Abdi Nazemian | Interview

Abdi Nazemian is the author of The Walk-In Closet, which was awarded Best Debut at the Lambda Literary Awards, and two young adult novels: The Authentics and Like a Love Story. As Head of Development for Water’s End Productions, Abdi has been an executive producer or associate producer on numerous films, including “Call Me By Your Name.” He recently talked with us about the New Year, U.S.-Iran relations, and playing Scrabble with his children.

 

Like a Love Story was my favorite YA book of 2019—I actually read it while I was in the ER but that thankfully didn’t affect my enjoyment of it—so I was wondering what your favorite YA reads of 2019 were.

Thank you! That means a lot.

Definitely Adib Khorram’s book Darius the Great Is Not Okay was one of them. I thought it was very beautiful. I’m Iranian, and when I started writing books, there were virtually no books that delved into the queer Iranian experience. I thought that the book was so interesting in the way that it handled its protagonist and how it handled telling a story that was partially set in the U.S. but also took the reader to Iran. To actually show people what daily human life is like in Iran when all we hear in the media is politics really moved me.

Over the holidays, I also read Randy Ribay’s book Patron Saints of Nothing, and I really loved it. The interesting thing about that book is that it really resonated with me as an Iranian person—the way that immigrant families want to shield the kids from the trauma from back home. I thought that was really powerful.

Those would be the top two that come to mind. It’s interesting, both books are about characters who go back to their country of origin. There’s something about narratives about people going back that resonates with me because I’ve always wanted to go and experience a country with a culture that means so much to me.

I think part of the reason I had the instinct to do that was I knew I wanted to write something that was about what it was like for me growing up as an immigrant teen who was facing a “double whammy” of being ashamed of my sexuality culturally but then also feeling it was a death sentence in terms of what was happening in the U.S. What surprised about writing the book is how much hope ended up being in it.

What I’m really curious about with Like a Love Story is your decision to show Reza, Judy, and Art as adults. I thought that was interesting because in YA we usually don’t get the protagonists’ futures, and so I’m wondering what influenced the decision to write that section of the novel and if there were any discussions about including it and how it changes the book.

One thing I’ll say is that I don’t plot out my books, so I didn’t know that I was going to do that until I did it. I’m primarily a screenwriter, so I come from a world where people ask me to write super detailed outlines all the time. When I write books I feel so liberated by following the muse.

I think part of the reason I had the instinct to do that was I knew I wanted to write something that was about what it was like for me growing up as an immigrant teen who was facing a “double whammy” of being ashamed of my sexuality culturally but then also feeling it was a death sentence in terms of what was happening in the U.S. What surprised about writing the book is how much hope ended up being in it.

I wanted people to know that Reza, Judy, and Art were okay and that they ended up being human beings who had rich lives because of what happened in 1989, because of activists, because of the mentorship they received. I wanted to show what these characters’ lives were like as a result of the fight. I felt particularly with Art that that was important, to show that some of the themes in the book are not gone. I think people delude themselves into thinking that the AIDS epidemic is over.

 

With your novel (and “Pose,” which similarly takes place during the AIDS epidemic) we finally get to see Black and brown queer men and (especially) trans women who were disproportionately affected by AIDS epidemic as the face of the epidemic. We know why cis gay white men were the face of the epidemic for so long (hint: racism etc.), so I’m wondering how you navigated that in your book.

One thing I did was try to be very well researched. My book is one narrative, and there’s room for so many narratives about Act Up and the AIDS epidemic. And I hope there are a lot more. I felt it was important to focus on an Iranian character because I could tell that story in an authentic way. As I was doing my research, it was so clear that while Act Up had a leadership that had many white men in it, it was a very open, diverse movement that was reaching out to many communities and had a lot of actions that were done in coordination with women’s groups, which is something people don’t talk about a lot, which I wanted to include in the book. One of their biggest actions was about how clinical trials weren’t including people of color and women, and I don’t feel like when people think about Act Up and the early movement, I don’t feel like that’s the prevailing narrative that they have in their heads, and so I wanted to show that because it was real. I was like, “This was something that was important to that community back then, so let’s remember that.” I think it’s very inspiring and important.

 

Belated Happy New Year–

Thank you!

 

I’m wondering what your plans are for 2020 and what this year means to you.

I was just writing to a friend, and I was saying that we’re only ten days into 2020 and it already feels like all the reasons I wrote this book have been smashed into my face with what’s been happening with Iran. It’s too complicated for me to boil down into a few words, but it’s a weird feeling to have the country of your origin and the country that you live in and make a home in basically be at war. It’s certainly underlines the importance of having human portrayals of Iranian people out there for people in the U.S. and around the world.

I’ve started my next book. It’s way too early for me to even talk about it because it’ll probably change. But it’s definitely about things I’m passionate about. What I do with a book is I always try to think about what is happening in the world that I need to self-express about, what am I upset about, what do I want to shine a light on, and I feel like there’s quite a bit.

I work in film and TV, so I’m hopeful that I can keep doing that work. My biggest goal is hopefully to have one of my books be adapted and make it to the screen because I think it would really help expose more people to Iranian life, queer life, and the intersection.

 

Last question: what brings you joy?

Oh God. We can go on forever about this.

First of all, I have two kids. They’re the best. Every stage they’re in gets more and more joyful. These days they come home from school, and we play games. They’re into card games and Scrabble and Backgammon. It’s just so much fun. That brings me incredible joy.

I find huge joy in art, obviously. Part of the reason I became a writer is because books and movies and TV meant so much to me growing up, and I feel like I still am a little kid when it comes to finding a book I love or a movie I love. I’m a perpetual fan.

Traveling. I just got back from Colombia, where I went on my honeymoon with my now husband, who also brings me quite a bit of joy. We had the most incredible time. It was the first time I’ve gone to a country I hadn’t been to before in a long time. Just to discover a new culture and their music and their food… that brings me so much joy. I could go on and on and on.

The funny thing is you read the book, and it’s obvious I’ve had a lot of painful things in my life and explore a lot of those subjects. But I think the amazing part is that I’ve been able to live a life that’s so joyful despite all of that. Hopefully that message resonates with people no matter what their difficult circumstances are that you know through human connection and through art and through curiosity about the world, hopefully most people can find a life of joy.

 

interviewed by Aaron H. Aceves

photo credit Marc Ohrem-Leclef

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