends.

He has a strained relationship with his father; whom he often calls Übermensch; “I know dad wished I was more like him.” and who harasses him about “dietary indiscretions.”

His maternal grandfather’s health is declining.

He is being treated for depression; which none of the troubles listed prior to or after this has anything to do with—at least, not in the way depression is culturally diagnosed.*

In his mother’s hometown of Yazd, Iran:

He has trouble connecting to his dying grandfather, Babou, whom he knows only as this Babou, not the Babou from before the tumor.

His relationship with his father worsens, and the fear that his sister was born as a replacement child strengthens—which strains his feelings toward her.

That his mother did not teach him much Farsi becomes an especially painful sticking point; especially since she is responsible for his younger sister’s fluency.

One uncle tells him he’s fat, and the other doesn’t find him Persian enough. Thanks to his father Stephen Kellner, Darius is a “Fractional Persian.”

There is a local chapter of Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy, and yet again, he’s a target.

New best friend troubles.

Slingshot maneuvers.

Darius, really is great though.

He has a passion for tea; and he uses it to care for people.

He loves his family, even though he struggles to like some of them.

He is a fantastic older brother.

The way he talks about Sohrab and Mamou is the best reading ever.

He is a serious fan of The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. Khorram is masterful in how these two interests are woven into Darius’ narration. I had to ask my husband to stop what he was doing so I could read our introduction to Darius’ cousin Nazgol and his thoughts on Picard. (I actually interrupted him to read several times.)

He learns that he might actually be good at something athletic (football/soccer), which makes him more comfortable in his body and offers him community with his peers.

His longing to connect with people, his curiosity, is beautiful.

I love the depth of his feelings and how they do not only elicit an empathetic response of pain, but also shared self-deprecation and humor. Darius is too endearing to laugh at and irrepressible enough keep us from despairing—this has everything to do with how he’s written.

Khorram maintains that difficult tension of levity and the deadly serious. That charm isn’t effortless. One cannot afford to undermine the other; which I think this novel is so rare in teen fiction.** Darius is neither pathetic, nor to be pitied; which I think is what happens when you try to write a human being, not an idea or trope or lesson plan.

Another balance I enjoyed in Khorram’s novel is in its cultural educational and emotional weight. Khorram navigates language lessons, customs, traditions, food, and a foreign setting with a deftness that is no doubt helped by creating such an engaging voice and mind in his protagonist-narrator. That those interactions that provide cultural insight and learning appear natural is helped by Darius’ curiosity and his mother’s familial interest in teaching him about where he is from. These cultural identity lessons are woven into his tension with his father, his sense of difference, yet his longing to see himself in his father—and not only in the ways Darius and his father find themselves alienated from their Persian family.

Not only does Darius the Great offer a cultural glimpse for those of us less familiar, Khorram is also offering a glimpse inside narrative of someone living with depression. He is conscientious in the dialog and his portrayal of Darius, that depression is not a consequence of (in)action or an emotional state. It affects the way Darius moves about in the world, like other things he either inherited or did not choose for himself. He is conscious of how depression colors his perception and contributes to his sense of self. His time in Iran making friends and learning more about himself, offers him an opportunity to see himself beyond his depression. When he returns, he thinks about how Darioush (the Persian form of his name) would try out for soccer.

Khorram does a lot of educational and emotional work in Darius the Great is Not Okay, but the reading is effortless. Darius is engaging as a first person point of view, utterly distinct and compelling. Listen to these lines Khorram wrote for him:

Deep inside my chest, a main sequence star collapsed under its own gravity.

The quantum singularity in my chest churned, drawing more interstellar dust into its event horizon, sucking up all the light that drew too close.

I like that Khorram when with chapter titles, and how he keeps the story moving. I could see how it would be tempting to stop and speak more to what certain sites or conflicts mean, but Khorram does the difficult yet correct choice of maintaining a narrative focus.

Darius the Great is Not Okay is an entertaining and moving read and easily one of my favorite YA novels this year. That empty place on the shelf had been waiting, and now Khorram has arrived to fill it. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

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*how Stephen Kellner’s own experience with depression affects his relationship with his son creates an important shift in the narrative.

**It reminded me Alexie’s Absolutely True Story….

line clipartIf I were still working at the bookstore, this is the one for that reluctant male reader, and an option for that frustrated shopper in the teen section looking for humor. Darius the Great should also lure the sci-fi fantasy reader into fiction.

Recommended for all the libraries; for lovers of contemporary fiction; for those who like to read beyond their borders; for those with depression and/or straddling two worlds to feel less alone; there are sports; and no romance. For readers of John Green, Patrick Ness, Benjamin Alire Saenz, and Francisco X. Stork; For adult readers of Nick Hornby to consider.

Darius the Great is Not Okay will show up on a lot of lgbtq+ lists/promotions. My understanding is that they are looking at Darius and Sohrab’s relationship, which I had read as a  platonic love story. Darius is an affectionate character and one of the best parts of his visit to Iran is seeing him receive physical affection from relatives and Sohrab. I wasn’t reading more into Darius and Sohrab’s friendship beyond a BFF dynamic:  male friends touching as they were, keeping close proximity, or telling each other how they felt didn’t flag anything for me, but I could see how it could be read in Darius registering a blush or tingling as a first brush with an awakening. Positive depictions of males being sensitive, affectionate, expressive and physically okay in their bodies interacting with other males: needed. More queer romances: also needed.

There is an author’s note about depression, with resources. There are no Persian-related notes: I am not embarrassed to admit I opened a search engine and researched pronunciations (including names, which I highly recommend) and looked up objects, traditions and sites mentioned. You can bet I am going to be doing more research on food.

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