By Alamin Yohannes
September 11, 2020 at 09:30 AM EDT
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Joe Power; Penguin Young Readers

How great does a trip to Italy sound?

Rome's beauty becomes a necessary refuge for Iranian teen Amir Azadi in Arvin Ahmadi's upcoming novel How It All Blew Up (out Sept. 22). After a classmate threatens to out him to his Muslim family, Amir decides to run away from home and ends up in the Eternal City. There, he meets understanding friends and begins the work of accepting himself. Readers will meet Amir and his family during questioning at JFK after an argument on the plane as they recount Amir's time in Europe and his family's search for him.

The idea of a teen running away to Italy was inspired by Ahmadi's own journey. "I did the romantic writer thing and decided to go write in Italy for the summer," the author tells EW, and on that trip he found many of the components of Amir's life. From meeting a welcoming group of queer men to being questioned at the airport about what he was doing all summer, the trip became a blueprint for Amir's story. "I realized that I was playing to a strange model-minority myth as if because I was Westernized and hanging out with gay people made me less threatening," Ahmadi says, "but all of that became the initial spark for How It All Blew Up."

Below, Ahmadi discusses queer literature, writing his most personal story yet, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you create the character of Amir and decide to put him at the center of this story?

ARVIN AHMADI: Amir's story seems like just the right way to balance the sucky parts of being a queer person — especially a queer person of color or a queer person from an immigrant family — while also showing the really incredible parts. It is actually a tale of joy and found family, and not just to accept, but to embrace, who you are. To own who you are.

I wanted to represent both sides. I feel like as a young person, you need positive images, you crave positive images and these stories of joy and acceptance. But at the same time, you don't want it to be sugarcoated. You want the reality of the situation, and that's why Amir's story felt right for me. I never wanted to write — at least as my first gay novel — a fluffy rom-com because that hasn't been completely my experience. I also didn't write a sad, tragic story because that hasn't been my experience either. With its back-and-forth between the sexy Italian adventure and the really tense, difficult family and airport situations, this story just seems to strike the right balance.

You've said this is your most personal book yet. What does it mean to you to write something closer to your own experience, and why was now the right time?

It's a story that's really close to my heart. When I think about my own Iranian and queer identity, I think about the narratives that I was served growing up. The one thing that comes to my mind is being a kid, and the President of Iran came to Columbia's campus, and the main headline out of that event was when he said that there are no gay people in Iran. Prior to that, the idea I already had was being gay was punishable by death in Iran. Those were the narratives that I had in my head growing up, and I've found truth in the "It gets better" perspective in two ways. One is you meet queer people when you go out into the world, like pride parades, and you have wonderful experiences that are outside of the narratives we've been fed. The other being that when we say, "It gets better," we're really saying that eventually, we reach a point where you say, "F— it, I'm not going to hide who I am anymore."

I didn't want the negative aspects of the gay experience to be the dominant image. I wanted something more complex and more hopeful. That's where having come of age myself and reached a place where I am proud of both of those sides of who I am and how that summer in Italy hanging out with this found family and meeting this gay Iranian person who was so unapologetic about who he was, I think that was such a cool part of my own growth, and I wanted to tell that story to contribute to this changing narrative, to provide a better dominant image to look to.

There's been an increase in the range of types of queer literature recently. Do you feel excited about this moment as a queer writer?

Very much. When you think about 20, 30 years ago, it was either tragic AIDs narratives or sassy gay friend. At least in the mainstream, those were the two forms of representation that were being peddled. Today, the mainstream is more willing to push these fully dimensional queer characters. I love rom-coms. I'm stoked as hell for the first Hallmark movies, whenever it comes, but at the same time, pain and hiding are often inherent parts of the queer experience; even today, they are just sidled up next to the good parts. I think we're getting better at representing that.

What are your thoughts about the current state of queer Muslim storytelling?

It's hard because we're struggling to get queer Muslim kids to feel like they have the right to exist, let alone be loud about their experience. So I hope I am contributing something, but at the same time, my something isn't everything. It's not every queer brown person, queer Muslim person, queer Middle Eastern person's experience. I hope that after my story, we get more stories.

There are some amazing queer Muslim stories that have come out in the past couple of years. One is The Henna Wars, a YA novel about a queer Bangladeshi Muslim girl, and it's been getting so much love since its release. That's very different from my story, and it's going to be very different from a story from a more practicing background. One of my favorite essays is Mohsin Hamid's "Islam is not a monolith," and it gets into the fact that this is a religion of a billion people, so if you get five Muslim people together… they all practice differently. Some may be more secular, some may be more devout, and I would love to see that full range represented in queer Muslim stories.

There are conversations about whether or not we've seen too many coming-out stories. Do you think there are more stories to be told there?

Absolutely. I think just because we had a Love, Simon doesn't mean we're done telling coming out stories. I believe there are so many intersections of coming out that make it an exciting space to explore. As long as it is a form of identity that can be hidden, I think coming out will be an inherent part of that. I want to see Iranian coming-out stories, see Black and Brown and all types of coming-out stories. We're not even close to being done with them.

Can you tell us about using your background in tech in your work, specifically How It All Blew Up and Girl Gone Viral?

I am a casual Wikipedia editor, but ever since I put that in my author's bio I have received offers, many offers, to edit and create pages for money. So when it came time to giving Amir the funds he needed to run away, I figured why not make it even closer to my own experience, so I included Wikipedia editing, which I know very well and enjoy a lot as a casual editor, but have not taken any offers of money. I just thought it was a way for a desperate high schooler who needs those funds. For him, it's come down to survival because of the possibility of his family rejecting him would [make him] resort to getting paid to make Wikipedia pages.

As much as this is a story about Amir's sexuality, it's also a story about family. What did you want to explore about family?

I originally wrote the book entirely from Amir's perspective as a monologue told to the officer. However, coming-out stories don't exist in a vacuum. They involve family. Especially when you grow up in an immigrant family that is so tight-knit. I wanted to show more of Amir's family. I always knew they would be in the other rooms, so I wrote snippets of their interrogations to fill in their experiences while Amir is in Italy. Then the dominant conversation there, once they find out where he is, becomes whether they would rather their son be gay or not have him at all. Those conversations are hard, and I didn't want to show them at the moment, but that's where the interrogation setup worked out. They create this authentic family dynamic without zooming in on the most painful parts of their conversations. I wanted to create some distance from the painful parts. Especially in immigrant cultures where you don't always have the vocabulary, the parents may not "say the right thing" at the moment. Those cultures are still so rooted in love, and that's what I wanted to show in this book.

Jahan stands out because of how comfortable with who he is, and he could make an impact on young queer readers. How do you feel about creating a character with the potential to be impactful, and what could have it meant to you to see someone like Jahan in a story?

As a closeted kid growing up, I didn't know how powerful and life-affirming queer stories and found family could be. That's where we get our mirrors. So for me, it wasn't a book, but it was that summer in Rome where I met this queer Iranian poet friend, and watching him live his life so proudly made me feel like I should be prouder and louder about who I am — all the sides of who I am, even if I wasn't totally sure how. My thinking was he made it work, so what was stopping me? Not everyone will meet a Jahan in real life, but they will get read a book like this or watch a movie where queer people are embracing who they are, and that can be affirming.

What do you hope people take away from How It All Blew Up?

I just want people to feel like they can own who they are. When you're different, it's really easy to think you have to hide certain parts of yourself. When you grow up, you learn that you don't — that's the secret they don't tell you. Amir reached the point where he wanted to bring down the wall separating the different parts of who he is in How It All Blew Up. It doesn't happen all at once, but he does get there eventually. That's what I hope readers take away: that they have it in them to own, embrace, and celebrate all of the parts of who they are.

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