Published by Dial Press on March 2010
Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir
Source: my shelves
Goodreads | Amazon
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s Iranian-born father and Jewish American mother were two very different people bound together by one unshakable belief: that the workers’ revolution was coming, and coming quickly. Soon after Saïd is born, his charismatic, mercurial father abandons the family, to be glimpsed again only at awkward father-son reunions separated by years. Meanwhile, remaining married to a man she never sees, Saïd’s mother buries her (and her son’s) life in the dream of the perfect socialist society. Pinballing between makeshift Pittsburgh apartments, longing for the luxuries he’s taught to despise, Saïd waits for the revolution that never, ever arrives. When his father abruptly returns to Iran during the hostage crisis, Saïd is forced to confront the combustible mix of his identity as an Iranian, A Jew, a “comrade,” and a middle-school kid who loves football and video games. Posed perfectly between tragedy and farce, here is a story by a brilliant young writer struggling to break away from the powerful mythologies of his upbringing and create a life—and a voice—of his own.
(from the back cover)
Sayrafiezadeh’s story shows how a person’s politics can trump everything else, even family, and how labels—Iranian, Jewish, socialist, communist, revolutionary, student, boy—can seriously complicate a child’s life, especially if those labels and political ideals aren’t fully explained to the child’s satisfaction. But When Skateboards Will Be Free isn’t just about politics. It is so much more than that, too.
If I had to choose five words to describe Sayrafiezadeh’s childhood (or its theme), they would be:
Truth – Fidel Castro’s maxim, “The truth must not only be the truth, it must also be told,” was quoted more than once in the book, and I feel that it’s the main underlying theme. Sayrafiezadeh was made to think that the people of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) were privy to some capital-T Truth that people outside of the party were unaware of, and it was constantly making him feel guilty about thinking or acting in any kind of way that might go against that Truth. As he tells us in an interview in the back of the edition that I read:
…I think my childhood, where I was always taught to be high-minded and principled, showed me what the implication [of Castro’s maxim] is: There’s one truth and certain people are in possession of it. And that can be dangerous. Not only does it lead to vanity, but it leads to isolation. As a child I was always coming up against that compulsion to tell the truth. I felt guilty a lot, tormented. […] It seemed that I was consistently caught between either betraying the party or betraying my friends.
But what we know to be true (no pun intended) is that there are many truths. In any given situation involving multiple people, there are going to be multiple truths about what happened. When Skateboards Will Be Free is Sayrafiezadeh’s truth about his childhood, and he felt that it must be told (and heard).
Struggle – Sayrafiezadeh’s childhood was full of struggle: the struggle to discern right from wrong; the struggle to fit in with peers who were leading very different childhoods in many ways; the struggle to fit in with his own family and not to disappoint them; the struggle to understand his and his mother’s poverty, while knowing that they had enough money to be living very differently; and the struggle to understand the world around him as seen through the lens of the SWP’s teachings vs. through the lens of a young boy who really desires a life similar to the lives of his friends. I have already written about his struggle with feeling like he always had to tell the truth, no matter what the consequences. Many of Sayrafiezadeh’s struggles were internal, which is always much harder for a child to deal with than it is for an adult. Sayrafiezadeh also writes about how he watched his mother struggle with conflicting feelings about herself and his father.
Suffering – “…our poverty was intentional and self-inflicted.” Despite the fact that his mother had a wealthy brother who was willing to help them out, despite the fact that she was an intelligent woman who could have gotten any number of well-paying jobs, and despite the fact that Sayrafiezadeh’s father could have been made to pay child support through the judicial system, “Instead, my mother actively, consciously, chose not only for us to be poor but for us to remain poor, and the two of us suffered greatly for it. Because to suffer and to suffer greatly was the point.” Sayrafiezadeh’s mother was a communist; she didn’t necessarily believe in private property (such as owning a house), or owning anything that wasn’t truly a necessity. Their meals were typically very minimal, except in a few cases that included lunch or dinner guests. Being in solidarity with the poor working classes meant living like them, even if one had the means to live otherwise. In a way, I find this to be very noble, and I like the idea of refusing to let private property and physical possessions define who we are, or refusing to attach great importance to these things. What Sayrafiezadeh’s mother didn’t do, however, was explain these ideas in a way that a young boy could fully understand. All of her explanations seemed to be sound bites or SWP slogans. Sayrafiezadeh says, “…my mother never directly addressed the actual content of our existence, never ventured to acknowledge those things that by their very absence resounded so loudly each day…” This made things very hard for Sayrafiezadeh to understand in many situations that directly involved his and his mother’s poverty.
Waiting – Waiting on the revolution. This was what Sayrafiezadeh’s childhood was all about. He was led to believe that once the revolution came, it would bring about a perfect world in which no one suffered, in which he would never feel embarrassed or isolated anymore, and in which he would finally get to have all of those things that he had been denied. In the passage that the book title is taken from, Sayrafiezadeh tells us about a time as a child when he really wanted a skateboard. After he had bugged his mother enough, she finally agreed to look at them and make a decision. The skateboard he wanted was $10.99. After looking at the skateboards and the price of them, his mother told him she wouldn’t buy one by saying, “Once the revolution comes, everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.” It was also implied, on numerous occasions, that once the revolution came, his father’s hard work would be over and he would be able to return to his family. So Sayrafiezadeh’s entire childhood became a waiting game… once the revolution came, everything would be perfect and everyone would be happy again.
Absurdity – Absurdity in Sayrafiezadeh’s story is applied to all of the other themes I have spoken of here. In the interview at the back of the book, Sayrafiezadeh explains, “I did not want to create a book about unrelenting sorrow. It would have been unbearable to write and unbearable to read. […] Once I was able to embrace the absurdity of my upbringing, rather than be ashamed of it, I could tell my story.” All of the truth-telling, struggling, suffering and waiting was done at pretty absurd levels sometimes, and Sayrafiezadeh really wanted to get this across in his book. He wanted to tell his truths about his childhood, but he also wanted to be able to do that with the sense of humor that he was able to develop in hindsight. He did very well. Much of what he goes through (what his mother and father put him through) as a child is just absurd, and although reading this book gave me a good sense of his struggles and suffering as a young boy, I was also able to laugh at parts and have a good time reading it. Many of the stories of his childhood are very sobering, frustrating and sad, but he breaks those up with his adult sense of humor and other stories that lighten the mood of the book.
I was unprepared for just how good this book was going to be. I plowed through it in a little over a day and it is full of underlined passages and notes in the margins now. Sayrafiezadeh is a very good writer and his story is heartfelt and fascinating. I got really caught up in reading about the politics of the times, not only those of the SWP and our dealings with Iran, but also with those of the Civil Rights Movement and how things like desegregation and busing fit into Sayrafiezadeh’s narrative. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading memoirs, to anyone interested in the politics of the SWP and of the United States in general in the 1970s and 1980s, and to anyone who is interested in what it was like for Sayrafiezadeh to attempt to reconcile his many different cultural/political identities in order to come up with ideas and a voice of his own.
(To learn more about Saïd Sayrafiezadeh [say-RAH-fee-ZAH-day], please visit his official website.)
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