Arvin Ahmadi says of his third YA novel, How It All Blew Up, scheduled for publication by Viking Books for Young Readers in fall 2020, it is “the book I never thought I would write.” But his agent and his editor, both of whom are partnering for the first time with Ahmadi, anticipate that the third release will be the charm, and that it will break out Ahmadi in a crowded market.
The story of a gay, Muslim, Iranian-American teenager named Amir, How It All Blew Up opens with Amir declaring that he is not a terrorist, but is gay, as he, his immigrant parents, and his younger sister are separated and then interrogated by U.S. Customs officers upon their arrival at JFK Airport from a trip abroad to Rome.
“Its intersections of identity hit the zeitgeist’s bullseye, particularly as it will be published in the final weeks leading up to the election,” said Brooks Sherman of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, who in April replaced Tina DuBois of ICM as Ahmadi’s agent and negotiated in June “a significant increase” over the 2016 advance Ahmadi received for his first two YA novels, Down and Across and Girl Gone Viral.
Sherman called How It All Blew Up “exactly the kind of narrative, both in format and content, that I want to be working on these days,” describing it as a “nuanced” character-driven tale that addresses topical social issues without becoming an issues-driven novel. “There’s no moralizing, no preaching. It’s the perfect response to and protest of the entire idea of MAGA and the social agendas of the Trump administration.”
For his part, Viking publisher Ken Wright stated that How It All Blew Up is “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, with its heartwarming plot twists, meets Hasan Minhaj’s hilarious explorations of uncomfortable truths.”
Wright, who became Ahmadi’s editor after Alex Ulyett left Viking last year for business school, said his new book “fits squarely into the YA space we know is resonating best with readers right now. It’s an identity-driven romp, an Own Voices story with LGBTQIA themes, it stars a young Muslim protagonist, explores an intersectional identity, and addresses issues related to prejudice and immigration.”
“Arvin’s writing is lively, funny, heartfelt, and unpredictable,” Wright said. “But what makes this one unique is that it’s seems to be so personal to Arvin’s own experiences about growing up brown, Muslim, and gay in today’s America. That’s not a storyline we see a lot in YA.”
Coming Out, in Life and in Fiction
Indeed, Wright is correct: Ahmadi may have crafted such a powerful story in How It All Blew Up because it is also his most personal one yet, with a protagonist more closely reflecting the author’s own intersectionalities as a gay Iranian-American Muslim than his two previous novels: the Iranian-American teenager struggling to fit into two disparate cultures in Down and Across, and the teenage coder who creates a virtual reality platform while searching for her missing father in Girl Gone Viral.
Ahmadi, 27, the U.S.-born son of Iranian immigrants, grew up in the Washington, D.C. metro area. After graduating from Columbia University with a double major in political science and computer science, Ahmadi worked in the tech world for two years before becoming a full-time writer.
A trip to Italy in the summer of 2018 changed Ahmadi’s long-held belief that he could not reconcile those two seemingly contradictory sides of his identity as a first-generation Iranian-American who is also gay; notably, Ahmadi said, he met during his travels an Iranian gay man who not only urged him to accept himself in all of his complexities, but encouraged him to celebrate his identity. “It was a life-changing experience for me,” Ahmadi said, “that I could [admit that] I am both Iranian and gay in the same breath.”
Ahmadi, who had been working at the time on a novel about a multi-generational Iranian family reaching for the American dream, decided to hold off on that tale, and instead start writing How It All Blew Up. Like the other project, it contains a multi-generational cast of characters. Scenes of Amir being interrogated by customs officers about his Roman holiday are interspersed with scenes of his parents and sister telling their own versions of the story about how Amir came to cause an “incident” on the flight from Rome that resulted in their detention.
The Rashomon-like format of multiple narratives, Ahmadi explained, was also inspired by that same real-life trip to Italy. Leaving Rome for Berlin, he recalled that he felt compelled to share the personal epiphany he had experienced in response to questioning by Italian customs officers demanding to know why he had spent two months in that country. While, in real life, his family wasn’t there with him during this interrogation, Ahmadi wanted to explore in his fiction the impact upon an entire family of a member pushing back against their traditional cultural norms in one sense (being openly gay) while also participating in them in other ways (telling stories).
“Our experiences don’t happen in a vacuum,” Ahmadi added. “Of course, Amir’s coming out is going to touch his mother, father, and sister.” At the book’s conclusion, he reveals, the family is reunited, and “there’s hope: you know where they are going. [Amir’s] coming out is a process, but you know they will get through it.”
While Ahmadi admits to feeling nervous about coming out in such a public way, he is also excited to speak his truth, especially if it helps any young person who might be contemplating having their own difficult conversations with family and friends about their life choices. “I’m curious as to how it will connect with people,” Ahmadi said. “I wrote this book for a very specific reason, but I hope it will connect on a broader scale.”
While Ahmadi’s tale could have been ripped from today’s newspaper headlines, due to the Trump administration’s controversial stances on gay people, Muslims, Iran, and immigrants with brown skin, Ahmadi insists that he didn’t write How It All Blew Up in response to current events. “I just wrote it for myself,” he declared. “I am willing to be louder and prouder of all the parts I am. It’s not productive to be silent.”
As for the timing of the novel’s release, Wright maintained that it is coincidental, although its timely themes will inevitably be hot-button issues during the 2020 presidential campaign. Acknowledging that “we did all stop for a moment to ask whether fall 2020 was the right season” for such a release, Wright said that the conclusion was that “this is a novel that can get attention and not get lost amid all the election chatter. There’s enough room in the world for both an election and the publication of a YA novel about one kid’s struggle to come out to his family.”