Title: How It All Blew Up
Author: Arvin Ahmadi
Trigger Warnings: Islamophobia, homophobia, being outed to family, blackmailing, running away from home, sex, alcohol use (underage for American age limit), body gore, anxiety, suicide mention
Genre: Young Adult (verging on New Adult), Contemporary
Publication date: September 22, 2020
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Synopsis (taken from Goodreads)
Eighteen-year-old Amir Azadi always knew coming out to his Muslim family would be messy–he just didn’t think it would end in an airport interrogation room. But when faced with a failed relationship, bullies, and blackmail, running away to Rome is his only option. Right?
Soon, late nights with new friends and dates in the Sistine Chapel start to feel like second nature… until his old life comes knocking on his door. Now, Amir has to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to a US Customs officer, or risk losing his hard-won freedom.
At turns uplifting and devastating, How It All Blew Up is Arvin Ahmadi’s most powerful novel yet, a celebration of how life’s most painful moments can live alongside the riotous, life-changing joys of discovering who you are.
About the Author:
Arvin Ahmadi is the author of Down and Across, Girl Gone Viral, and the forthcoming How It All Blew Up. He graduated from Columbia University and worked in the tech industry prior to becoming a full-time writer. When he’s not reading or writing books, he can be found watching late-night talk show interviews* and editing Wikipedia pages. He lives in New York City.
Arvin Ahmadi’s books have a very special place in my heart. The two books I have read by this gem of a human have both hit so close to home I have to wonder if we’re the same person. His debut book, Down and Across, was the FIRST book I ever got from a publisher to review and I put so much effort into making my youtube video for it. It’s still one of my best videos to date. Down and Across is also the only YA book that my father has read in an attempt to show interest in my hobbies (he has read nothing since). My dad liked the book so much he went to the length of writing a bulleted list of poignant things from the book which he then proceeded to email to my brother, mother, and me. I’m debating giving my father How It All Blew Up as well if I ever decide to broach the topic of queerness with my family.
I even got a chance to get on a Zoom meet and greet thingie with Arvin Ahmadi and a few other bloggers (Armin, Kalli, La’Toya, and Crystal loved meeting yall!!) thanks to Penguin Teen. I genuinely thought it would be like a whole panel but it was like eight of us and so wholesome!! We even got ice cream/gelato. During the hour long chat, we got to ask about writing, queer experiences, our personal version of running away from home, and what productivity looked like for us. Twas chill and it made my whole week.
How It All Blew Up is written as a dual timeline, one being the airport security interviews with the Azadi family on the way back from Rome and the other is Amir’s first person account of how he ended up in Rome plus what transpired there. The interviews are written in monologue instead of scripted dialogue, a one sided conversation from Amir, his sister Soraya, his mother (who is in the same room as Soraya), and his father separately. Through this split timeline and split style of narration you get a rather neat tonal shift. On one hand you have a retrospective of Amir’s month in Rome with a mild undercurrent of anticipation wondering how on earth they ended up in an interrogation room, and on the other you get this stream of consciousness dialogue of four different people relaying the same story of Amir’s running away and subsequent search. Amir’s account of Rome is of finally getting some freedom while the interviews are filled with anxiety and worry for multiple reasons.
What I loved most about the interview chapters in the book was the lack of interviewer identity. Getting pulled out of line or off the plane for a randomized search and interrogation is one of the most dehumanizing experiences ever. It’s a clear indication you’re seen as a threat, you’re talked down to, kept waiting for long periods of time, and likely given no answers. Arvin Ahmadi flips the script and gives the interrogation officers absolutely no say in any of this. The Azadi family is doing all the talking. Sure the four of them are responding to questions posed by these unnamed officers but you don’t know a thing about them other than their uncomfortable and judgemental presence. They’re stripped of their humanity, given no voice or stakes in the conversation, they have no impact on the story aside from clearly stating that they’re butting themselves in a matter that literally does not concern them. It’s one of the most invigorating things to realize as you read.
Amir only spends a short amount of time in the book with his family. His initial chapters leading up to his running away are meek, he’s paranoid, anxious, depressed, and wants desperately to get out. His description of his family is minimal and very much tied to his worry that they’ll find out he’s gay. They don’t get much characterization from Amir’s recount but the interviews fill in those holes.
Soraya is the baby sister Amir regrets not getting much time with but in the interviews she’s a vocal and independent young theatre nerd with a penchant for the dramatic and a sense of audacity that frankly is quite cool for a middle schooler. She’s worried about Amir and a little scared but takes absolutely no bullshit from the unnamed interviewer. Neither does she stand for her mother trying to mollify the interviewers or brush Amir’s trauma under the rug. Like…what an absolute BOSS. Iconic. Queen shit only.
Amir’s parents are understandably concerned, confused, and a little bit scared of what might happen. It’s the typical ~please shut up and do what they say before it get’s any worse~ parent behaviour that is depressingly understandable when faced with bigoted authority. Their inability (and refusal) to directly verbalize and acknowledge Amir’s sexuality is just… man I live with that shit it was like reading my own two parents talk about a gay family friend. Calling it an affliction, confusion, referring to it as “the argument” and more exemplified how painful it is to be queer in a family that isn’t really homophobic so much as they aggressively don’t want to think about it. They’re fine with The Gays (noun) but not someone in their family being gay (adjective). It’s unresolved, awkward, and painful. The vibe felt icky but it was such an honest retelling of brown families approaching the topic of queerness. I felt my throat get tight a lot during those scenes. There was so much love in how Amir’s parents talked about him but the inability to see Amir as their son and his sexuality as one and the same brought me to tears quite a lot. It’s a lived reality and it really sucks but this book does such a wonderful job of showcasing it in its raw honesty. No fancy bow to tie off a perfect resolution.
Tangentially related, during Amir’s early chapters with family, he talks about mustering the courage to come out to his family before the assholes blackmailing him could beat him to the punch. Amir mentions being hyperaware of every glance, sniff, throwaway comment, awkward channel surf, and more that his parents have in reaction to anything related to the queer community. He keeps them as a tally of positive and negative points, an indicator of whether it’s safe to come out or not. ……The way I thought I was the only one who did that… I forget sometimes that queer experiences are actually quite universal, including the weird shit we do to not dissolve into the earth. We all somehow have the same coping mechanisms and that chapter was a weird moment of crying because of the solidarity and also the depressing reality of life. We’re not alone yay! We’re lowkey suffering the same situation… yay? *sigh* it really do be like that sometimes.
Amir’s decision to take flight was such a justified thing to do. I’m sure all the youth of the world with a mildly tense relationship with parents are eager to leave home as soon as college hits. Putting distance between yourself and a highly stressful issue is like peak fight or flight reaction. It’s just the most ideal of places to leave. In a more practical situation it would be like…a road trip out of state or something. Away but not Away™. Of course the logistics of literally fucking off to Rome to avoid a major crisis is like… a little questionable but all the financials are appropriately addressed in the book so it’s not like he’s pulling money out of his gilded ass or anything. He earns it through Wikipedia page editing (a shout out to John Green if I’m not wrong).
Amir’s experiences in Rome were a wild ride. It might seem weird that Amir somehow finds two gay guys the second he walks into a retail location halfway across the globe but I shit you not the gays find each other. It’s literally impossible to be gay and not accidentally happen upon another gay. That TikTok audio that goes
“yeah I’m gay are you gay?”
It’s funny haha but also like I can say this from experience that it happens everywhere. You find one queer person to befriend and you’ve essentially got a whole city’s worth of LGBTQ+ folks within arms reach.
Jahan and Neil were such fun characters. There’s always that one person who’s like… to hot to function around and like…Neil was a painfully perfect representation of that. Prettyboy, nice, definitely not available, works at a bookstore?? Sir!!! The Audacity to be that cool!!!! How!!!! He teaches Amir Italian and I’m !!!! Che carino 🥺🥺
Jahan too was such a wonderful character to read. Arvin Ahmadi has mentioned Jahan’s based off someone he actually met while in Rome and that shines through. A mentor who is kind and hospitable, surrounded by a wee bit of chaos, the center of a massive group of loving friends, and somehow always on some new project or another. I love people like that and I’m also deeply terrified of the influence they wield. What is it like to have so much power please share some of your magic!!!
Now as a fresh high school graduate fucking around in Rome in what can be badly watered down as one of the most epic attempts at procrastination, Amir gets into a fair amount of chaos. Midnight walks through Rome, legal drinking, parties with zero heteros, literally ROME. It’s such a perfect place to be inducted into a community of queer people, existing in this limbo of Real Yet Dreamlike where Amir gets to explore his sexuality and community with just a hint of impending doom when he has to go back home. Ya know. Like real life. But in ✨Rome✨. Kinda like the puppy filter selfies one takes after a massive sob. You’re sad. But Aesthetic. It’s perfect. Arvin Ahmadi took the chaos and panic of coming out and facing family and said “oh honey no you need a Renaissance.” I swear this entire paragraph is a compliment. It probably makes no sense but like it’s all good things.
There’s a scene in the book that is called ~the nipple story~ which is quite gruesome and I’ve seen comments floating about how that’s not appropriate for Young Adult… That’s up for debate and to each their own but I found an explanation by the author for why it was included.
This is directly in response to a tweet that was a photo of the particular scene (photo is linked to the tweet). Arvin’s response:
“Hi! Yeah, I get that. It’s a story I heard in rome from the real-life version of Jahan. Honestly I was rightfully grossed out when I first heard it. But Jahan was a queer poet/artist, and queer art has always been provocative, largely as a reaction to society calling queer people…” “…gross, unnatural, disgusting, etc. So I kept it in the book as a nod to that tradition. Hope that makes sense. And I totally get that it’s not going to be for everyone.”
Frankly, that’s plenty explanation for me. It’s gross but like it’s certainly not romanticized or sexualized? It just read as a mildly gross story of a sexual encounter. Just yell “EW OH MY GOD” and move on.
I also remember seeing people getting real crunchy about this not having proper Muslim representation. The book doesn’t have to be lazer focused on religious identity and faith for it to qualify as a Muslim book. If it’s not enough for you, that requires YOU reassessing why there is a preconceived notion of what a particular identity should look. Conversations happen in layers and if you’re not privy to how identities intermix and how conversations and commentary can be implicit instead of explicit then well… can’t really help you there.
Final thoughts that could be SPOILERS so skip this paragraph if even vague hints fall under that category for you!!
I thought I’d have a problem with the open ended conclusion of this book. There were a lot of things unresolved and I used to be so mad about those. But considering how true to my own experiences this book is, the lack of resolution was another extension of real life. You’re probably not going to have a long lasting relationship with someone you met on a panic getaway. You’re probably not going to keep in contact with the people you thought were your bffs in your little bubble of isolation. You’re certainly not going to get a resolved conversation with family who are weirdly on the cusp of being homophobic and not. There aren’t enough pages to capture the YEARS of arguments and side eyed glances that make up conversations about sexuality in brown households. It’s true to experience and the lack of resolution felt like the honest conclusion this book deserved. It’s messy, it’s unresolved, and sometimes books aren’t there to be your happy ending. You have to live with that.
**END OF SPOILERS**
That concludes me review! Please take note that I went in and edited out 11 uses of the word JUST so I put in some real effort here. So now you have to go read this book. Leave me your thoughts on this book! Had your own personal Flight of the Gay moment? Do tell!!
Other than that, I’ll see y’all when I decide another blog post is long overdue 😀