Queer author and film producer opens up about his experiences to a fellow Iranian-American
Abdi Nazemian is living the Hollywood dream as a writer (Menendez: Blood Brothers, The Good Father), story editor (Ordinary Joe, Almost Family) and producer, most notably of the Academy Award-winning Call Me By Your Name and The Artist’s Wife. But Nazemian’s alter-ego as an acclaimed young adult author, speaks the truest to his lived experiences as a queer Iranian American.
Nazemian lives with his husband and their two middle school-aged children in Los Angeles, where he landed some two decades after an almost around-the-world journey. Nazemian was born in Tehran, Iran, and left the country at the age of two with his family after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. They lived in Paris for five years, then moved to Toronto, Canada for three years before immigrating yet again, this time to the suburbs of New York. This last move was the most impactful for Nazemian, as it was the first time he was apart from his extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins, who, until this point, had been a shield of sorts. His place in his family unit helped him avoid feeling cultural displacement.
“I felt alone and very immersed in American culture, which I did not understand at all, but at the same time, was always obsessed with,” says Nazemian. “I used to watch movies and read books and listen to music in my room, living most of my life in a world of fictional reality. That’s when I fell in love with storytelling.”
His next formative change happened at 14 when his parents sent him to boarding school in Connecticut—an experience he draws upon heavily in his riveting 2022 novel, The Chandler Legacies. Every decision his family made was for a better future for Nazemian, in this case for the best education. Nazemian is split when he recalls his boarding school years, “The first year was, without a doubt, the hardest year of my life. I was even more displaced. It was really a horrible environment. It was very abusive. There was quite a bit of hazing.
“But,” he continues, “The irony is, boarding school was also where I met all my best friends, all the people who eventually made me feel accepted. It’s where I had an English teacher who was a mentor and the first person I came out to. In a lot of ways, boarding school is also where I got to be myself. If I hadn’t gone, I would not have had that environment that made me see myself as a writer and an artist and a gay person, which, at that point, was unheard of. It was just not something I thought I could be.”
The Chandler Legacies is Nazemian’s middle novel with a representative gay Iranian American male protagonist. The Stonewall Honor Book Like a Love Story (2019), a moving story which takes place in late ‘80s New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic, precedes it. Nazemian’s latest novel, the stunning Only This Beautiful Moment, explores the experiences of current day Moud, his father Saeed in the ‘70s and ‘80s and his grandfather Bobby from the ‘30s to the present time. Family is at the center of all Nazemian’s books, including his first YA title, The Authentics (2017), and his debut adult novel, the Lambda Literary Award-winning The Walk-In Closet (2014). This content-rich area is one of the sources for Nazemian’s “emotionally autobiographical fiction,” which (in between long stints on the Writer’s Guild picket line), he dissects for me, his fellow Iranian American.
You paint an unexpected picture of the underground queer party scene in Tehran in Only This Beautiful Moment. What is your experience with it?
I’ve never experienced it. How I wrote the book was by calling relatives and researching and asking them so much about daily life. I was raised very Iranian, around Iranians, speaking the language, immersed in the food, the music, the culture, but I don’t know the place.
I know a lot of Americans who have gone and who have absolutely loved it. The germ of Only This Beautiful Moment started a long time ago when an American friend of mine visited Iran. At that time, you had to be on a cultural tour. He calls me at 4AM Tehran time, and he’s at a party and there are all these gay people. That was some of what fascinated me about modern Iran scenes for this novel.
Have you been back to Iran since you left as a baby?
No. I’d love to go back. One of the more emotional things that’s come up since the new wave of protests started—and now I think everything’s changing as we start to lose hope again—but in that very beginning of the protests when we all felt very hopeful that maybe this was the time that the regime would fall, I remember talking to my dad and him telling me that he hopes that we can go back and how emotional that was for me to hear. I think it spoke to a lot of Iranians like me who don’t have any memories of Iran and we were realizing how sad we felt because it was almost like we were having this yearning, this hope that we could go back to a place that deep within us we miss. We feel there’s a void in us for this place that we don’t technically know.
What have been your experiences with the recent uprisings?
I’ve spoken to so many fellow Iranians who feel disappointed by the lack of curiosity, coverage, empathy in the U.S. There’s so little out there, and when there is, it doesn’t feel nuanced. They talk about it for a day and then forgot about it. It is isolating sometimes to be Iranian in this country because it feels like we don’t fit into any bigger group here. Nobody knows who we are. I don’t know that the American culture at large has shown the level of curiosity about us that they should.
I feel very grateful to America for giving my family our ultimate home and giving me the freedom to be this queer storyteller and parent. But I also feel the way forward is to involve some acknowledgement of past wrongdoings and some understanding of why we’re here, in the same way that I talked about boarding school, balancing gratitude for all the gifts with the stuff that hurt you. As this new wave of protests kicked up, it’s kicking up feelings of, “Why do people in America not want to know? Not want to be curious about our history, our communities, our culture? What is it going to take for them to care about us?”
Only This Beautiful Moment does a great job of juxtaposing Western society and attitudes with those of Iranians, particularly with the main protagonist Moud’s boyfriend, Shane.
There’s so much about what’s happening politically and emotionally here in the West that I feel isn’t necessarily giving us the healing spiritual community that we need. There is a lot of shaming of individual decisions. There’s so much division. I was very interested in the book in exploring what it might be like to have a completely Western character go to Iran and see a totally different version of life.
A lot of the Shane character started when I was staying at the Bel Air Hotel. My husband posted a photo, and I got a phone call from someone I barely know, who just started screaming at me because the hotel is partially owned by the Sultan of Brunei, then hung up on me before I could even speak. When I was processing that I was very shaky. But I thought, “What a bold thing for a White American gay man to call me screaming when I’m in this country because of a chain of events America began in Iran by deposing Mossadegh and getting rid of democracy and causing my family to suffer and eventually resettle here and now I’m being screamed at for staying in a hotel.”
That led to a lot of the dynamic with Moud and Shane. What I wanted to say through that particular storyline is, before you judge someone for their micro decisions, have some curiosity about the true emotional experience they’ve gone through. Unfortunately, I think the modern communicative tools that we have, like social media, have made curiosity and empathy a lot harder. There’s less looking in people’s eyes. There’s less room to actually listen to someone.
You have queer Iranian boys and their relationships with their families in your three more recent novels. I’m assuming you are drawing on your own experiences to a certain degree?
When I was young, it was a different time and were learning to navigate on instinct. Much of the gay community that I came up into was White. I was friends with many immigrant kids who weren’t gay. But the gay friends I had were mostly White. They had very supportive families from liberal parts of America who joined PFLAG and marched in parades with them.
Intersectional people have a lot to offer this world because when you’re navigating two identities that don’t fit, you learn a lot about humanity. When my parents and other Iranians were not supportive of me after I came out, a lot of my White gay friends had a very scorched earth attitude of, you shouldn’t speak to them anymore. That was so antithetical to how I was raised in my belief system, which is all about family loyalty, no matter what. I have to hand it to my family. Even if they weren’t accepting of me being gay in the beginning or had a hard time with it, they never cut me out of their lives. I also never cut them out of mine. There was this understanding between us that we were always going to love each other, as we figured all this out.
It’s difficult to explain the Iranian family bond to non-Iranians.
We’re so different in terms of how we’re raised and what our values are. The American friends I have cut family members out of their life if they voted for a politician they don’t like. When you come from a place like Iran, where the politics, the loss, the trauma are so much more extreme, it’s very hard to think I’m not going to speak to my mother or my aunt, one of the few beloved people I have, who truly understands who I am and where I came from and how I got to this point. Maybe Americans have more of a luxury of doing that because they feel so at home in this country. When there’s millions of options of people that understand you and you feel accepted by anyone, cutting one person out isn’t as big a deal to them.
It’s so American to ask, “When was your coming out?” It implies that you had to do it once and you were able to do it once. When you come from a community like ours, you have to have 500 test runs. Between coming out to my English teacher and then slowly coming out to friends, cousins, it was almost 10 years before I came out to my parents. Even once I came out to my family, I had to do it over and over because they would conveniently forget or compartmentalize or think it was a phase.
Do you relate more to being Iranian or American?
I’m obviously very American, but there’s always a sense of remove. I don’t feel fully at home in America. I feel like I’m not completely of this place. That’s something a lot of immigrant kids, even if they came here very young, can identify with.
I think it has a lot to do with the void of history that I felt because I never got to experience what it was. My parents talked about life in Iran and how family was all around you and you were always in a unit. We didn’t have that feeling of constantly belonging to a huge, abundant family. Growing up I had what many immigrants have, which is parents who thought that the right thing to do was not to tell you anything about the trauma. I knew a lot about the food, the music, but I didn’t know anything about what our lives were like in Iran. A lot of my adult life has been about piecing together my own history and that’s a hard thing to do, because you’re piecing it together intellectually, not necessarily emotionally.
In a lot of ways, the books that I write are my way of getting into it emotionally and healing the pieces of me that are not whole. Plus, there’s the queer element, because I felt like I had to escape the Iranian community and my family and just to be myself and be gay and start my own life. Now finally, there’s this feeling of somewhat acceptance in the community, it’s very emotional for me because I feel like I can finally be myself in the Iranian community, which I never had before.
Do you see changes in the Iranian community toward you as a queer person?
The Iranian community I see now has grown so much from when I was a kid. There was so much homophobia in the community when I was younger. Even when I wrote my first novel, which was not even 10 years ago, and it was a very gay novel, it was virtually impossible to get any Iranian person to pay attention to it. There was a handful. Every time an Iranian person supported me as a storyteller, I was so shocked and moved and it was such a big deal. Nine years later it feels like a world of difference. There’s a long way to go in our community. But there’s empathy and bridge building and I’m proud of our community.
I was surprised that you wanted to write novels when you already have such an established film and television career. But it sounds like it’s very healing for you?
For sure. Deeply healing. Creativity in and of itself is healing because you’re taking everything that’s bottled up inside you and externalizing it. Fiction, in particular, is very healing because, for me, who writes very emotionally autobiographical fiction, it’s an opportunity to rewrite your own story in a way that you wish it may have happened. I find writing to be the most powerful tool for healing.
I was raised, like many Iranians, to bottle up my emotions, to not show people my feelings. The books have really been an opening for me to share myself and particularly, the last three books I’ve written have been much more personal. Anyone who reads these three books will know most of what they need to know about me. Like a Love Story, Reza, the character that’s very much based on me, is full of all the stuff I hid all my life: fear, stigma, shame. I thought nobody would want to read it and it was the one that did the best and people loved the most. It made me realize that number one, I was never as alone as I thought I was. And number two, when you let yourself be vulnerable is also when let yourself be loved and healed. That’s something I had to learn through experience because I was always told not to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable would be to scare people away.
Coming from a country with so many restrictions that are punishable by death, what are your thoughts on banned books?
I feel like we have to do a better job of highlighting the people who are doing something right in this country. Oftentimes, there’s just too much of an emphasis on the negative and then we end up bolstering the side we don’t want to, because we keep focusing on them. I never seem to read stories about the heroic teachers who are championing queer students.
There’s a whole wave of people who want teachers and schools to tell families if their kids are queer. That, to me, is so dangerous. Had I not had the ability to come out to an English teacher and feel safe knowing that he would never tell my family, I wouldn’t have done it. Who knows who I would be now if I never would have come out? If we don’t allow young people to explore who they are outside of their family ecosystem, we’re going to create a generation of young people that just lives in fear forever.
Is it important for you that your children grow up with a connection with your Iranian heritage?
It’s very important. My kids have a relationship with my parents that just has completely shifted my own view of humanity. A lot of parents say the relationship that their children have with their parents is like the most healing thing. I started writing these books around the time that kids were born. That had a lot to do with it. There were basically no Iranian queer characters when I was young. I made a pact with myself that every one of my books would have an Iranian queer character. I need to populate the world with them.
I’ve taken my kids to multiple protests since the Zan, Zendegi, Azadi (Woman, Life Freedom) movement started. It’s a hard thing to talk to kids about, but it’s also a way for them to really understand what our Iranian brothers and sisters are going through in our country that I was born in. A lot of the reason I am writing these books is to share who I am with my kids, so there’s a document of our unique history, which is a real convergence of Iranian and queer history.