High school student Darius doesn’t fit into American life or Iranian life in the warm hearted “Darius the Great is Not Okay” (Dial 2018) by Adib Khorram. Named after the great Iranian leader Darioush, Darius visits his mother’s family for the first time, in Iran.
His eight year old sister Laleh speaks Farsi, which Darius never learned because his mother had wanted her firstborn to be truly American. But this keeps Darius isolated at his grandparents’ house in Yazd. Darius’s father, Stephen Kellerman, is Scandinavian, or as Darius says, “a Teutonic UberMensche.”
Darius, a sensitive and clinically depressed boy, meets the neighbor and says,
“No one ever threw their arm over my shoulder the way Sohrab did. Like it was perfectly fine to do that sort of thing to another guy. Like that was a thing friends did to each other. Sohrab had no walls inside. I loved that about him.” And so will the reader. Friendship outside America—in another culture—is enlightening.
Nowruz is sort of like our Christmas. About his dark moods, Darius says, “I hated that I couldn’t make it through a Nowruz party without experiencing Mood Slingshot Maneuvers.” But Sohrab understands him, smiles at Darius and Darius ends up laughing.
When Darius feels he doesn’t belong, Sohrab says, “Your place was empty.” And now Darius is filling it. What a great concept! You alone can be you. About friendship Darius says, “I loved being Sohrab’s friend. I loved who being Sohrab’s friend made me.”
Darius feels that his whole family is disappointed in him. “My chest felt heavy, like someone had dropped a planet on me.” At times it’s laugh-out-loud funny, oftentimes due to the kinetic recognition the reader gets, with the author’s use of images: “Without the shade of Babou’s (grandfather’s) fig trees, the neighborhood was a luminous white, so bright, I was certain I could feel my optic nerves cooking.”
Or they drive in Babou’s old van—“the Smokemobile.” “The Black Breath enveloped us again, heavy with the scent of burnt hair and scorched popcorn and hint of The End of All Things.” Or: “I held out my hand to the other boy, who had lost the genetic lottery and ended up with the dreaded Persian Unibrow.”
Smells are such a powerful way to convey a culture: “But the steam-filled air was bursting with the scents of turmeric and dill and rice and salmon and dried Persian limes.” There’s a lot of time spent on food, causing this reader’s mouth to water, and a good deal of time on tea.
“Taarof” is a “Primary Social Cue” for Iranians, encompassing hospitality and respect and politeness all in one. “Would you like a cup of tea? No. Please. I don’t want to put you out. I’d love to make you a cup of tea. Well, yes, thank you.” It’s bewildering to Darius who calls himself a “Fractional Persian” rather than a “True Persian.” And: “Rook is a card game that, as far as I can tell, is encoded into all True Persians at the cellular level.”
What a great way to get insight into another culture. And rejoice in family and friendship.
Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award winning Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue among others talesforallages.com