DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY Author Adib Khorram on Language and Identity

Darius Kellner has never fit in. His mom is Iranian, and his dad is white. He doesn’t really speak Farsi, but his little sister, Laleh, does. He’s into Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and tea. Not many people at his high school in Portland, Oregon, share those interests. He also has depression, which doesn’t make anything easier.

When his family goes on a trip to Iran, Darius is introduced not only to family members he’s never met (including his grandparents) but also to the boy down the street, Sohrab, who will become his first best friend.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay, by debut author Adib Khorram, is a wonderful story about learning and accepting who you are and where you come from, and how to connect with the people who matter. It’s a heartwarming tale about friendship and family. It’s also a look at another culture that many listeners may not be familiar with. Khorram creates a vibrant picture of Iran—its people, its food, and its history.

The author shared with us the importance of language, the challenges of using Farsi in the novel, and of finding the perfect narrator.


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It should surprise no one that Darius the Great Is Not Okay is filled with Farsi, the language of Iran. But the narrator, Darius Kellner, an Iranian-American teenager, barely speaks or understands it. He knows plenty of food words and enough politeness phrases to get by, but by and large the language is a mystery to him. His little sister, Laleh, speaks it more or less fluently, but Darius missed out on being taught as he was growing up.

When he and his family arrive in Iran, that lack of language sets him apart—even as it presents an opportunity for him to learn and connect with his grandparents, his new friend Sohrab, and his heritage.

Much like Darius, I grew up knowing very little Farsi. Now that I’m an adult, I know a little more, but it’s far from conversational. I can’t string a phrase together to save my life, or follow the thread of a conversation, but I know just enough that I can sometimes tell what in general is being discussed.

When I first started writing Darius the Great Is Not Okay, I knew fairly early on that Darius’s own Farsi skills and insecurities would mirror my own. Not so much because I wanted Darius to be like me, but because my own experience with language reflected that of so many other children of diaspora. I’ve had friends and classmates from across the globe, first- and second-generation Americans who had a complicated relationship to their mother- or father-tongue, who felt less-than or not-quite because they couldn’t speak the language that so much of their family could.

I’m not the only one who had to communicate with their grandparents through a family member translating. I’m not the only one who missed out on jokes or stories because they were impossible to translate. I’m not the only one who felt just a little bit left out of things.

When it came time to bring Darius to life in audiobook form, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I’d been told I’d get some input in casting, but beyond that, would I be able to offer advice on the language in the book? Was I even qualified to do so?

Was the language as important as getting the characters right? Is it even possible to divorce the two?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to make that choice. Narrator Michael Levi Harris breathed life into Darius in a way that startled and amazed me, but he also displayed a way with Farsi that made me confident the audiobook would be a faithful adaptation not only of Darius’s internal life, but of his family life.

And to make sure the adaptation was as accurate as possible, I even got to record pronunciations for it. Yazd, where Darius’s family (and indeed my own) is from, is known for having a somewhat idiomatic Farsi accent.

Suddenly I was in charge of speaking so many words that I’d never truly spoken aloud before. Of course I knew them: I’d written them, I’d heard them spoken, I’d called my father up and made sure I was rendering the phonetics accurately. But I’d never felt them on my own lips.

It’s a strange thing to feel your own heritage coming to life. To speak the same words your family has spoken.

In a wonderful and unexpected way, working on the Darius audiobook brought me closer to my own linguistic heritage.

I still don’t speak Farsi very well at all. But maybe I speak it a little better. Maybe I learned a little bit.

And maybe that’s the most rewarding part of it all.

 


Producer Aaron Blank shares how he cast Darius the Great Is Not Okay:

Darius the Great could have been a simple book to cast. It’s not hard to find actors who sound like a teenager. But when you need that actor to also sound authentically Persian when he and his family go to Iran, then things get complicated. I had thought I’d find an actor with those skills in LA, as it is home to the largest Persian population outside of Iran. No luck at all. I put out a call to some casting agents here in NYC, and one came through. Michael Levi Harris is an American ex-pat who lives in London. He’s a polyglot, and if he doesn’t speak the language he can perform the accent. And Persian is one of his talents. Who knew I’d find my perfect voice in the UK!

Learn more about Darius the Great is Not Okay:

Darius the Great Is Not Okay

“Darius is a well-crafted, awkward but endearing character, and his cross-cultural story will inspire reflection about identity and belonging.” –School Library Journal, starred review

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