A memoir of growing up communist in the land of indulgence and plenty.
By Carolyn Kellogg
April 26, 2009
When SkateboardsWill Be Free
A Memoir of a Political Childhood
Dial Press: 292 pp., $22
Let's start with the grapes. Sympathetic or not, most Californians
who are old enough remember the 1973 United Farm Workers grape
boycott. Just 4 years old and 3,000 miles away, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
knew about it too: He wanted grapes, but he knew he couldn't have
them, and why.
What was different for Sayrafiezadeh was that his mother encouraged
him to eat grapes -- while standing in the grocery store -- because
then it was stealing. Stealing from the store's owners, a part of the
corrupt capitalist system exploiting César Chávez's farmworkers, was
Not exactly your standard "No Grapes" spiel. Sayrafiezadeh grew up
inside a small, underacknowledged American subculture, the group
officially known as the Socialist Workers Party.
More plainly, his parents were communists.
Yet politics is remarkably absent from his memoir "When Skateboards
Will Be Free." Sayrafiezadeh places the reader inside his red bubble:
It was normal to fall asleep on folding chairs at meetings, to be
subject to a parade of only semi-trustworthy comrades, to haul boxes
of the Militant newspaper from one unfortunate apartment to the next.
Sayrafiezadeh was the youngest of three children born to a
mathematics graduate student from Iran and a Jewish girl from New
York majoring in English literature. When Sayrafiezadeh was very
young, his father took off; the older siblings joined him, leaving
Sayrafiezadeh with his mother. When Sayrafiezadeh was 7, his mother
moved them from New York to Pittsburgh. She had family there: Her
brother, Mark Harris, wrote the book "Bang the Drum Slowly."
Sayrafiezadeh was deeply aware of the contrast between his own wants
and his uncle's upper-middle-class world. "I blamed them for what I
did not have," he writes, exemplified by "an extraordinary painting .
. . of a partially unwrapped chocolate bar. When I passed this
chocolate bar hanging in the landing of the staircase, I wanted to
stick my hand right into it and grab a piece and stuff it into my
mouth and face the consequences."
Despite this nearby affluence, his mother moved them into awful,
cramped apartments, in neighborhoods with empty lots and abandoned
refrigerators. The two were desperately poor: At one point his
mother, gloveless, wrapped her fingers in tape.
In spite of it all, the author managed to be a normal kid who made
friends, tidied his room, stole comic books and revered his absent
father. If he felt a burning class resentment, he didn't know to
label it as such -- he was unaware of his difference. This changed,
as it does for most kids, as adolescence loomed. But his difference
was hastened by world events. He was 10, carrying an Iranian name,
when the hostages were taken in 1979.
Suddenly his classmates knew about Iran -- that it was bad -- and
Sayrafiezadeh felt a new tension: "The desire to set the record
straight was replaced by a desire to leave well enough alone." But
he'd lived in a world in which leaders pontificated and supporters
clapped. "The hostages are spies and should be tried for the Iranian
people," he blurted, hearing the words as if spoken by someone else.
"They'll deserve whatever they get." He was instantly an outcast.
It was the first time he'd faced the boundaries of the belief system
in which he was raised. If there is a moment when this elegant story
is failed by its lack of critical analysis, it's here. He must have
known that these words would set him apart. But as he utters these
phrases was he merely a parrot? Was he trying to speak truth to
unbelievers? Was he trying to be like his father? Mahmoud
Sayrafiezadeh abandoned his son, but never the Party. He was an
important SWP figure, even running for president of
post-revolutionary Iran. His son inherited his ideology -- when the
revolution came, his mother promised him, skateboards would be free.
Later, living in Manhattan and working for Martha Stewart,
Sayrafiezadeh tries to answer his girlfriend's questions about being
a communist: "Flaring inside me was the impulse to respond with
generalizations, or various patched-together facts. . . . Eventually
I stopped trying to answer, and muttered to myself, 'I guess I don't
really know what I'm talking about,' and she had responded, more
surprised than accusatory, 'Yes, it sounds like you don't.' "
We are all born into belief systems, but most of us are members of
one so dominant it seems given. Sayrafiezadeh's experience shows us
more than just the tired rhetoric of the Socialist Workers Party --
it reveals how hard it is for any of us to see the boundaries of the
ideology we inherit.
Kellogg is lead blogger for Jacket Copy.