“Everyone wants you here. We have a saying in Farsi. It translates ‘your place was empty.’ We say it when we miss somebody.
“Your place was empty before. But this is your family. You belong here.”
Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Genre: Young Adult
Published by Dial Books, 2018
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Indiana
Sometimes Young Adult books are too focused on talking about certain “teenage” subjects and not enough on just telling a great story. With all of the coming-of-age, mental health, and culture-clashing issues that arise in Darius the Great is Not Okay, that could easily have been the case.
Luckily, Khorram stays focused on telling a genuinely good story, one that is relatable to just about anyone, even to those who have little in common with Darius, the protagonist who is a tea-expert, a Fractional Persian, and speaks nerd better than Farsi.
Darius comes from a mixed family, his mother is Persian and his father is American. At the start of the book, they find out that his grandfather has cancer and the diagnosis doesn’t look good. For the first time in his lifetime and in his sister, Laleh’s lifetime, the family heads to Iran.
There Darius meets his entire family and gets a crash course in all things Iranian, including Taarofing, a social cue or interaction that I found fascinating. It means to put others before oneself — “In practice it means when someone offers to come to your house, you have to offer them food; but since your guest is supposed to taarof, they have to refuse; and then you, the host, must taarof back, insisting that it’s really no trouble at all, and that they absolutely must eat; and so on, until one party gets too bewildered and finally gives in.”
Darius also meets Sohrab, a boy who lives next door to his grandparents. They hit it off really well and Sohrab becomes the first real friend that Darius has ever had. Sohrab somehow brings Darius out of his shell, but also gives allows him to show emotions and talk about what it’s like living with depression. In Iran, most of Darius’ family members don’t understand depression, and ask him “What are you sad about?”
Darius’ father also has depression and even though it brings them together in some ways, for most of their lives, it’s pulled them apart. His father is guilty that he passed it to Darius and is hard on him because of it, which makes Darius feel worse. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also an interesting and genuine-seeming development of a father-son relationship.
Even though I’ve read plenty of books set in Iran, I feel like I learned so much more about this culture and some of the nuanced traditions from reading this book. Because you get to look at it through the eyes of an American who is only vaguely familiar with the culture, it’s easier to understand. Though Darius the Great is Not Okay does focus more on the good parts of Iran, like the beautiful architecture and the close-knit families, it doesn’t necessarily shy away from the negatives. There’s discussion of protests and what happens to people who disagree with the government, as well as the intense fighting between people of different religious beliefs.
I really enjoyed Darius the Great is Not Okay and I recommend it to anyone looking for a good Young Adult book, especially if you like Star Trek or The Lord of the Rings. Darius makes a nearly overwhelming number of jokes and references around these two series, but I loved them because they helped to round out his character (it helped that I love The Lord of the Rings too).