A Conversation with Abdi Nazemian on his book, Only This Beautiful Moment
A Conversation with
On his book, “Only This Beautiful Moment”
“I’ve learned as I’ve become older how to lean deeply into my own cultural identity in my writing. I hope Iranian people find and celebrate this book, because it really is a love letter to all of us.”
A Conversation with Abdi Nazemian
On his book, “Only This Beautiful Moment”
There isn’t much that Abdi Nazemian doesn’t excel at in the creative sphere. An award-winning author, screenwriter and producer, his newest book, Only This Beautiful Moment, is an engrossing novel focused on an Iranian family dealing with multigenerational secrets, abandonments, and most of all, searching for love and acceptance.
Though the subject at hand can be fraught—queer love in Iran and in the Iranian community often results in familial rejections or expectations that individuals hide the fullness of who they are, let alone the many life-threatening repercussions—it’s also touching, funny, and deeply satisfying with a universal appeal.
The protagonist of your award-winning debut, The Walk-In Closet, was in her thirties. Since then, with respect to novels, you’ve been writing more young adult literature (though I consider that a limiting description, because this is novel that readers of all ages will find relatable). What can you do in YA that other literary genres don’t allow?
AN I honestly don’t think of YA as all that different from any other literary genre. To me, genres are a way to market art more than anything else. Within the young adult genre, you’ll find everything you’ll find in other genres: literary novels, mysteries, romances, novels-in-verse, historical fiction, and more. But I’ll give you two reasons I started writing young adult books.
The first is that I observed the kind of authentically diverse stories young people were asking for and gravitating to, and I saw a place where my own personal stories might be embraced. After a decade of writing for film and television, I grew frustrated watching all my most personal scripts sitting on shelves. None of the scripts I wrote about Iranian characters or queer characters ever got made. So, I took a deep breath and tackled books because I needed to find a way to get my personal stories out there. But the truth is that my first novel, The Walk-In Closet, couldn’t get a publisher and barely anyone read it. Within the YA world, I saw a world of readers who might want the stories I needed to tell.
The second reason is simply because, as a queer person, a lot of the stories that still haunt me happened in my own adolescence, and telling these stories has been a way for me to revisit and heal the most impactful and difficult parts of my life, from living in the closet, to growing up in the shadow of the worst years of HIV/AIDS, to boarding school, to the creation of my own identity.
“Once again, the lines between Iran and America blur, just like the lines between then and now. Borders feel more fluid than ever.”
So is identity: we meet each of the protagonists around the age of 17, when they aren’t entirely adults, yet have moved beyond childhood. At this age, identity is forming, but it can often feel uncertain, and others can have an outsized influence. Why was this the pivotal moment you selected for Moud, Saeed and Bobby? And if I may, what were you like at that age?
AN By 17, I was starting to become the person I am now, thanks to the empowering friendships and mentorships I found in high school. A lot of my novels center on a character who hides a lot of his light (Reza in Like a Love Story, Ramin in The Chandler Legacies, Moud in Only This Beautiful Moment), and learns how to shine because of the powerful impact of being truly seen by a community that lets him know who he is and where he belongs. I suppose that’s my own journey. By 17, I had discovered my creativity and had made the friends who remain my best friends. But I was still in the closet, still afraid of what my life might be, still hiding myself from my family. I suppose I chose those older teen years to explore in this novel because it’s the cusp of moving from childhood to adulthood. I also wanted to explore how different 17 feels for different members of the same family, in different eras. At 17, Bobby is already a working professional, and Saeed is dealing with a country in upheaval, whereas Moud, as a modern teenager in America, is dealing with a very different reality. And yet, as often with the human experience, there are universal experiences they all share as adolescents, the identity-building we all go through around that age.
In the book, the character Bahar says that “love easily given can be easily taken away.” Love and romance, platonic and otherwise, is deeply important to this novel—as well as in our own lives—for primary and secondary characters. Do you believe in love at first sight?
AN I do believe in love at first sight actually, but I also believe that in order for that love to last, there needs to be a lot of work, commitment, connection, forgiveness, empathy, understanding, and laughter. My husband and I fell in love at first (or perhaps second) sight. There was an instant bond and connection. That doesn’t mean we haven’t worked to keep that connection alive, but it was there from the moment we locked eyes. The same goes for many of my friendships. And also for my artistic loves. I fell in love with Madonna at age seven when I saw her Lucky Star video. I knew instantly she’d be my eternal artistic love, and I wasn’t wrong. I knew I needed her strength. Same thing happened when Lana Del Rey released her first video two months before my kids were born. I saw one video and knew instantly she’d be the artist of my mid-life years. I knew I needed her vulnerability. So, I guess I do believe in love at first sight, along with the necessary work to keep the love alive.
I especially appreciated the way the novel explores—and has sympathies for—the lives parents have, separate from their children. You explore the rare grace of being able to see each other as people rather than positions: father, son, grandfather. “I stare at my dad, who has never expressed interest in poetry to me, and who can suddenly recite this one by heart. What else is he hiding in his heart?”
AN You wanna know something I find hilariously upsetting? Many frightened parents and politicians are trying to ban my novel Like a Love Story, and want to stop the book from being taught in schools, and stop me from speaking at schools. But the speech I always begin with when I speak to young people is about empathy and patience for our elders, even when they aren’t giving us the acceptance and love we deserve. As a queer Iranian, I grew up without any support or acceptance. I honestly still don’t feel I get that acceptance from the Iranian community. I encounter so much homophobia. And yet, because I understand the context, and because I love my family and community with all my heart, I keep doing the work of educating, empathizing, and slowly breaking down the barriers of fear and judgment. I suppose a lot of my own personal journey has been about taking a step back from my own pain to realize the generation of Iranians who came before me, including my parents, went through much worse and deserve my empathy. And they deserve to be protagonists in their own story, which is why it was exciting for me to explore three generations in this book.
Abdi, there is so much breadth to your creative pursuits. From film to television to books, you do it all. How do you move through screenwriting, literary writing and film production? Are you typically doing all three at once?
AN I tend to work in focused chunks of time. When I’m in a writers’ room for a television show, it’s an all-consuming job that requires my undivided attention. I tend to write my books in hotel rooms in quick bursts of time. Of course, there’s less focused work that can get done during little breaks: meetings, revisions, emails. But I try to stay within the universe of one project when doing the core creative work.
The fathers and sons of the novel are all involved in the arts, and of course, I’m biased, but I do feel that the Iranian culture has a deep, abiding passion for all creative endeavors. Beyond what you already do in film and literature, do you engage in other pursuits such as music, visual art, etc. (Do you read poetry every night before bed?)
AN Engaging with art is one of the biggest parts of my life. The arts were what guided me when I was young. They gave me hope and showed me who I might be someday. I do indeed engage in other pursuits. I read constantly, including poetry, which I love but have never been brave enough to write. I doodle constantly. I’m also taking piano lessons with our son. In months, he’s turned into a mini-Beethoven while I still struggle to play the chords of a Madonna song. But music is probably the art form that means the most to me, and remains most mysterious to me, so decoding the piano has been a real gift. Also, I’m a big believer in the arts and creativity being much broader than what we often think of. As one example, our daughter is an avid baker and cook, and that’s an art form. I always tell young people that to me, creativity means living with intention, making your own choices versus the ones made for you [by others].
In the novel, the character Zip talks about what we owe future generations, and I noticed that you make yourself available to talk to school groups. Would you talk about that? How do those interactions impact your writing, and most of all, how you perceive your work and impact?
AN It’s hard not to lead with the fact that right now, the book banning we’re facing has made these visits less likely to happen. Many educators are facing threats and intimidation, and are afraid to shake up their curriculum by including books like mine, and having me speak to their students. Which is heartbreaking because as I said earlier, so much of what I speak to young people about is bridge-building. When I do have the honor to speak to school groups, it’s deeply moving. The students I’ve interacted with have been curious, engaged, hopeful. They make me feel better about our future. And I know these interactions move them too, because the feedback is always so positive. I’ve spoken to kids who are the only ones from a particular country or region at their school who connect to my immigrant story. I’ve spoken to queer kids who, like me, feel safer in the world knowing their own history, which is sadly not taught in schools. And I’ve spoken to kids who have nothing in common with me, but who have a little more empathy for others after hearing about my journey. Without a doubt, school visits are the most rewarding and meaningful part of my work.
One of the things that’s phenomenal about this book is that it’s distinctly Iranian—multi-generational, too—but decidedly universal as well, especially in its treatment of family relationships, and the secrets and losses that drive us apart, and can ultimately bring us together. What kind of balance were you trying to strike? Or is this a natural focus, given your own background?
AN At some point, I think every writer is told that the specific is universal. It’s a bit of a writing cliché at this point, but it’s also very true and very hard to learn. Despite being told this at a young age, I was afraid of being too specific in my early writing. I had been rejected so many times for writing Iranian or queer stories in Hollywood, and so I tried to flatten my own writing into something that might appeal to everyone without revealing much about myself at all. Thankfully, I’ve learned in as I’ve become older how to lean deeply into my own cultural identity in my writing. I hope Iranian people find and celebrate this book, because it really is a love letter to all of us.
Humor is also a significant part of this novel. It serves two purposes: balancing the often-painful experiences of these men, but also a delightful reference to the aspects of Persianhood that are genuinely funny, and specific to us, such as “You have a cliché for every occasion. We have a poem for every occasion,” or the inexplicable love for Nivea (which I admit is in my own home as well).
AN Thanks for pointing this out. I tend to write books that sound very depressing from their descriptions, but I always try to fill them with humor, joy, community, music, color. It’s a great way to remind people that even as we struggle through the darkness, we still have moments of light. Now, let me go grab my Nivea, I’m feeling a little dry.
I know you were born in Iran, though raised in a number of cities and later, the United States, but the details—language, food, traditions, idioms from the 1940s to the current day—are perfectly pitched. What kind of research did you do to make these customs and details true to all of these time periods? What have been your own cultural experiences?
AN I’m an eternal student (see: my earlier answer about taking piano lessons). My projects often require research into another time period or a subject matter I know little about. I love that. It’s almost like forcing myself to take a history class each time I write something new. In this case, I chose two historical worlds that have fascinated and haunted me since I was a kid: the Old Hollywood of the 1930s and the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s. Getting to immerse myself even more deeply into these worlds was heaven. From music to books to old articles, there’s so much to learn. That said, the most invaluable resources when it comes to Iran in the 1970s and the present day were my own family members who were exceedingly generous in sharing the details of it with me. Especially when it comes to Iranian queer life, there’s very little published material to research from, for obvious reasons.
From a craft perspective: each of the chapters is in the first person when each protagonist is seventeen. They are so distinct, so nuanced. How did you write the book? A chapter at a time? Or each character separately, only to later divide them up into chapters? The way you explore who they each are in different eras requires a tremendous focus to keep it true and seamless. You “age” Saeed and Bobby so beautifully; seeing how the Saeed of 1978 becomes so different in 2019, as well as the 70-year arc of Bobby’s life.
AN I wrote it one chapter at a time. However, there was an earlier version of what would become Bobby’s story that was about a young woman navigating Old Hollywood. I transformed that unfinished book into pieces of Bobby’s story, and decided he would be the first in a line of Iranian men I’d explore. So that was where I started. But once I unlocked the idea of the three generations, I started fresh and went one chapter at a time. I don’t plot out my books in advance so the revelations of family secrets all felt very exciting as they were revealed to me by the characters.
In addition to the three primary protagonists, you create memorable secondary characters. Indeed, I’d suggest that this novel explores place and time as critical characters too; the Tehran of 1978 vs. the Tehran of 2019 is as much of an identity study as Saeed’s persona. The same for Los Angeles of 1939 compared to 2019. Would you talk about your approach to using cities and eras as characters?
AN Time obsesses me. I’ve always been obsessed with the past, whether that means watching movies from the 1930s when I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s, or whether that means wanting to know every detail of my hidden queer history and my Iranian history. I’ve always felt that I carry the past inside me, and I suppose in this book, I wanted to use the details of cities, eras, places and people to bring to life the feeling that each of us is more than one person, one place, one time. We are everything and everyone that’s come before us and will come after us, in one moment.
As we get to know each of the men in turn, it feels all the sweeter to consider them together in the present day. They’re sensitive souls. Their love for family. Their dreams. It was a satisfying end, and yet I still wanted to know what would happen for them next because I felt invested in them and their lives. Do you feel done with the characters of your novels? Contrast this to a television show, where there’s a regular (weekly) relationship, rather than the relative brevity of a novel. How is that for you as a creator?
AN Creating television and creating a novel are very, very different experiences for so many reasons. The primary one is that television is a deeply collaborative medium, with many writers working together, and then handing off the scripts to a team of creative people (actors, directors, producers, crew members) to bring those characters to life. By contrast, characters in a novel feel like they speak directly through me. It feels like they choose me in a way. But then, when the novel is done, I have to let go of them. It’s usually a very emotional process saying goodbye to them, but also very cathartic.
In Bobby’s section, the publicist Mildred said: “I’ve got my eye on you” and I appreciated how that Big Brother-esque image is woven throughout all of the protagonists’ experiences. Whether it’s a studio fixer, or a despotic regime, or even voluntarily, the tyrant of social media, there’s always some kind of entity that is watching, and either preventing or punishing free expression.
AN The forces of power have always been afraid of free expression. Whether it takes the form of a brutal government or of a controlling corporation, systems are too often designed to control and suppress individual expression. Maybe that’s why I love the arts so much. When art is pure, it’s a free expression, and that’s why great art will always inspire people to stand up against the systems that oppress and control us.
Are you going to create the show “Tehrangeles Swap”?
AN Haha, absolutely not. But if you do, please bring me on as a producer!
Zip’s comment is a powerful one: “Shame is humanity’s enemy. It’s the root of hatred and division.” And yet, your characterizations exhibit a tremendous generosity toward people. There’s a firm underlying foundation of being hopeful for the best in people, even while acknowledging the harm we do to each other and ourselves. Baba seems to have the last word on that too: “You can’t leave this earth without hope. I have to believe there’s a better world coming for my son, and my grandson, and all the future relatives I’ll never know.
AN I don’t know that I have anything to say that’s more eloquent that what my characters said. I do believe shame is our biggest enemy. Shaming people for who they are causes hatred of ourselves and of others to grow. I felt deeply ashamed for the first two decades of my life simply for being gay, and making it through that darkness has made me eternally and defiantly hopeful. And it’s given me a sense of purpose, which is to empower young people to combat shame every step of the way through knowledge, empathy and self-expression.
One of my favorite lines near the end of the novel is: “As the chanting and the guns and the voices screaming for a better world get farther and farther away, my dad whispers, “‘How can I know anything about the past or the future when the light of the beloved shines only now.’” I’m savoring this moment, now, and hope you are too, but I’d still love to know what else you’re working on.
AN I can’t say too much about what I’m working on, but as always, I’m balancing my film and television work with more young adult novels. One thing I can share that I’m beyond excited about is that I’m the only non-Brazilian author in an upcoming Pride anthology being published in Brazil. The interconnected stories all culminate at São Paulo Pride. My books, especially Like a Love Story, have been embraced by Brazilian readers in a way that warmed my heart. I spent much of the quarantine year(s) immersed in Brazilian culture because of these readers. I’ve been learning the language, and I’ve fallen madly in love with the music. So being a part of this anthology, and premiering a story in Portuguese, is a dream come true.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abdi Nazemian is the author of Like a Love Story, a Stonewall Honor Book, The Chandler Legacies, and The Authentics. His novel The Walk-In Closet won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Debut Fiction. His screenwriting credits include the films The Artist’s Wife, The Quiet, and Menendez: Blood Brothers and the television series The Village and Almost Family. He has been an executive producer and associate producer on numerous films, including Call Me by Your Name, Little Woods, and The House of Tomorrow. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband, their two children, and their dog, Disco. Learn more at abdinazemian.com. Follow him on Twitter @abdaddy.
AUTHOR PHOTO by Mandy Vahabzadeh. BOOK COVER courtesy of Safiya Zerrougui. Featured background image by Raot Otto via Unsplash.