Darius The Great Is Actually Much Better Than “Okay”

There was a point last Monday when I was asked to blow my nose for a coronavirus test and thought to myself, this is a level-six awkward experience, and subsequently realized that my new favorite book was slowly taking over my life. 

Darius The Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram was one of just many books on my Christmas wish list, and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was. The book follows the perspective of sixteen-year-old Darius Kellner of Portland, Oregon, a generally awkward teen who loves tea, Star Trek, and Lord of The Rings. When his maternal grandfather is diagnosed with brain cancer, his whole family packs up to visit him in Yazd, Iran. There’s just one problem: Darius has never been to Iran, and unlike his younger sister Laleh, he doesn’t know the language.  

Darius struggles with feeling like he is only a “Fractional Persian” because his father, Stephen, is white while his mother grew up in Iran. These feelings are only exacerbated when he arrives in Iran for the first time. Worse, Darius frequently receives scrutiny from his father over just about everything he does. It is only in Yazd that Darius, who is often bullied at school, makes his first real friend– Sohrab– and finally figures out who he is. 

It has been a while since I took Middle Eastern Studies in tenth grade, so I knew next to nothing about modern Iranian culture before reading this book. Still, Khorram explains everything throughout the book, including pronunciation, history, and religion. Khorram gives the reader a personal tour of everywhere the Kellners visit, from the bright buildings of Yazd to the gorgeous ruins of Persepolis. The book provides believable insight into Darius’s character, who classifies everything into levels: the Level-Five awkwardness of making tea with his grandfather, the Level-Nine pimple he calls Olympus Mons, and the Level-Eight embarrassment following his first “Non-American football” match in Iran. 

The best part of the book, in my opinion, is the friendship between Darius and Sohrab. Sohrab is Darius’s grandparents’ neighbor, and they are each other’s first real friend. Watching them play soccer, celebrate Nowruz, and climb the chain-link fence at the park together is incredibly sweet. The two friends lead very different lives, but they are still able to find common ground. 

The central relationship explored is that between Darius and his father, Stephen Kellner. Darius believes that eight-year-old Laleh was a replacement for all of his faults, such as the weight he gained from his depression medication, his just-average math grades, and the fact that he gets bullied all the time. He feels inadequate compared to Laleh and just wants his dad to love him too.

Adib Khorram himself is Iranian-American and said in an interview that he “hopes Iranian readers will come away with a little warmth in their hearts from seeing themselves on the page.” He also said that as someone who has depression, he wanted to write a character who had depression that didn’t consume them. After all, mental health is not a person’s defining personality trait. While I do wish there was closure for some of the characters, there is a sequel that came out in the summer of 2020, Darius The Great Deserves Better, which I recently read and enjoyed. It continued Darius’s story in a way that felt different but was still interesting. 

Darius The Great Is Not Okay is a feel-good book perfect for right now, when everything seems to be up in the air. I would recommend it for anyone over the age of twelve or thirteen who is curious about Iran. This book is for you if you enjoyed reading Persepolis in ninth grade and love young adult literature. Teenagers these days are, without a doubt, dealing with a lot. So is Darius, who just wants to be a good brother, keep the dancing fan in his room from falling over, escape his bullies (the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy), and maybe get that internship at Rose City Teas. He feels like a real person, and knowing that there are actual kids out there who identify with Darius makes the experience all the more valuable. 

You can find Darius the Great Is Not Okay (312 pages) on iBooks and Amazon, and it is available at most local bookstores and the Dana Hall Library. 

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