Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Dial Books, August 2018
Reviewed from hardcover
Plot Summary: “Fractional Persian” Darius knows Klingon better than Farsi. This bodes well for Darius and his white father: their mutual love for all things Star Trek is one of the few things they have in common besides their chronic depression. But when Darius and his family go to Iran to visit his mother’s ailing father, Darius’ unfamiliarity with his Persian heritage leaves him feeling like even more of an outcast than he does at home in Portland, Oregon. As Darius struggles with his sense of self, a Bahá’í teen named Sohrab shows Darius what acceptance can feel like. The two boys strike up a powerful friendship. But can it stand the test of long distance when Darius returns home to America?
Queer Content: Mostly implied via subtext, Darius’ queerness falls into the realm of questioning. The isolation Darius feels as a “Fractional Persian” parallels his own isolation as a queer person, creating a moving intersectional portrait of what it’s like to be outside the mainstream in multiple ways. Queer teens—Iranian or not—will undoubtedly connect to Darius, whether it’s his insecurity, his depression, or his family dynamics.
What drew me in the most is the relationship between Darius and Sohrab. While Darius certainly doesn’t need to have feelings for Sohrab for this to be a queer story, readers can pick up on Darius wondering exactly where on the scale his feelings for Sohrab lie. Rather than pining for Sohrab, though, Darius’s thoughts about him read as questions. In one scene, Darius notes “Sohrab squinted at me, and the knot of nerves in my chest melted a little bit” (106). The next line: “Some friends just have that effect on you” (106). Darius never refers to Sohrab as anything other than a friend, even when adults in the text try to insinuate that it could be something more.
In an interview at LGBTQ Reads, Khorram said that “it’s important and true to show that the love between two friends […] can be as life-shattering as a romance.” While I like that reading of the text, I’m also willing to throw authorial intent out the window—as I’m sure any award committee would anyway.
The relationship between Darius and Sohrab contains so many implications without any sort of on-the-page confirmation. But what we do get besides their heartwarming mutual understanding is equally heartwarming physical contact. By homphobic American masculinity standards, physical touch between two men implies attraction. But this text actively resists that toxic masculinity, allowing readers to picture Sohrab squeezing Darius’s shoulder or putting his arm around him. Given the social context of Iran (where same-sex intercourse is illegal), their relationship couldn’t really progress beyond that without subjecting the two boys to danger. In my eyes, that makes the story all the more moving.
Final Word: This is one of the best debuts I have read in a long time. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Darius, the setting, or the writing. I hope the Stonewall Committee will hold Darius in their hearts as I do.
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