Amir’s carefully ordered world is falling apart. He’s about to be outed at high-school graduation. His Iranian parents are going to find out about his football player boyfriend.
So Amir runs — all the way to Rome.
Affecting, funny and full of heart, "How It All Blew Up" (Viking/Penguin, $17.99) is Arvin Ahmadi’s third novel for young adults. His previous books were "Down and Across" and "Girl Gone Viral."
All his books have incorporated elements from his life, but this one is his most personal, Ahmadi explained in a phone interview. He’ll talk about the book Thursday at a virtual BookPeople event.
"I was working on a totally different project when I went on this trip," Ahmadi said of his summer in Rome, where he became friends with a close-knit group of fellow gay men. "It wasn’t until meeting this group that became a found family for me, and specifically this Iranian friend of mine, that I realized I had been keeping all these parts of my life separate. I didn’t have to wedge this wall between the different parts of myself. I could come out with all of them."
In "How It All Blew Up," Ahmadi creates that revelatory friend group for 18-year-old Amir. The teen meets his own found family in Rome through Jahan, the kind Iranian bartender and poet who befriends him.
"Was this man messing with me?" Amir thinks as Jahan greets him. "I don’t know how else to say it, but this man did not look like any other Iranian person I had ever met in my life. I mean, his name was more Iranian than kabob and Persepolis. But his skin was covered in tattoos. And quite a few shades darker than mine." Most of all, Jahan is both proudly Iranian and proudly out.
Amir loves his life in Rome, but he’s acutely conscious that it’s an escape. Back home, his parents and sister are texting and calling, desperate to know why he’s disappeared.
We know from the beginning that they eventually reunite, but that presents its own hurdles. When we first meet Amir and his parents, they are separated once more — this time in rooms being questioned by airport officials.
"Telling a coming-out story, telling a Muslim story in an interrogation room, those are narratives we see over and over again," Ahmadi said. "That was the trick of the novel. You’re really getting all this depth and learning about the gay community and then at the same time you're seeing the different ways to be Muslim and Middle Eastern."
Ahmadi wanted to invert expectations about parental judgments while also acknowledging Amir’s fears about revealing his identity to his parents. Amir keeps a running tally in his head of how they might react to the news:
"+1: Mom watches Ellen DeGeneres and doesn’t bat an eyelash whenever Ellen talks about her wife, Portia. …
"-20: The trailer for a gay rom-com comes on while we’re at the movie theater, and Dad calls it propaganda. …
"Pluses and minuses aside, I had bought into the same idea as everyone else, that Muslims and gay people are about as incompatible as Amish people and Apple products. I wish I could say I was better than that, that I ignored the stereotype. But when your safety hinges on a stereotype being true or not, you don’t get to be brave. I wasn’t going to bet my happiness on the fact that my mom watched a talk show hosted by a lesbian."
"By the end he learns a lot about his family," Ahmadi said of Amir. "I still don't fault him for not having the faith in the beginning."
Above all, Ahmadi said, "How It All Blew Up" is about honesty.
"Our only agenda is to pour honesty on the page, specifically our own honest truths," Ahmadi said of writers for young adults. "Teens crave honesty and authenticity. When you're that age, what you want most is to find your place in the world. I think these windows into characters and experiences can help you discover a part of yourself."