Interview with Abdi Nazemian

Today we welcome Abdi Nazemian to the blog. We’re excited to learn more about his new novel The Authentics, which was released earlier this month.

Summary: The Authentics is a fresh, funny, and insightful novel about culture, love, and family—the kind we are born into and the ones we create.

Daria Esfandyar is Iranian-American and proud of her heritage, unlike some of the “Nose Jobs” in the clique led by her former best friend, Heidi Javadi. Daria and her friends call themselves the Authentics, because they pride themselves on always keeping it real.

But in the course of researching a school project, Daria learns something shocking about her past, which launches her on a journey of self-discovery. It seems everyone is keeping secrets. And it’s getting harder to know who she even is any longer.

With infighting among the Authentics, her mother planning an over-the-top sweet sixteen party, and a romance that should be totally off limits, Daria doesn’t have time for this identity crisis. As everything in her life is spinning out of control—can she figure out how to stay true to herself?


How did you find your way to this story of family and identity?

I started my career as a screenwriter, and I still work in film and television. I love that medium, but one of the unfortunate realities of the business is that getting movies about Iranian characters made is extremely difficult. I’ve tried many times to write stories that explore my culture for the screen, and inevitably the conversation turns to the lack of bankable stars that could be cast in the roles. Take a look at some of the highest-profile movies about Iranians that Hollywood has made for a peek into this problem. Gael Garcia Bernal and Alfred Molina are Hollywood’s version of Iranians. Jake Gyllenhaal is their Prince of Persia. The argument for these decisions is that there are no Iranian stars, but how can there be if no one gives Iranian actors a chance? I’ve always loved books, and at some point in my screenwriting career, I had this epiphany that in the literary world, no one could tell me they needed a celebrity to publish my book. Then I discovered that writing novels was also a far more personal journey than screenwriting, and that liberated me to write stories that explored issues of family and identity that were (and still are) closest to me. For this particular story, it’s hard to pinpoint one thing that helped me find my way, but I think the biggest inspiration was my own children, who were born with the help of an incredible surrogate, and who are being raised in a very modern, very multicultural family. They were babies when this book began to take shape, but I projected forward to the kinds of questions they might have, and I began to write a fictional story inspired by those questions. And then, luckily, Daria took on a life of her own. She had a lot to say. And for the record, I have no secrets from my own children.

What did you like most about Daria?

I love so much about Daria, but perhaps what I love most is her passion. That passion is partly inspired by myself as an older teen (I was very outspoken about my views on right and wrong), but mostly inspired by many young people I know who are devoted to speaking out for what they believe in. Daria’s pride in her culture, her commitment to her friends, her patience and empathy for her family, are all offshoots of that passion. She is a deeply moral person, and wants to live a life of truth. Sometimes circumstances make that difficult, and that’s what the book explores, but Daria never strays far from her core desire to be honest and make moral decisions. I love that about her. Also, I love her capacity for forgiveness.

What forms of media were you most interested in when you were a teen? What kinds of stories got your attention?

Before my teen years, I was a huge reader (a lot of Ramona books, endless readings of Charlotte’s Web and an insatiable obsession with Archie Comics).  By the time I became a teenager, I developed a fascination with Old Hollywood. I watched old movies voraciously, everything from film noir to musicals to silent film. Those films transported me to a fantasy version of the world, which was very appealing to me as a kid who usually wanted to crawl out of his dark, gay skin. I read a lot back then, though YA wasn’t the thriving world it is now, and there were few diverse reads to be found. My favorite book as a teen was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I worshipped it. And in my later teen years, I discovered James Baldwin, who remains my favorite author. His writing is ridiculously good, and perhaps sadly, more relevant than ever. If we all read his words and studied them, we’d probably live in a much more beautiful world.

Though this is your debut YA novel, you’re not new to writing. Did writing The Authentics have any unique challenges?

It absolutely did. First and foremost, this was my first young adult novel, and I love YA, so I wanted to enter this world with a story that would have an impact and feel honest. Also, this is a far more personal piece of writing than most of my screenwriting work. This is a chance for me to represent the people I love most: Iranian-American characters, LGBTQ people of color, young people questioning their identity, and struggling with how to define themselves in a world obsessed with labels. I am painfully aware of how rare depictions of minorities are in our stories, and so I felt an added responsibility here to get it right, and to make sure that all my love for these characters came through loud and clear.

Being authentic is obviously a focus in this story. What does it mean to you to be authentic? How does that look in everyday life?

The word “authentic” is thrown around so often these days that it starts to lose any real meaning. Sometimes it’s a badge of honor (that’s how Daria and her friends use it), and sometimes it is hurled as an accusation toward anyone or anything we think is false. I wanted to explore this subject matter because I feel passionately that there is more than one way to be authentic. To me, being authentic only means being true to oneself, and that looks different for every human being. That might be why the relationship between Daria and her ex-best-friend Heidi (who Daria calls a “Nose Job”) is one of my favorites in the book. Daria considers Heidi inauthentic for focusing so much on her appearance, while Heidi feels that she is authentic because she is projecting the person she wants to be. To me, both characters are authentic in their own way, and their journey is to see authenticity in someone who is different from them. I recently read this quote from one of my favorite singers, Lana Del Rey, who is constantly accused of being inauthentic, and she said a lot of smart things on the subject: “Of course. I’m always being myself. They don’t know what authentic is. If you think of all the music that came out until 2013, it was super straight and shiny. If that’s authentic to you, this is going to look like the opposite. I think that shit is stylized. Just because I do my hair big does not mean I’m a product. If anything, I’m doing my own hair.”

I just found and read Madonna’s picture book The Adventures of Abdi at my local library. Are you certain there’s no connection to you?

There are few things I want more in the world than to be connected to Madonna. I fell in love with her when her very first video was released, and made my parents take me to The Virgin Tour despite being way too young for it. Not long after that, I converted a room in our home into “The Madonna Room” (no, this is not a joke). You can imagine my extreme excitement when I saw that Madonna had released a book about the adventures of a boy named Abdi, who does look a little like me. Sadly, I have no proof that the character is connected to me, though I can confirm I knew some people who worked with Madonna at the time, and that she signed an autograph to me well before the book was released, so perhaps my name seeped into her subconscious somehow. A boy can hope.

What’s up next for you in writing? Are we likely to see more YA books from you?

I write both screenplays and novels. In my screenwriting life, I am currently adapting a phenomenal documentary called “Out of Iraq” into a narrative feature. It’s the story of two Iraqi men who fall in love against the backdrop of the Iraq War, and their struggle to be reunited when one moves to the United States and the other gets stuck in the bureaucracy of the immigration system. It’s an honor to adapt it. In my life as an author, I am committed to continuing to write young adult fiction. Writing “The Authentics” was so gratifying, and I have more stories to tell in this space. I’m about halfway done with my next book, so I shouldn’t say too much about it, but I can say that it is probably the most personal writing I’ve ever done, and that it tells the story of a love triangle between three teens who get caught up in the world of AIDS activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Is there anything you would like to tell our readers that I didn’t ask?

I’d like to say thank you to the young adult reading community for demanding diverse reads from publishers. Reading young adult fiction gives me so much hope for our future. I believe storytelling is our greatest tool for creating empathy, and seeing the way young people are demanding and consuming literature about characters who don’t look or think like them is so exciting to me. It’s easy to be pessimistic about the world, and seeing a book like The Hate U Give on the bestseller list makes me optimistic. Discovering there is a whole community of Iranian YA authors makes me optimistic. Reading YA books about cultures and experiences that were foreign to me gives me hope. And that’s all the result of readers creating demand for these stories. So, I’d like to just say thanks, and keep seeking out stories you may not think are for you.


Abdi Nazemian spent his childhood in a series of glamorous locations (Tehran, Paris, Toronto, New York), but could usually be found in his bedroom watching old movies and reading. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his two children and his fiancé.

Abdi has written four produced films: MENENDEZ: BLOOD BROTHERS (Lifetime, 2017), THE QUIET (Sony Pictures Classics, 2006), CELESTE IN THE CITY (ABC Family, 2004), and BEAUTIFUL GIRL (ABC FAMILY, 2003). He also wrote, directed and produced the short film REVOLUTION (2012). He is proud to say his words have been spoken by the likes of Carmela Soprano, The Nanny, and The Girl With The Most Cake.

Abdi’s first novel, THE WALK-IN CLOSET, was released in 2015 by Curtis Brown Unlimited, and was awarded Best Debut at the Lambda Literary Awards. His debut young adult novel, THE AUTHENTICS, was released on August 8, 2017 by Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins.

New Release

Only one book this week and it looks interesting.

The Tiger’s Watch (Ashes of Gold #1) by Julia Ember
Harmony Ink Press

Sixteen-year-old Tashi has spent their life training as a inhabitor, a soldier who spies and kills using a bonded animal. When the capital falls after a brutal siege, Tashi flees to a remote monastery to hide. But the invading army turns the monastery into a hospital, and Tashi catches the eye of Xian, the regiment’s fearless young commander.

Tashi spies on Xian’s every move. In front of his men, Xian seems dangerous, even sadistic, but Tashi discovers a more vulnerable side of the enemy commander—a side that draws them to Xian.

When their spying unveils that everything they’ve been taught is a lie, Tashi faces an impossible choice: save their country or the boy they’re growing to love. Though Tashi grapples with their decision, their volatile bonded tiger doesn’t question her allegiances. Katala slaughters Xian’s soldiers, leading the enemy to hunt her. But an inhabitor’s bond to their animal is for life—if Katala dies, so will Tashi.

Whose Streets?, Charlottesville, and Activist Storytelling

Last Saturday morning, I headed to the movie theater, eyes glued to my phone as I tried (unsuccessfully) to navigate and check twitter at the same time. I found my seat in the dark, still trying to piece together what was happening and what had already happened in Charlottesville.

Then I shut off my phone to watch Whose Streets? — which is, well… the short version would be to say that it’s a look at community activism in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown. But that’s a sanitized and simplified version of the truth.

A few weeks earlier, my sister told me to go watch Whose Streets. I forgot about it until the 9th, when I read an interview with activist Ashley Yates about what happened in Ferguson three years ago. It reminded me of why I’d stopped trusting my local newspaper, the paper I’d grown up reading: During the protests that continued for years in St. Louis (and still continue), the newspaper said one thing, and my sister said another. The crinkled newsprint said that the protestors turned violent, and my sister said that the police tear gassed MoKaBe’s, a local coffee shop.

St. Louis ArchSo I went to watch Whose Streets?, meeting up with a friend and sidling into a mostly empty theater where only a few older white folks were. It was chilling to watch the documentary and make the obvious connection to the weekend events — how the police met the community in Ferguson with violence, while Nazis in Charlottesville marched freely. How activist Brittany Ferrell was charged with a felony for kicking a car plowing through a protest line (read: a woman trying to drive over protestors, wtf) — and how that morning, a white supremacist had driven into a crowd of anti-racist counter protestors.

I was reminded that (racist) history repeats itself, and that the only way to break that cycle is to learn from it. That’s why Whose Streets? is so important. According to its website, it’s a documentary “told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement” and “an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising.” It’s about what really happened in Ferguson, not some distorted, sensationalist version shown in the news half a country away.

What I want most in this push for diversity in YA lit is for marginalized writers to get to tell their own stories, whatever that may be – immigration, slice-of-life romance, social justice, magic boarding school, you name it. Storytelling is how we connect with others, help people feel less alone, and learn from (and fight) the past. It’s crucial that the people who should be heard, get heard.

Whose Streets? does that and far more. It’s activist storytelling (well, truthtelling) – and we can never have too much of that. You should absolutely go watch the documentary if it’s still showing in theaters in your area. For more on this:
Theater showtimes
Whose Streets? trailer
Ferguson Doc ‘Whose Streets’ Shows The Power Of Black People Telling Black Stories
Non-profits to support in Charlottesville
RIC Teaching, self-care, and resources round-up in re: Charlottesville

Charlottesville and Resources

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Heather Heyer

If you have been paying attention to media in the past few days, you are surely aware that a White supremacist rally was held in Charlottesville, VA which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer and state troopers Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates. Along with these deaths were many injuries. Beyond that, there was a lot of fear and horror on the part of many as they participated in the counter-protests or watched what was happening from near and far. It wasn’t simply because it was happening, though that was horrifying, but the response from DT made it clear that he does not believe that any one side is more to blame than the other. In the face of White supremacy and Nazis, DT seems incapable of placing blame squarely on White supremacist shoulders. Again we saw a situation where people witnessing this were thinking, well surely now he’ll say something definitive, but no. There are White supremacists who see the outcomes of this event as a victory and are excited about DT’s weak response.

Many people I know are looking for specific things to do in order to counteract, resist, interrupt, and ultimately put an end to racism and it’s many forms. Events like these tend to flood people’s emotions and can overwhelm us or have us looking for positive actions we can do to make change. Here are some of the resources out there if you want to get out and do something. Some of you may need to also do something to care for yourself first. This has been emotionally draining for many, so there are also some self-care resources.

Action Steps
Celeste Ng has you covered if you want very specific tasks. She continues to add other tasks on her twitter feed so it’s a good idea to follow her.

If You’re feeling helpless Tumblr post

Sara Benincasa – What to do About Charlottesville

Upworthy – 16 ways you can make a big difference

Southern Poverty Law Center – Ten Ways to Fight Hate

Places to donate in the Charlottesville area


Self-Care
From @NYChavez and @HYAdames – Surviving and Resisting Hate: A Toolkit for People of Color

Teen Vogue – 4 Self-Care Tips for People of Color

Comprehensive crowd-sourced list of self-care

Los Angeles Loyolan – Self-Care Tips for Activists


Resources for Teaching
#CharlottesvilleCurriculum

Citizenship & Social Justice – Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism–from Ferguson to Charleston

NCTE’s Standing Committee Against Racism and Bias – There Is No Apolitical Classroom: Resources for Teaching in These Times

Washington Post – The first thing teachers should do when school starts is talk about hatred in America. Here’s Help.

Teaching Tolerance teacher resources

NPR – Resources for Educators to Use in the Wake of Charlottesville

NPR – Politics in the Classroom: How Much is Too Much?


Books to Share/Read
Lee&Low – Books to Help Kids Understand the Fight for Racial Equality

NYT – How to Talk to Your Kids about Charlottesville (focus on books)

ProjectLIT Bookclub

Bustle – 10 Books I Wish My White Teachers Had Read

Social Justice Books a Teaching for Change Project – Social Justice Booklist

From Book Riot – Rincey shares Book Buys Based on Recent Events

Guest Post: Sonia Patel

Please welcome Sonia Patel to Rich in Color today. Her newest book, Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story, will be available next month. We really enjoyed Rani Patel in Full Effect, her debut last year, and are looking forward to this new release.


KEEP IT REAL OR YOU MIGHT DIE.

Keep it real or you might die. Sound extreme? Let me explain this short but profound sentence I often use to help struggling teens in my child and adolescent psychiatry practice. I’ll start by breaking it down into two parts.

Keep it real = Determine your true thoughts and feelings in the moment and speak up for yourself in all honesty.
Or you might die = If you stay quiet and believe the negative automatic thoughts, feelings, and risky impulses that your mind is tricking you with then you might be more likely to go through with the risky impulses (suicide attempts, accidental excessive drug/alcohol use, unprotected sex, etc.) because there doesn’t seem to be any other way out of the intolerable swirl of chaos in your mind.

Obvious? Not to everyone, especially not to vulnerable teens. These are the pained teens—from all walks of life—I have the honor of treating. These are the teens who have a genetic predisposition to an emotional illness (such as depression or anxiety), have lived through trauma, or have dysfunctional family systems—or all three. These teens are more likely to remain silent about the unwanted, false, automatic negative thoughts, feelings, and impulses that plague them. For different reasons, these teens aren’t taught to speak up about, tolerate, or cope with all the negativity. This silent suffering becomes their invisible “teacher” and they learn to act out on their self-destructive impulses. Soon the only way they know how to minimize emotional distress is to act out with dangerous behaviors. It may become hardwired into their brains.

I value meaningful talk therapy as the foundation of my psychiatric treatment to teens. It is my goal to educate them on positive ways to maneuver through life. Over the course of weeks, months, or years we work together to discover how they can become self-aware, how they can say exactly what’s on their mind in any given situation, and how they can ride out the extremes of their negative thoughts, feelings, and impulses.

How they can keep it real so the don’t die.

I strive to be their keep it real coach. There is no better reward than to watch these teens learn to find their voices and be assertive. They become keep it real experts.

I also aim to be a keep it real author. I want to bring this powerful message to as many teens as I can. That is why I write YA novels the way I do—boiled down and raw.

In my office, teens who confide in me don’t speak in perfect prose when they share their innermost thoughts, feelings, impulses, and secrets. They might stumble on their words. They might not be able to find the right words. They might get straight to the point. They might ramble. They might swear. They might cry. They might scream. They might do a combination of all of that. So why would I write their stories in a pretty, elegant way? This is not to say these teens are not intelligent. They are. Some of them read at college level, take A.P. classes, and study hard. They know many big, fancy, SAT words. Those that don’t pursue academics to their full potential are still smart. But what I’ve found is that in the privacy of my office most teens prefer to talk in an informal manner rather than with refined formality. They choose to speak with their broken hearts.

It is with all this in mind that I wrote Rani Patel In Full Effect and the forthcoming Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story. I am excited for the world to meet Jaya and Rasa. They are blends of real patients I’ve had the privilege of treating (I must confess that there are also bits and pieces of me in Jaya!).

The way I write how Jaya experiences things in his life—such as private school, wealth, elitism, modern day Native Hawaiian oppression, lack of acceptance of his gender by his Gujarati Indian parents, bullying by his classmates, depression, self-blame for his parents’ fights, low self-worth, and the unconscious recreation of his parents’ relationships with Rasa—is how many of my patients describe their similar experiences.

The way I write how Rasa maintains a happy front while likening herself to a strong black widow spider is part of her response to trauma. It’s how she’s managed to survive her challenging circumstances. She’s learned to equate her body and sex as power and control over men who are actually abusing her. Under her black widow exterior is a vulnerable girl who hasn’t been given the chance to develop her self-worth or identity apart from being an object for others. She hasn’t had the luxury of a safe life in which her basic needs are met.

Neither Jaya nor Rasa have been taught or encouraged to become self-aware or speak their minds concerning their true thoughts, feelings, and impulses. So they’ve both stayed in their heads trying to survive their respective hardships. Their patterns of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors  become more and more ingrained as the years pass. That is, until they meet each other. The intense love that develops between them forces them to confront the flaws in their internalized ways of functioning in the world. They realize that they have to keep it real or they might die.


Check me out online!

Website: soniapatel.net

Instagram & Twitter: soniapatel808

Facebook: SoniaPatelAuthor

One book we missed last week

We missed an anthology last week, so we’re taking a moment to spotlight it now. It sounds like it could be a lot of fun! Will it make your TBR pile?

A Change Is Gonna Come by Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Tanya Byrne, Inua Ellams, Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence, Ayisha Malik, Irfan Master, Musa Okwonga, Yasmin Rahman, Phoebe Roy, Nikesh Shukla, and Lucy Banaji (Illustrator)
Stripes Publishing

Featuring top Young Adult authors alongside a host of exciting new talent, this anthology of stories and poetry from BAME writers on the theme of change is a long-overdue addition to the YA scene. Contributors include Tanya Byrne, Inua Ellams, Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence, Ayisha Malik, Irfan Master, Musa Okwonga and Nikesh Shukla.

Plus introducing four fresh new voices in YA fiction: Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Yasmin Rahman and Phoebe Roy.