From the opening pages of Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut Darius the Great is Not Okay, it is painfully clear how much truth there is in the title. Darius Kellner, the sweet and immediately endearing teenage narrator, is struggling. For starters, Darius is a target at school. His taste in pop culture gravitates towards the nerdy, he is somewhat obsessed with tea (provided it is properly brewed and unsweetened), his medication makes him gain weight, and he is half-Persian, exposing him to the lamest and cruelest Islamophobic taunts the bullies at school can concoct.
If these problem aren’t enough, Darius is also feeling isolated from his family. His mother’s side lives in Iran and while his mom and little sister speak Farsi, Darius’s language skills are undeveloped. Whenever they gather around the computer for a video chat, Darius can’t help but feel like an outsider. He also fears that he perpetually disappoints his father. Darius seems to have inherited very little from him: not his fair all-American looks, his math skills, nor his ability to blend-in and “be normal.” They only have two things in common, clinical depression and a love for Star Trek. As the gulf between father and son widens, Darius sadly reasons that his younger sister is his replacement – a chance for his parents to get things right.
When his grandfather’s health takes a turn for the worse, Darius’s parents decide it is time to travel to Iran and meet his mother’s family. Darius is apprehensive about this trip but also eager to discover connections to his family and his people’s history. In Yazd, the city his family calls home, Darius continues to struggle to find acceptance. His grandfather and uncles tease him about his weight and are puzzled that a healthy young American boy would need medication (antidepressants) to be happy. In Yazd, Darius also makes a friend, perhaps his first best friend, a teen named Sohrab who lives down the street. Sohrab has had his own struggles with intolerance and oppression and he seems to understand Darius and embrace his individuality. His friendship with Sohrab allows Darius to see himself in a new light – as someone who might belong. But he is aware that their time together is running short and he must figure out how to reconcile the version of Darius he has discovered in Iran with the life waiting for him at home.
This is a special book on several levels. Khorram notes in the book’s afterword that he “wanted to show how depression can affect a life without ruling it” and he strikes that balance masterfully. I appreciated that it is just one small part of who Darius is. It does not define him. Novels that deal with mental illness often focus on diagnosis and characters’ struggles to win their lives back. Many of these works are compassionate, essential works for young readers, but it is also important for youths to have books like this one where depression is a detail in the story, not the story itself.
Khorram also skillfully weaves family history and Iranian cultural heritage into his book without ever distracting from Darius’s powerful struggles with identity and self-worth. Like real relationships, those in this book are nuanced, weighed down by past hurts, miscommunications, and words left unsaid. But this book is also about a loving family, determined to reconnect and support each other despite sometimes not knowing how to do so. Rooting for Darius as he bonds with his grandparents and navigates Iranian customs, family politics, and traumas big and small is incredibly rewarding. Darius is a character you won’t want to leave and won’t soon forget.