Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s about to take his first-ever trip to Iran, and it’s pretty overwhelming–especially when he’s also dealing with clinical depression, a disapproving dad, and a chronically anemic social life. In Iran, he gets to know his ailing but still formidable grandfather, his loving grandmother, and the rest of his mom’s family for the first time. And he meets Sohrab, the boy next door who changes everything.
Sohrab makes sure people speak English so Darius can understand what’s going on. He gets Darius an Iranian National Football Team jersey that makes him feel like a True Persian for the first time. And he understands that sometimes, best friends don’t have to talk. Darius has never had a true friend before, but now he’s spending his days with Sohrab playing soccer, eating rosewater ice cream, and sitting together for hours in their special place, a rooftop overlooking the Yazdi skyline.
Sohrab calls him Darioush–the original Persian version of his name–and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab. When it’s time to go home to America, he’ll have to find a way to be Darioush on his own.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay might have made me weep openly on the bus, but it was also an effortless favourite. I adored this book; adored it for its wonderful and genuine explorations of biracial identity, our bonds with people, and living with mental illness. This character-driven story tells of Darius; a Persian-American teen who follows his family to Iran to visit family that he has only ever met through Skype. There, he navigates unfamiliar familial landscapes, meets the enigmatic and charming Sohrab, and discovers what it means to be Darius and Dariush.
ABOUT AN ENDEARING TEEN NAVIGATING IRAN AND HIS IDENTITY
Darius the Great Is Not Okay follows eponymous protagonist Darius, a Persian-American teen who follows his family to Iran to visit his grandparents and, in particular, his ailing grandfather. I adored Darius; adored his geeky narrative voice, his shyness, his vulnerability, his awkwardness, how much he loves his little sister Laleh, and his way of seeing and describing the world (especially using Star Trek references to describe the simple to complex social interactions that he observes). Moreover, Darius was flawed but in a way that was endearing and genuine. In particular, Darius may be quirky, but he also hurt easy; I empathised so deeply with his sensitivity, his hurts, and it reminded me so much of when I was a teen.
An integral of of Darius the Great Is Not Okay was its exploration of biracial identity. Set predominantly in Iran, a place that Darius has never visited before, Darius learns more about his Persian side – from taarof to exploring places pertaining to his heritage to learning more about his namesake, Darius I (or Darius the Great). Indeed, Darius learns to navigate his Iranian family’s dynamics, the berth between English and Farsi, and cultural differences, and the story explores his experiences and feelings through it all. Indeed, Darius the Great Is Not Okay candidly explores the ups and downs of self-discovery, confronting different perspectives, reconciling how others perceive you, as well as coming to terms with what it means to be Persian and American, and how the two can sometimes feel at odds with each other.
EXPLORES THE BONDS WE HAVE WITH PEOPLE
Significant to the story is Darius’s relationships with his family, in particular those he meets in Iran and with his father. I really loved Khorram’s portrayal of the sometimes fraught, sometimes awkward, and sometimes tender relationships that Darius had with his Iranian family, particularly his grandparents, and it portrays the bittersweet reality that, sometimes, family is family but geographical or cultural distance will maintain rifts between people. It’s a conflicting feeling I am familiar with – that perhaps I will ‘love’ them because they are family, but I will never have that meaningful and close connection because of distance.
Within Darius’s story, two relationships take center stage and play an integral role of shaping the trajectory of his stay in Iran. One was the friendship between Darius and Sohrab, the enigmatic, kind, and charming Persian boy who befriends Darius through playing football. Though opposites, Darius and Sohrab are two lonely boys who understand each other, can be vulnerable with one another, and, through their friendship with each other, grow to accept some truths about their lives. Juxtaposed with this was the father and son relationship between Darius and his father; a relationship filled with unspoken expectations and hurt, misunderstandings, but also had its tender moments, particularly when they watched Star Trek: Next Generation together. The two, Sohrab and Darius’s father, are like two magnetic poles, with Darius pulled from one to the next in times of hurt, loneliness, and then conflict. The ending of the book, and how both relationships are resolved, moved me so much that I wept openly on the bus. (And I have no regrets!)
THE CLASH BETWEEN MENTAL ILLNESS AND CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING
Two facts: Darius lives with depression and he takes medication for it. What’s rare about Darius the Great Is Not Okay is that the narrative does not center on Darius’s depression and any struggles associated with it. Indeed, Darius the Great Is Not Okay is not, what I would call, a ‘book about mental illness’. Rather, the story has a protagonist that lives with depression; it is a part of him, it is a part of his daily life, and it shapes some of his decisions, his perspective, and the way he navigates through challenging times. I appreciated this matter-of-fact portrayal immensely. Although books that explore the experiences associated with mental illness are indeed important and still needed, this approach to representation – characters who simply are – is just as needed in creating cultural spaces where mental illness is something we approach with empathy, understanding, and normal.
The way we talk about mental illness and how we understand mental illness differs across a lot of factors. In this story, Darius quickly learns about the disparity in understanding of mental illness across different people and places. Specifically, his Iranian family ask ‘what he has to be sad about’, a question that would make most of us flinch from its ignorance. But here, Khorram presents a family who don’t have ill-intent when asking this; Darius’s family simply do not understand mental illness. Uncomfortable and hurtful this may be, having to contend with the stigma and ignorance that is still prevalent within our (older) families and wider societies is a reality that a lot of us face. Thus, Khorram’s portrayal of a loving but ignorant family highlights that ignorance is larger than one individual; that it is society, and sometimes, in the face of our distant family members, we have to decide what to accept and when to challenge, thus reflecting the importance of global understanding of mental illness.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
I don’t think my review of Darius the Great Is Not Okay does the book itself much justice. This book was wonderful, evocative, and so full of heart. Importantly, Darius the Great Is Not Okay is an important book, one that contains wonderful and vital themes and explorations that Persian, biracial, bicultural, and mentally ill teens need today. I loved Darius and this story immensely; it was one of my favourite reads of 2018, and I cannot wait to see what other stories Khorram will write next.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A Persian-American teen visits Iran for the first time, learns more about his Persian side, and befriends a Persian boy there.
Perfect for: Readers who like reading about identity; biracial readers looking for biracial representation; like reading about complex family dynamics; want to read mental illness representation but not a book about mental illness.
Think twice if: If you aren’t a fan of unconventional narrative voices; some of the characters (Darius’s family) express ignorance/ableist comments about depression.
Genre: young adult contemporary
Trigger/content warnings: terminally ill family member, racism, fat-shaming.
I loved this book so much; loved its mental illness rep, its exploration of family, and Darius’s geeky, awkward, and earnest self. I honestly can’t wait to read what Khorram writes next, though Goodreads tells me that he already has an Untitled book lined up!
The summary is:
A contemporary stand-alone that takes place in a Kansas City high school. The main character is a GSA President with some serious Leslie-Knope-ish tendencies.
And I’m confident that whatever Khorram writes, I will love.
- Have you read Darius the Great Is Not Okay? What did you think of it?
- Do you have any recommendations of books that explore family or identity?
- What are some of your favourite books with mental illness representation?