Growing Up Neem-Rooni- An Interview with Adib Khorram
Adib Khorram was born in Kansas City, Missouri to an Iranian father and American mother. He studied theater at university, but later returned to a love of writing. His book Darius the Great is Not Okay is about a neem-Rooni (called fractional Persian in the book) named Darius who is struggling, as most teenagers do, to fit in, while also exploring his Iranian roots. In the book, he visits Iran for the first time. He is frustrated by the feelings of inadequacy of not being able to speak the Persian language, but also demonstrates an apprecation for and understanding of many of the unique aspects of Iranian culture (especially the food and the chai!).
After reading the novel, I wanted to get Adib's perspective on growing up as a Neem-Rooni, and get any insight he would have as to how parents should pass on language and culture to children, and whether or not it's even important to do so.
Listen to the entire interview, or check out the highlights below (edited for length and clarity).
Leyla Shams: Congratulations on your book Darius the Great is Not Okay. I just finished reading it this week and I really loved it. I'm sure you get this a lot, but I wish that this book had been around when I was growing up. There is just so much relatable content in there to go to really enjoyed reading it as a teenager, not just an Iranian teenager, but in general. So thank you for writing this book.
Adib Khorram: Thank you for saying that. I kind of very selfishly did write it for the teenager that was still deep inside and also wished that I could have read a book like that instead of Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
L: This is my first interview with an actual Neem-Rooni which is what I'm calling half Iranians. I see that in your book, you call Darius a fractional Persian. I haven't heard that before. Is that a common term or is it something that you came up with?
A: As far as I know, I came up with it. As Darius has his own way of kind of neurotically grappling with his heritage, I myself usually just say either half Iranian or just say Iranian, because in America and particularly growing up post 9/11, that was all that really mattered.
L: Can you tell me about your background? I guess from your name, obviously, your father is Iranian, right?
A: Yes, he and his whole family grew up in Yazd. And at various times, most of them left Iran and moved to North America. My dad moved actually before the revolution and came to the States to study. And then when the revolution happened, he just didn't go back. Post revolution most of the rest of his family left and settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, but he settled in Missouri, and met my mom who is white and got married and had kids.
L: Do you have brothers and sisters?
A: One older sister.
L: And so what was your experience growing up being half Iranian? Did you learn to speak Persian?
A: We did not learn to speak Farsi. I think part of that is, I know, a lot of my aunts and uncles have kind of made offhanded remarks that it's a mom's job to teach the kids language, which I think is very patriarchal way of looking at it. But also from a more practical level, when me and my sister were very little, there weren't a whole lot of other Iranian families in Kansas City. And so he just didn't know who we would speak it with. As we got older and more Iranians started settling in and around the Kansas City area, we started seeing them. But as a kid, I was just like, Oh, we have to go hang out with the Iranians. As an adult, I realized that I'm not sure my dad really liked some of them either. I think it was more of just searching for any sort of community. And as time passed, he found the ones that he had actual affinity and friendship with and the others we like stopped seeing. That's my assessment, though. Dad if you're listening, I'm sorry if I've thrown you under the bus.
L: And your sibling can't speak? In your book that's a big point of contention between Darius and Laleh. She can speak Persian and he can't, is that something from your own upbringing?
A: That is not, [my sister] also cannot speak Farsi. First I should preface this by saying that as I was writing, I had a very sobering moment when I was doing a little mental math and realized I was closer in age to Darius's parents than I was to Darius himself. And so I got to thinking a lot about what would happen if I had kids. And in particular, the way that I think kind of my experience of being a child of an immigrant has been and seeing other people who are immigrants is the tension between assimilation and retaining your culture. And so in the book, Darius's mom tried to assimilate but I think she came to realize that maybe that was the wrong way. And so she tried to course correct with his little sister, and try to kind of make up for lost time.
L: What's been your relationship with with Farsi growing up like right now? Can you speak it? Or have you had an interest to go back?
A: I have done learn Farsi on tape type things and never got very far because all of them were speaking very formal Tehrani dialect, and my family does not sound like that at all. And so when I would try to practice with my dad, he's like, well, we don't really say that, right? We don't say it that way. And I was like, oh my god. For the most part if I spend enough time visiting my family, I start to absorb it a little bit and can kind of halfway tell what's going on. And then once I'm back home and not speaking with anyone, I forget everything.
L: Do you feel like it is important? I'd love to get your perspective on this.
A: I think it's absolutely crucial. First of all, it's a beautiful language, but to I think, if we picture the cultural iceberg, language is one of the few things that is above the waterline. And for kids of immigrants, connecting them with their language is a very strong way of connecting them with their heritage. And it's a way to understand kind of the deeper parts of their culture. I don't resent my dad at all for not teaching us because he was doing the best he could. And certainly, most of my life it's not exactly been a great time to be Iranian in America. But I definitely miss having that cultural touch point.
L: Okay, because this is the question that we're asking in this podcast a lot. And I'll tell you, everybody who I've interviewed, basically, everyone is Iranian in the US or grown up not in Iran, and they've married non Iranians, and this is the big question that they have. And everyone is struggling with trying to keep up the language when their kids really don't want to learn. So do you have any sort of insight into how to how to approach that with kids that aren't interested at all?
A: So, I have 13 first cousins. And most of them have kids now of varying ages. And what I've seen almost across the board is all of them talked in Farsi to their babies. So the pattern seemed to repeat with just about every kid in that parents would speak in Farsi to the kid grandparents would speak in Farsi to the kid, and the kid would respond in Farsi up until public school started. And immediately the switch to English happened. But what was great is having that foundation, they would still like understand Farsi, even if they were answering in English. Even as some of them are teenagers now, they can still understand pretty much everything that's being said to them. They just don't respond in Farsi. And to me that's sad. It's also great that they have the foundation so that as they get older and no longer have peer pressure to conform, they all have the skill set to be able to speak Farsi when they want to.
L: So you don't believe in like doing some sort of really forceful approach of just speak Farsi with me and, and that's the only way it's going to be.
A: My feeling is that young people have so many pressures on them from school, from society, from the world, that my generation and the generations before us have created that's kind of crappy. For me, I think the most important thing to do is to be able to provide choice for young people. And I say this having no kids of my own, but with my cousins, I always try to give them as much autonomy as I can, and just treat them as tiny adults in some way and let them make their own choices. And let them know that that language is available to them. And all the research I've read, so far, like up to age five, if you're exposed to a language, when you're very young, you're going to retain an ear for it in a way that will make it easier to pick up later in life if you choose to. Whereas if it's unfamiliar, and you're trying to learn it as an adult, it's much much harder. And so my hope is that, you know, that research is borne out and having had that early exposure, even if they choose to not speak it, they will kind of keep that in the back of their mind for when they need it.
L: But from your book, it seems he's very familiar with with a lot of cultural aspects of Iran, like he's very into the food, he knows all about Tarof and about a lot of the cultural aspects. So how did your father pass that on to you?
A: Interestingly, I don't remember being completely aware of it until I was a little bit older, middle school aged. I think when I was younger, I just kind of absorbed things from all around me. And there weren't a whole lot of Iranians around. Every summer, we would go and visit our family up in Vancouver. And that was like being thrown into the deep end of Iranian culture. And it's kind of weird because I would absorb some things but not really understand them. A lot of my understanding and my ability to put words to Iranian culture comes from being an adult, and doing research on Iran, but also going away to college, and no longer having any other Iranians around and then trying to explain my culture to other people.
L: Where did you go to college?
A: I went to college outside of St. Louis, at a university called Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. And no Iranians there. None that I knew. I was in the theater program and there were no Iranians in the theater program. I'm sure there were other Iranians at the school, but I don't think I knew any. Being on my own gave me space to kind of come at the culture on my own terms. And I think that helped me understand it better and to cherish it more. I found myself listening to Iranian music, when I never used to. I mean, I've always loved Iranian food, but I worked really hard to find an Iranian restaurant in St. Louis. I found a much deeper appreciation for it once I could kind of come at it on my own terms, instead of having it prescribed to me by others.
L: Our podcast is called Chai and Conversation. So obviously, we have a big affinity for chai. It's a big part of the culture. Is that something that you grew up with?
A: Yes, growing up, I certainly remember the kettle was always on at my aunt's house, and I would put way too much sugar in it as a child and as I go older and my palate developed, I was able to take it straight.
L: Also, I like how you show this relationship or this difference, that kind of Iranian boys express their masculinity in the way they relate with other boys. What was your experience of that growing up? How did you come across that? Because that seems like a very astute observation.
A: I remember my cousins were always a lot more physical. Like they would roughhouse more than I remember boys roughhousing, but they would also like hug it out with each other, rest their hands across each other's shoulders, lean their head on another shoulder. And it was very different from the way all the white people I saw back home where everything was the huge no homo bubble around them. And so I knew that for someone coming from the United States and then going to Iran, it was going to be jarring, but maybe that Darius would have at least a little bit of basis for that. But I also knew fairly early on in the writing process that Darius was probably queer. So I think it really fascinated me to explore the different ways that boys can be friends and express affection to each other, and especially as it intersects with kind of the American version of masculinity.
L: I'm excited to see you're writing a sequel right now.
A: It's actually all done, and it comes out August 25.
L: Congratulations. I'm excited to see where that goes. Also, my aunt is a psychologist and she's always been very open about talking about depression. And that's a big part of the book as well. And the way that Iranians talk about depression is not always very understanding or kind. So I really appreciated that that was in the book as well. And I think bringing that into this space is a really important thing to do. So is that something that in your family you guys talked about openly? Or was it more swept under the rug as it kind of is in the Iranian culture?
A: So because my mom was white, growing up, we were a lot more open about mental health stuff, especially since her side of the family had a long history of [depression]. Several generations going back have unfortunately, died by suicide. Relatives that were diagnosed and took medication managed it just fine and so she was very open and talking about it with me and was very ready when I was showing signs of depression to get me treatment. And I don't know that the Iranian side of my family was ever super, super critical of it. You know, people would kind of say offhanded things sometimes like, what are you depressed about or whatever. But for the most part, and I think part of that is because I was a like living in America separate from all them and be I was only half Iranian, they were just like, whatever.
But I think in particular, writing about it- One, when I first started writing back in 2015, there are a whole lot of YA novels about mental illness, but they pretty much all had someone dying by suicide in them. And I wanted to push back against that, but I also think that while it's important to me to kind of reflect the world, for young readers, it's also important to kind of show what the world could be. And so I wanted to write about Darius being supported in his mental health journey, because that's what every young person deserves.
L: I think that's a nice thing to intersect with this idea of being Iranian because I think that it will raise awareness. And for those teens that are growing up in an immigrant household that doesn't talk openly about that, I think it'll be nice for them to read this and have someone to relate to about that.
A: I certainly hope so.
L: What's your relationship now with the Iranian diaspora? Do you have a lot of contact with the Iranian community?
A: I'm still a little bit separate just because I don't have a whole lot of Iranian friends here in Kansas City. My Iranian friends are a little more widely flung, and so I talk with them on Twitter or Instagram or email. Working on this book has introduced me to a lot of new Iranian friends. There's a lot of Iranian and Iranian American scholars studying the diaspora and it's been really cool to connect with them. One of them, Amy Malik is a professor at College of Charleston when I met her and I think she's at Princeton now, Professor of Global Studies, and Neda Maghbouleh who wrote The Limits of Whiteness. There are a whole bunch of us. And it's really cool to see the scholarship that's emerging around our diaspora, and then be able to connect it to to fiction and the arts. So that's been really cool. There's also a bunch of other Iranians, Iranian American authors. There's Sarah Farizan, Arvin Ahmadi, Abdi Nazemian, Alexander Monir, Tahereh Mafi, and Daneil Nayeri. Just knowing how many Iranian American kids are going to grow up with books that reflect them in ways that we didn't get to. It's really exciting.
L: Sounds like we can have a fun book festival with all you guys.
A: A few of us have already made a plan. We're going to form a band called The Googoosh Dolls. And go and do book festivals that are just a panel of all Iranian authors. It'll be great. Once we're allowed to get out of the house again. We're slowly but surely taking over.
L: Well, speaking of the future, my last question is what's your hope for the Iranian diaspora moving forward? What do you hope that the future will bring for everyone?
A: I definitely hope the orange one will go away. And we can try to move the relationship between the United States and Iran towards a more amicable one. I think as far as Iranians living here, I hope we continue telling our stories and making our art and showing and reminding people of our humanity in a way that the news media so frequently forgets and I hope that it is better for our kids than it was for us.
L: I love that. And in the show notes for this episode, we've included a link to the Penguin Random House website which has links to buy your books, which right now you have Darius the Great is Not Okay, which is the one that I finished this week. And then you said in August you have Darius the Great Deserves Better coming out. You also have a book called Seven Special Somethings, a Nowruz Story. What is that?
A: That is a picture book. So it's for small children. And it comes out in spring of 2021. It's about a little boy named Kian, who accidentally destroys the family haft seen and has to build a new one with whatever he can find around the house. I'm really proud of it. I've seen some of the draft illustrations and it's absolutely adorable. And I'm really excited to be able to share it with people pretty soon.
L: Thank you so much for talking with us. I think we got a lot of good insights from someone who's actually grown up half Iranian.
A: Well, thank you. I really enjoyed doing this.
L: And also not to plug my own podcast, but I will send you a link, we started this podcast for exactly what you're talking about to teach people to speak conversational Persian. And so we have, you know, over 70 lessons now, and the only thing that we teach is how people talk. We don't teach bookish person. I think we're the only ones that do that focus exclusively on that.
A: That's excellent. I can't wait to listen.
To find out more about Adib:
Check out the Penguin Random House site where you can purchase his books: