Stories to Tell
With a New Novel Set in the First Decade of the Pandemic, Author, Screenwriter & Producer Abdi Nazemian Champions Narratives from the Margins
by Allie Oakes
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Tommy Wu
On Father’s Day, 2017, I stumbled across a post made by a stranger, Abdi Nazeminan. He was pictured with his husband and their young son and daughter. I commented, telling him how hopeful I felt reading his words of gratitude and seeing the joy in his eyes as he sat with what seemed to be a really happy family. I expressed that, as the worried mom of a son who had just come out, Nazemian’s post showed me that if my son ever wanted, he could have a bright future that included a husband and children. Nazemian responded as if we were friends. Over a little time, we engaged here and there, and he offered valuable insight to me as well as encouragement. I kept meaning to Google him because he had the little blue check by his Instagram handle, @abdaddy, and I wondered what exactly he did to get it, but I always got distracted. One day, at the end of the year, I put it all together and realized that he had something to do with what was at the time, a newly released movie titled, Call Me By Your Name. How could that be? Was anyone in Hollywood with a movie nearing its release remotely concerned about a total stranger? By the end of this article, you will see as a matter of fact, Abdi Nazemian is that and more.
It turns out, Nazemian, an Iranian-American, is a storyteller extraordinaire who holds the titles of author, screenwriter, director, and producer, just to name a few. His website www.abdaddy.com states that, “He is the Head of Development for Water’s End Productions” and “has been an executive producer or associate producer on numerous films including Call Me By Your Name, It Happened In L.A., The Price, The House of Tomorrow, and Little Woods.” Nazemian’s first novel, The Walk-In Closet, was awarded Best Debut Fiction of 2015 at the 27th Lambda Literary Awards. He has since written several other books, including two young adult novels. The Authentics was released last year and will become a young-adult TV series in which Daria, a first-generation Iranian-American, discovers through a DNA test that she’s adopted and then takes a cultural journey through a Los Angeles she never knew existed to help build a more expansive view of family.
This past June, he released Like a Love Story (HarperCollins). I had the pleasure of previewing it. Nazemian sets a great lure for readers with a few diverse fictional characters. He then builds the reader’s interest in the individual perspectives of these characters and their shared friendship as they experience life in very historically accurate circumstances of 1989. Nazemian did a great job of keeping the work of fiction intact. Reading this book and conducting the interview gave me a chance to look at 1989 through the eyes of a forty-three year-old adult who was fourteen at that time, and only remembers the fear that was rampant in America around the AIDS crisis.
Readers are first introduced to the Iranian-American Reza. He is new to New York City and becoming increasingly aware that he is attracted to the same sex, and, therefore, does not fit the mold for the Iranian culture in his home, to which he is deeply devoted. They watch him adjust to life in the Big Apple and emerge into the reality of what it was like to be young, gay and terrified of AIDS. Readers meet Judy, a girl who is into fashion and friends, and who happens to have a complicated, surprising, and enormous crush on Reza. Judy is the neice of her treasured uncle, Stephen, who is a gay man living with AIDS. Stephen has a profound impact on the teens as they observe his life as an activist with ACT UP. Then, there is Art, the only happily out boy at school and Judy’s best friend, who will be favored by most readers for his boldness and courage. The plot thickens and readers grow in hunger to know the outcome of the deepening relationship between Art and Reza.
Nazemian weaves in his own experience, tempered by hindsight, to reveal the complicated layers of emotion surrounding the known and unknown facts about AIDS that faced the entire nation, but especially those in the LGBTQ+ community. As you can imagine, he doesn’t leave out the layer of ethnicity. No matter what character with whom you most connect, you will find yourself, inspired to live boldly today, remembering the path that was paved with the lives and passionate activism of others. Nazemian himself said in the book and in person, “Too often we talk about history repeating itself in negative ways and we forget that if we remain educated, we can honor the best parts of the past, repeating the best of history instead of the worst.” In this work, he has created a story in which readers will find education about the past and empowerment for the present and the future. You will strengthen your resolve to continue to memorialize all who were lost as victims of AIDS, as well as desiring to respect and honor the struggle that has scarred those who remain as long-term survivors or family and friends.
On a rainy winter day, I spoke to Nazemian in his beautiful home nestled in the hills above West Hollywood.
Allie Oakes: On the back of your book, it is referred to as “A bighearted, epic love letter to the LGBTQ community” and that it is. I have to say that after reading your words on page 30, where you discuss why the LGBTQ community will never be deficient of love, I became so emotional. You write, “But I’ll tell you what we will never be deficient of. LOVE. We love art and beauty. We love new ideas and pushing boundaries. We love fighting against corruption…..” And you list several things and you finish by saying, “But most of all, we love each other. Know that. We love each other. We care for each other. We are brothers and sisters, mentors and students, and together we are limitless and whole. The most important four-letter word in our history will always be LOVE. That’s what we are fighting for. That’s who we are. Love is our legacy.” Your repeated words to the reader of the consistent love found within the community felt so important to me for young people to hear.
Abdi Nazemian: Well, it’s also something that’s so important to me. I think it’s so important for people who don’t have that ally in their lives to know that historically, the gay community has each other’s backs, and that’s what gets me so excited about telling this story! When the AIDS epidemic really hit its peak in the United States, there was nobody of power, or outside the community who was willing to step up and help so the gay community had to be there for each other. They were taking care of each other, they were demanding life-saving medications. And of course there were allies, but it is an example of a community that is ostracized, and coming together to both care for and love each other and to create change.
It’s such a model to me for any community that feels ostracized and I think right now for young people, how hard it must be for so many [of them] when we are living in an era where the President is openly mocking people of many different walks of life and ethnicities and faith. It’s very hard when you’re young. I’m older and I feel like my skin is thicker. I can only imagine what it would be like to be young and hearing about conversations around Iran and the travel ban. The kind of stuff coming out of the mouth of the President would be much more hurtful were I an impressionable preteen or teen.
I think it’s important to look at this [past] era, almost as a model of how communities can come together, both to love and care for each other, and to demand change. That is what I think is so important. To me, the book is equal parts love and anger. There’s a lot of rage, as there should be. People were treated horribly in that era. Hospitals wouldn’t take care of people. Families wouldn’t care for children. The President wouldn’t even say the word, “AIDS”! Governments did nothing! So there needs to be that anger, but at the same time the thing that really fueled things forward was the love the community had for each other. Queer people coming together and caring for each other and going out in the streets and demanding change. You need both.
I love the writer’s note at the back of the book in which you talk about the actual activists and groups who caused change.
I did want to find a way to include something of real value in the end about how often times we say we need to learn history because otherwise history will repeat itself. The implication is unless you learn history, the bad things will repeat, but a concept that was very interesting to me in writing the book is the concept of learning to repeat the good stuff. Why do we always say it’s the bad stuff that will repeat? What about the fact that ACT UP was a life-saving organization from which we can learn ? We could study ACT UP and how it came to be and was structured, and how it interacted with other activist organizations of the time. What were the forces that came together to create the change that was needed? Why not study the good in history and think about how to repeat it? That’s exciting to me because it is not limited to any one issue! It’s about gun reform, immigrant issues, Black Lives Matter, and any person or group that is being mistreated in anyway. We need to study the history of activism. What was successful is important.
In writing this book, did you answer any of those questions for yourself?
My history doesn’t include typical activism, although I certainly have been involved in activist organizations. I view writing as my form of activism as much as possible. I once had an Iranian woman on Twitter who really attacked me for not doing enough for Iranian gay people, especially in Iran. I don’t usually respond, but in this case I felt like I should because she was coming from a place that I agree with. We should be talking about queer people in Iran, but as a writer who lives in the United States and hasn’t been to Iran since I was two years old, I would never know how to mobilize there. That’s not my skill. I told her I have written three books that feature gay Iranian characters, which are some of just a few books to have done this. I am giving visibility. I am speaking to the community and the country in which I live, and to the Iranian community here. I am trying. I wrote a screenplay about two gay Iranian teens and couldn’t get it made. As much as possible, in my capacity as a writer, I tell these stories and that is all I can do. I don’t know how to get involved in changing the laws in Iran.
For the most part I’ve had lots of very positive feedback for what I am doing, especially as I started to talk about this book. I’m very honest. I was not an ACT UP activist. I was way too young for one thing, but that’s not who I was even when I would have been old enough. My first boyfriend who is not with us anymore had the spirit of an activist. I didn’t have that spirit. It took me a long time to come out to my family. It took me a long time to really accept myself. That is not who I am. I’ve always looked up to and respected people who are outspoken. As I have come into myself as an older man, I am very proud. I have this beautiful family. I view a lot of art as a form of activism and have hopefully contributed through my writing. Hopefully that is enough. I think so many of the people in my generation of queer people want to figure out how to give back because there was so much that was really awful. I know I don’t want young people to feel the things I felt. I don’t want them to be ashamed. I think so much about immigrant communities because I think the dominant narrative around gay issues will always be about white gay men. I don’t think we give enough attention to the fact that the large immigrant populations in this country are not as far along. There are still so many queer people in immigrant families here who are going through very difficult times. I often hear my white gay friends say things like, “Aren’t we done with coming out narratives? Aren’t we done with coming out movies?” I want to say, “Maybe you’re done, but people from immigrant cultures are not.” If we as a society, and a government and a community are not reaching minority communities, we are doing something wrong. So yes, I do still think we have a ways to go and stories to tell, and I think right now is a very exciting time because there’s so much focus on intersectionality. There’s finally an opportunity for people to have parts in stories if they’re Middle Eastern and gay or black and gay. Pose is a perfect example! It’s a TV show where the leads are queer people of color! Mostly trans people of color! They actually hire writers who can speak to that experience in an authentic way. If you had told me when I was growing up that there would be a world where something like that would be on TV and then nominated for Golden Globes….
Can you imagine what you would have done?!
No! It would have been absolutely wild. I remember so well because I didn’t have much exposure to gay culture growing up. If there were kind of whispers of some movie with gay themes or anything like that, it was almost white gay men, and I remember very well when Madonna made the “Vogue” video and started the Blonde Ambition tour, which I saw twice. The dancers were pretty much all gay men of color. I’m trying to remember if there was even one white dancer. It was really revolutionary! I was a person who was not out but knew deep down I was gay. I was dark and brown. I didn’t ever see myself until that, and to suddenly see all these men who are basically of color and different ethnicities was fabulous! There was importance in seeing those men! I think especially of seeing one whose name was Slam [Salim Gauwloos]. He appeared as if he could have been Iranian, though I think he was part Egyptian [Gauwaloos is Belgian and Moroccan]. I want to make sure that kids today see themselves in stories. I want to make sure that you know someone can turn on the TV and find Pose. If they’re Middle Eastern and coming out, I want them to experience the importance of seeing themselves in media when they find a book like mine. We are doing a better job in the media of doing that and we just have to keep going.
As a mom of five kids and a friend to so many in the LGBT+ community, I believe that Abdi Nazemian is exactly the kind of person who should be spotlighted as someone from whom we can all learn, but especially those who are young. Each of us is capable of genuinely being ourselves, and sharing of our talents. Abdi models this through his writing and everyday living which you can find on Instagram, just like I did on Father’s Day a couple of years ago. In my opinion, he is an activist and a change-maker. In reading his work, you will find inspiration to make a unique difference of your own in the world around you. If nothing else, be encouraged to evaluate whatever gift you have to bring courage, laughter, empowerment, love, and hope to others. That is what it looks like to change the world, person by person. Even on social media.
For more information about Abdi Nazemian, visit: abdaddy.com.
For more information about the photographer, visit: tommywuphotography.com.
Allie Oakes has five kids, including Cooper who identifies as gay and agender. After Cooper came out, Allie reevaluated rigid religious views and eventually created Baby Gay Book, a journal encouraging LGBT+ to celebrate and document their first year out. In an effort to improve the lives of LGBT+ youth and their influencers, she communicates methods of support through her organization, Made of Onyx. To learn more, please visit: madeofonyx.com.