Have you ever read a book and found that it seems to relate to the next book you’re reading? It happens to me all the time. Let me explain. I very rarely read the blurbs when I pick up a book to read; I just dig right in. My reading has come to be deliberate in that it comes from my ARC pile for reviewing or it fits the parameters of a particular project. So, if there are similarities, it’s pure coincidence. While So Done (Paula Chase; HarperCollins) was my ‘walking book’ (I walk the stacks and read when I’m at work so I can get my steps in) I picked up We Kiss them with Rain (Futhi Ntshingila; Catalyst Press) at home. The subject of people outside the family, people known and trusted by the family, abusing their access to black girls by molesting them is not something I come across often in YA, but here it was in two books.
When I finished So Done, I picked up Darius the Great is Not Okay (Adib Khorram; Dial). While So Done is based in the African American community, Darius the Great is Iranian American. Yet, these stories have so much in common. That hit me when I was reading the ARC of Darius the Great.
“Are you guys friends?”
Sohrab shrugged. “Ali-Reza is very prejudiced. Against Bahá’is.”
I thought about that. How back home, all Persians—even Fractional Persians like me and Laleh—were united in our Persian-ness. We celebrated Norwuz and Chalharshanbeh Suri together in big parties. Bahá’is and Muslims and Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians and even secular humanists like Stephen Kellner, and it didn’t matter. Not really.
Not when we were so few in number.
But here, surrounded by Persians, Sohrab was singled out for being Bahá’i.
He was a target. (ARC p. 110)
In the Iranian American community, Darian and his family and all the “fractional Persians” clung to each other in their identity as Iranians, but these same identities in Iran were frictional Persians. In the larger American society, the Iranians in Darius the Great were just too different. In their high school, Darius and the one other Iranian student were isolated, often eating lunch together alone in the cafeteria.
Just like this, In So Done, in the tight knit African American community of the Cove, everyone was targeted when trying to be different.
Sure, Mila went to stay with her aunt in the Woods because of Tai’s father but, she liked it in the Woods. She liked that she could be quiet and keep to herself and not be seen as odd for doing that. In the Cove, everyone was always in on the action.
Chris and Simp were both berated at least once for not using the correct slang. Tai didn’t really want to learn ballet, but she stuck with it because everyone else did. And, everyone was expected to listen to the same type of music.
“Go help her, Simp” Tai said in a sweet voice. “She might even let you if you call her Mila.” Mila fussed Tai out with her eyes, but it only encouraged her. “You better check her before she put on some gray music they listening to in the Woods.”
The possibility of Mila playing “white music” pushed Simp into action.” (ARC p.111)
Did you catch that about ‘calling her Mila’? Mila wanted people to stop calling her Bean. Mila even preferred calling Rollie ‘Roland’. In Iran, people used the Persian derivative of his name, calling Darius ‘Darioush’. This change of the names was a tool used by the authors to indicate change and growth in their characters.
On a deeper level, I think both books explored male/male relationships in interesting ways in this story with young women as the primary characters. Chase observes ways males bond.
He and Chris shared the same choppy laugh. Every boy Mila knew did it. There was no mistaking they were clowning something when they laughed that way. JJ laughed like that all the time when he was poking fun at something she or Jeremey said. Even Jeremy was starting to do it sometimes. She had though it was only a Cove thing. (ARC p 61-62)
[speaking to Simp] “It’s messed up that you can’t try out. B, but don’t knock my hustle,” Roland said with a sincerity that made Mila envy his honesty. She had never been able to disagree with Tai like that without it turning into an argument.
Simp put out his hand and slid it across Roland’s. They gripped at the fingers in a shake. (ARC p, 114)
The young men she writes about bond on a basketball court and over music and display their bonds through their laughter and grips. Why do I hesitate to say these young men display their affection in their special touches?
Darius the Great brings these touches even more to light.
He collided with me and gave me a sweaty hug and a slap on the back, then threw his arm over my shoulders we headed back to the locker room.
“You were great, Darioush”
“Not that good,” I said. “Not as good as you.”
“Yes,” Sohrab said. “You were.”
I almost believed him.
I decided to put my arm over Sohrab’s shoulder too, even if I felt kind of weird doing it, and not just because of the sweat running down the back of Sohrab’s neck.
Sohrab was so comfortable touching me.
I liked how confident he was about that. (ARC p.110)
As an Iranian, Sohrab would have been more comfortable because men in southwest Asia do actually openly touch one another, I’ve witnessed in in Saudi Arabia. But here, we have an Iranian American remarking quite often about hugging and touching and not being weird about out it. I know that many people have placed Darius the Great on LGBT+ lists but I’m wondering if Khorram might be creating a new norm for male characters? Or does Darius’s depression create a proclivity for physical contact? Or, is the story of becoming aware of his queerness? Or none of this? Or all of this? Whatever is going on, I like seeing young men who aren’t so hung up on western concepts of masculinity.
Reading such diverse stories from people here in the United States most certainly shows me our differences but it also shows me how much we have in common. I think stories told by authors writing for themselves in their #ownvoices are best able to serve as metaphors for our common humanity. Dr. Ebony Thomas explains it when she states “But the metaphors we read by are extremely important. When we do not understand how we are reading the word and the world, we run the risk of becoming incredulous toward other people’s stories, other people’s symbols — and other people’s metaphors.”
They’re not coincidences; they’re metaphors!