Contemporary Literature · Young Adult

Darius the Great Is Not Okay

Funny story about how this one found its way onto my shelves. One of our major vices (if you will), nutritionally, is pop tarts. We eat a lot of them. If you are curious, my partner is a “brown sugar cinnamon” person. And I alternate between “chocolate chip cookie dough” and “unfrosted strawberry” (I know, I know – it’s gross). Anyways, some time in the past year or two they ran a promotion that each box of pop tarts bought and logged through Kellogg’s website got you a choice of a free book. It was a limited selection, but I found a couple great ones (including purchasing my own copy of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, which is a phenomenal read). And I had heard a few good things about Darius the Great, so I chose that one as well. It sat unread for a while, as books often do around here, but I just got to it and goodness I’m glad I did. Between Mexican Daughter and this one, talk about some powerful YA lit.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius lives in Portland, is in high school (and is better with Star Trek and LOTR than he is with social life), works in a tea shop (he’s obsessed with tea), and is clinically depressed (inherited from his father). Darius is about to travel with his family, for the first time ever, to Iran to visit family there because his grandfather’s health is failing. When he arrives, things are so different. He doesn’t speak Farsi nearly as well as his younger sister, he is struggling to connect with family he’s only ever met through a computer screen, and he is really feeling the full, distancing, impact of being a “fractional Persian.” But he meets a family neighbor, Sohrab, who is around his age and things start to feel different. Sohrab shows him around, invites him to play soccer, gets him an Iranian National Football Team jersey, makes everyone speak English so Darius doesn’t feel left out and just generally turns out to be Darius’s first really close friend. As the trip goes by, Darius also starts to forge some deeper connections with his family (maybe, even, his dad?), with his country of ancestry in general, and faces some tough truths of growing up along the way.

Like I said, this was a really powerful story. And yet Khorram still manages to present it in the most wonderfully authentic adolescent voice. Darius’ is such a unique story-telling voice, with lots of science and fandom metaphors/descriptions and that classic sarcastic teen vibe. It’s the perfect example of addressing the real, and truly serious, life events that young adults must deal with, while simultaneously keeping it true to their appropriate emotional and developmental stage. Basically, what I’m saying is that the writing is awesome (and, as I also listened to the audiobook – the narration was fantastic as well).

Topically, the book had a great balance of lighter stuff and heavier stuff. There’s making friends and (healthy) sibling relationships and personal hobbies (tea and Star Trek and soccer), overall humor, traveling and sightseeing and learning about one’s heritage/culture, and more. But there were also quite a few moments that were deeply emotional. As a primary point, the familial effects of depression were so well explored. Between what the reader can only assume (and it is later confirmed) is his father’s guilt for “passing on” depression to Darius and the complication of depression for Darius at an age that is already emotionally fraught, it’s really no wonder that the relationship between Darius and his father is strained. It also made their moment of openness together with each other at the end that much more impactful (I for sure shed some tears).

The other major theme was the cultural split for Darius. Since he was born in the US (and had never been to Iran before), plus he didn’t learn/use Farsi growing up like his sister, but he has a “weird” name and loves tea, he really felt a certain way about his “fractional” Persian status. And that was only exacerbated by being in Iran, at least to start. But then after some time there, and some bonding with Sohrab, he was able to pull out the parts of himself that connected with his Persian heritage even more, to find his “True Persian” aspects. It was touching and, overall, a well done representation of straddling two cultures and feeling separated from each, as a result.

I also want to note, because it may not have been a major point, but it was something that I took away, that Khorram does a nice job exemplifying how societally constructed/implemented certain striations are (cultural and racial and religious). We all know the ones in our own countries because we are socialized into them (like Darius being called a terrorist by classmates). But then in Iran, he doesn’t realize/have a reference for how people discriminate against Sohrab based on religious reasons, because it’s foreign to him…and therefore not obvious. And it’s just a great way to show just how much these differences don’t actually mean anything – they’re all superficial and shouldn’t have any bearing on the way people treat or interact with each other. Anyways, it wasn’t as central a point, but it was strikingly illustrated for me. 

This was a spectacular novel, objectively, not just in a YA sense. But there is a great YA feel to it as well. I laughed at it, I got emotional with it, and I appreciated the tough and sometimes less talked about topics Khorram addresses (especially regarding mental health). Overall, a really moving and heartfelt celebration of family, identity, and Iranian/Persian culture, history and tradition in all its forms.

4 thoughts on “Darius the Great Is Not Okay

  1. I recently got a copy of this one because I liked the cover. I’m grateful for your review because it’s increased my interest in it. I didn’t really know what it’s about, but now I look forward to reading it. It sounds like one that several members of my fam could probably relate to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I honestly wasn’t totally sure what it was about before picking it up either, but I am so glad that I read it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And if you have family that might relate, I feel like it’s likely to be even more affecting.


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