It's okay not to be okay. That's the essential message of a new book for young adult readers by Kansas City author Adib Khorram.
Darius The Great is Not Okay follows a boy with an Iranian mom and teutonic, white-guy dad through the cruelty and tenderness of adolescence. Darius lives in Portland. He struggles with depression. He's bullied at school, and he's unsure of his place at home. He doesn't speak Farsi, like his mom and sister, and he's convinced he's a disappointment to his dad. His only comforts come from hot tea and Star Trek.
As the book begins, Darius's grandfather falls ill. Suddenly, without warning, the whole family's packing for a month-long trip to Iran, a place he's never been, to stay with grandparents he's only met via Skype.
For the rest of the book, Darius has to piece together conflicting aspects of his existence. He is part of the family, and he's also an outsider. He is Persian and not-Persian. He wants friends, but he's afraid of rejection. He is okay and not okay.
The author grew up in Kansas City, not Portland, and his dad's the Iranian one, not his mom. But otherwise, Khorram's own background has a lot in common with his protagonist's.
Khorram's dad came to the US in the 1970s, for school. That's how he met Khorram's mom.
"They toyed with the idea of moving to Iran to start a family, but when the Islamic Revolution happened, they kind of put the kabosh on that and raised me and my sister here."
Gladstone, to be specific. Like Darius, Khorram was a misfit.
"Part of that is probably just my personality," he says. "Even as a kid, I was a little bossy, a little too big for my britches. ... Compounded with that was the fact that I was at school with kids named, you know, Mike and Amber, and my name was Adib."
Khorram was in high school during the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. When it became apparent that the perpetrators were Middle-Eastern, his name and skin color went from being merely unfamiliar to being something his peers sometimes saw as a threat.
"I did get flippantly called a terrorist more than once," he recalls. "In a weird way, it did make me have to be more vocal about being Iranian, if only to deflect a certain animosity."
It wasn't until college that he felt comfortable embracing Iranian culture on his own terms: through dance music and learning to make his favorite Iranian foods.
The writing about depression comes from experience, too. He spent a lot of time in middle school and high school seeing therapists and trying out different combinations of medications to treat his illness before things began to even back out.
"I've heard it said that writing is one of the cheapest forms of therapy, and I'm sure I still have way more neuroses packed in there from my high school years," he says. "I was kind of at the lowest point of my own life with depression. ... I think it was my hope to dredge up and reconcile some of the things I felt about high school and also give kids today a mirror or window to see themselves, or someone like them."
Unlike Darius, however, Khorram has never actually been to Iran. There are a lot of reasons for that. Firstly, Khorram's dad and his family practice the Bahai faith, which opened him up to violence and persecution growing up. That would still constitute a danger for his father today. Secondly, given the state of relations between the US and Iran today, he worries both about being denied entry into Iran, and being denied re-entry to the US after his trip.
He does want to go to Iran someday, but he's not sure he will.
"As a child of an Iranian, there's a part of me that doesn't really want to go back unless I can go back with my dad," Khorram says. "And he's not particularly keen on returning right now."
Khorram's desire to connect with the culture, geography and even architecture of Iran is something you can feel in his vivid and loving descriptions of the place, as seen through the eyes of his teenage protagonist.
In the book, Darius realizes that a boy his age, who lives in his grandparents' neighborhood, has spent more time with his grandparents than he has. His friend assures him that his place was merely empty before. But when asked if there is an empty place for him in Iran, Khorram demures.
"To a certain extent, yes, but to a certain extent no. I think you have to kind of want that place. And while I would love to see where my father grew up, with things the way they are, it doesn't call to my heart that much."
Editor's Note: This story has been edited to fix the spelling of Adib Khorram's last name.