I am so excited to welcome young adult author and film producer Abdi Nazemian today for 30 Days of Pride. I got the chance to ask Abdi a few questions about queer culture and his latest book, LIKE A LOVE STORY, which is a poignant and beautiful 1989-set historical fiction novel about three teens in New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic. You can find Abdi on Twitter (where he’s usually tweeting about Madonna) and his website. You can get LIKE A LOVE STORY at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.
Taylor: 30 Days of Pride is all about creating a sense of queer community during Pride Month by giving writers, bloggers, etc. a platform to share their voices and identities. Can you talk a bit about what queer identity, community and pride mean to you?
Abdi Nazemian: When I think about Pride, I think about a moment that happened just after my first novel The Walk-In Closet was released. That was an adult novel about a closeted Iranian-American and his family. An amazing Iranian-American therapist invited me to her house for a book club and talk. The crowd was largely from my parents’ generation, and I told them I wanted to have an honest, frank discussion about queer issues with them. At one point, an Iranian man asked me why queer people had pride parades when straight people don’t. His tone very much implied that he would prefer if we stayed quiet and hidden. I told him that we need those parades – and so many other forms of celebration – exactly because so many would rather we stay in the shadows. To me, pride is the queer community coming together and telling the world loud and proud that we will not stay silent just to make others more comfortable. It’s about empowering both ourselves and others in our community by using our collective voice. My latest novel, LIKE A LOVE STORY, is a love story to queer history, and to the queer community. It’s about a time when the queer community was dying and suffering, and came to each other’s rescue. I wrote it because I was rescued myself by the queer community, and needed to find a way to say thank you.
Taylor: I’ve been excited about LIKE A LOVE STORY since I first saw the cover reveal (it’s so gorgeous). I’ve never seen an #ownvoices YA queer historical fiction that deals directly with how the AIDS crisis impacted teens in NYC. Can you start us off by talking a little bit about where this beautiful book came from and what made you want to tell this story?
Abdi: I’ve been wanting to tell this story since I started writing. I think in some ways, I was too scared to tell it for a long time. It’s hard to revisit past trauma. I’m glad I wrote the story now, because I feel I have enough perspective from it (which is not to say I didn’t cry through the entire writing of this book, I did, and it was hard and cathartic). It’s the most personal story I’ve ever told. I wanted to capture what it was like to come of age as a gay immigrant to the United States at a time when all I knew of being gay were images of death and disease. I wanted to capture the fear and the shame and the rage of the era, but also the love and unity and heroism. I think that was the big revelation of writing the book for me, how full of love it would be. It’s a hard story to tell and likely a hard one to read, but it’s full of hope because it’s an ode to the many people – artists, activists, friends, mentors – who helped me overcome my shame and fear.
Taylor: In LIKE A LOVE STORY, you include several cultural hallmarks of the AIDS crisis from photography to activism. What was your research process like for this book? Where did you pull things and people from real life and where did you make things up?
Abdi: I was alive during the era – side note: there’s nothing like writing about your teen years and having it marketed as “historical fiction” – so I drew a lot from my own life for certain details, from fashion to music to language. That said, I was never involved in ACT UP, and researched their work thoroughly. I read so many books, many of which I mention at the end of the novel. I watched every available documentary I could find, and had two ACT UP activists read the book to make sure I was getting it right. I was adamant about not taking liberties with this aspect of the book. This is a tribute to the heroism and heart of every ACT UP member. These men and women saved my life and so many others. I would never knowingly make things up about what they did, so every action in the book is researched. The characters, however, are fictional. And I made a decision not to have real activists speak because I didn’t feel I had the right to put words in the mouths of these heroes. If people are interested in their work, my author’s note has suggestions for further research. I did change some minor things for story purposes. The biggest I can think of is moving the date of a Madonna concert by a small number of days for it to make sense for the timeline. Because there’s no way I was gonna write a book set in 1989 and 1990 that doesn’t include the Blond Ambition tour, the greatest piece of pop theater ever staged.
Taylor: You work as both a young adult author and a producer in film. What are some of the similarities and differences that you’ve found in bringing queer stories into the world in these two media? Does your work in one influence the other or do they remain separate for you?
Abdi: The similarities are that in both books and film, my priority is telling good stories. But the mediums are so different. Film and television are collaborative mediums, which is very fun because I get to work with amazing artists. Books are a solitary medium, which is the most gratifying thing ever when it flows, and deeply lonely when it doesn’t. But one of the reasons I chose to write novels is to tell personal stories about my community without the roadblock of needing to raise money or attract stars to tell them. As someone who was never able to see himself depicted in any media, it’s been really healing to write myself into existence on the page.
Taylor: What are some queer identities, stories, themes, etc. you want to see in YA that you haven’t seen yet?
Abdi: I just want queer people to tell their own specific stories and show us their points of view. It’s hard to say what I want to see, because what I truly want to see is the queer story I haven’t seen yet. But I can definitely say I want more international queer stories. I think of the queer community as global.
Taylor: What are some of your favorite queer YA recommendations right now?
Abdi: Always ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE. I’m late to the game on Adam Silvera, but really loved his first book MORE HAPPY THAN NOT. I loved Caleb Roehrig’s DEATH PREFER BLONDES. I love Mackenzi Lee’s work, Amy Spalding’s work, Bill Konigsberg, Sara Farizan, Brandy Colbert, I could go on forever. I’m about to go on tour with Angelo Surmelis, Kacen Callender, and Tehlor Kay Mejia and just read and loved their books. The one I’m most looking forward to has to be James Brandon’s ZIGGY, STARDUST AND ME ‘cause I’m a Bowie superfan.
Taylor: What other pieces of media (so books, movies, TV, theater, music, etc.) have been fundamental to your experience as a queer person or are your favorite examples of queer representation?
Abdi: This is almost an unanswerable question because I’m voracious about the arts. LIKE A LOVE STORY is a love letter to many of the artists who inspired me and saved me, so anyone who reads the book will learn about a lot of my influences. I’ll just shout out a few that come to mind. Books: James Baldwin. Oscar Wilde. Armistead Maupin. Audre Lorde. Andrew Holleran. Edmund White. Movies: Oh wow, where to begin? First of all, Old Hollywood was a fantasy world that allowed me to dream big as a kid. I love the classic Hollywood queer icons: Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Doris Day, Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamarr, I could go on. My favorite living filmmaker is Pedro Almodovar. His work means a lot to me. The queer films that had the most lasting impact on me are the ones I saw as a teen: Paris is Burning, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, The Living End, Beautiful Thing, Longtime Companion, Parting Glances. There are so many more. Music: MADONNA (obviously). Tori Amos. Kate Bush. Donna Summer. Diana Ross. Lana del Rey. Nina Simone. LIKE A LOVE STORY dives deep into the relationship between gay men and female divas, but there are countless queer musicians who shaped me as well: Sylvester, Jimmy Sommerville, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, George Michael. I’m about to share a playlist to complement the book and all these and others will be featured. I hope people enjoy the playlist as a companion to the world of the novel. TV: Soap, Dynasty, Sex and the City, Pose, RuPaul’s Drag Race, And The Band Played On all come to mind. Theater: In high school, I did a summer acting program and was lucky enough to see the original production of Angels in America. Changed my life. Still my favorite play. Falsettos, anything by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. Rent (I was a total Renthead in college, and somehow sat next to Bowie when I saw it, and he was the only person NOT to give it a standing ovation, which only made me more obsessed with him and the show). Recently, I saw The Inheritance and was deeply moved by it. Honestly, these answers barely touch the surface, and I’m sure I forgot so many touchstones of queer art that inspired me, but I gotta send this interview off.
Taylor: Building on my last question, I’m curious about where you see links, ties, evolutions or even breaks between the queer culture that existed in 1989 when LIKE A LOVE STORY is set and, 30 years later, now in 2019? (I also wanted to give you two possible chances to gush as much about Madonna as possible)
Abdi: Well, since you told me to gush, I will. Here’s one thing I’ll say about 1989: if you were a kid from a conservative immigrant family like mine, you had no exposure to queer culture or queer art. There was no internet. Schools and libraries were no help. I only had access to what was mainstream and what my family let me watch. But I was obsessed with Madonna from the very first music video. My parents even took me to The Virgin Tour when I was eight (I really must have begged to make that happen). So when she started incorporating queer life into her work, it was the first time I saw celebratory depictions of being queer. Think of the impact of the Vogue video and Truth or Dare and the Blond Ambition tour on a closeted and deeply ashamed brown kid like me. Suddenly, my idol was surrounded by queer men of color who were living openly and happily. Honestly, I would never have accepted myself as soon as I did without Madonna, and without that era in her career specifically. She’s a hero. She uses art as activism. I wish people appreciated her more for her bravery than they do. I suppose that’s a big difference between then and now. Many young people now have access to queer books, singers, films, and stories of all kinds. And yet, I know that in many countries and communities, it’s still hard to find queer stories and queer mentors. There is still so much work to do. It filled me with sadness to know as I was writing LIKE A LOVE STORY that despite how far we’ve come, we still have so much further to go until every queer kid across the world feels safe.
Taylor: If you could give advice or a message to the LGBTQPIA+ identifying folks who maybe don’t have a sense of community, feel alone, aren’t out, etc. this month, what would you say?
Abdi: My first piece of advice would be to find a way to self-express, whatever that means to you. Writing saved me because it gave me a way to make sense of my life. It was an outlet, and still is. Also, it’s so important to hold onto kindred spirits when you find them. So many queer people can’t build deep bonds with their families or communities of origin. If and when you find that mentor or friend who gets you, hold on tight and don’t let go. That’s your family.