Quantcast

Child of the Devolution: Growing Up Red

When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (New York: Dial, 2009)

Accounts of mothers sundered from children, soldiers maimed, and other horrific consequences of misguided doctrines may fill our daily papers, but only literature can capture the subtle internal effects and unconscious motives of political ideology—the way it can shape relationships, twist morality, and contort souls. No news account, for instance, could have conveyed the feel of daily life in Communist Czechoslovakia the way novelist Milan Kundera did, or taught us what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
did about the hellish essence of the gulag. Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, a Brooklyn-born playwright and essayist, came of age under a far more benign sort of Communist regime, but in this memoir, he uses his considerable writing talent to reveal how ideology seeps not only into the logistics and protocols of our lives, but also into the marrow of our characters.

When Skateboards Will Be Free is a compelling coming-of-age narrative, and the author, despite his bizarre upbringing, is as American as Augie March. Even his parents’ exotic pairing—his mother, Martha, is the child of New York Jews, while his father, Mahmoud, is an Iranian immigrant—has a hopeful, only-in-America quality. But his parents share a commitment that trumps any religion or nationality.

In Sayrafiezadeh’s account, his parents make that commitment on a fall afternoon in 1964, a few years before he himself is born. Martha and Mahmoud stop during a walk on the campus of the University of Minnesota to chat with members of the Socialist Workers Party. The enthusiastic young recruiters oppose the Vietnam War and tell the couple they are fielding a black candidate for president.

Sayrafiezadeh renders the mood of that day as airy and optimistic. He seems to suggest that his parents could just as easily have been a young couple listening to a pitch to take up golf and deciding that yes, indeed, they were really going to get into this sport. They would take classes and buy equipment and throw themselves into their new pastime with zeal; soon they’d be spending evenings with their new golf friends. Except that it’s not golf that they sign up for on this campus afternoon. It’s Communism.

By implying that the energies driving what became his parents’ obsession might well have been applied to something else, like a hobby or a religion, Sayrafiezadeh is not saying that they’re hypocrites, but rather that human motives are complicated and shifting. Indeed, this central theme is dramatized with heartrending precision throughout this book. His father truly admires Communism’s charismatic leaders, from Vladimir Lenin to Che Guevara, but leaves the family before Sayrafiezadeh reaches his first birthday—primarily because he relishes the opportunity the Communist Party affords him to be a leader and iconoclast, a man who is listened to attentively, not least by younger, female devotees. His mother is genuinely moved by the plight of blacks, Palestinians, and the impoverished and oppressed everywhere. But while she really does want justice and equality for all, she uses the demands of party loyalty to fill the hole in her life created by her absent husband.

 

Sayrafiezadeh himself survives a childhood so filled with contradiction and paradox that in the hands of a lesser writer it could have come off as merely alien. Noting that his father’s journey to the United States began when, as an eighteen-year-old in Tehran, he entered and won an essay competition on the theme “What is liberty?” Sayrafiezadeh observes,

The irony that my father would hold forth eloquently enough on the subject of liberty to win the scholarship and then spend the rest of his life trying to overthrow the very government that had provided him with that scholarship is trumped by the irony that the government that had asked him to consider the idea of liberty was itself plotting to overthrow the prime minister of Iran.

As a small child, Sayrafiezadeh develops a penchant for thieving, which he traces directly to his parents’ insistence that desire for material things is bad. At the age of four his mother enjoins him in a grape boycott to support the United Farm Workers. He stares longingly at supermarket grapes, asking for months on end when the boycott will be over. Finally, she tells him he can covertly pluck and eat one grape in the aisle. By stealing rather than purchasing, he later reflects, she is in effect telling him that they wouldn’t be violating the boycott, and, in fact, might help the farm workers in some small way by hurting the grocery store. His child’s mind concludes, “desire + yearning + theft = revolution.”

As he grows up, his mother teaches him that, after the revolution, all material goods—including the skateboards of the book’s title—will be free. Only then will he be allowed to have one. In a childhood ritual, he crawls into her lap after she comes home from a long day at work and asks her how old he will be when the revolution comes. Seven? Ten? Eleven? She finally answers, “When you’re eighteen the revolution will come.” They await this moment like Christian evangelicals await the Rapture.

Sayrafiezadeh possesses a gift for making his eccentric personal narrative feel universal—as in his account of how the Militant, a magazine published by the Socialist Workers Party, dogs his existence. Some of his earliest memories are of his mother trying to sell them on street corners and at rallies. At home, her own copies pile up:

My mother saved every single one. To what end I do not know. Never in all my years did I see her referring to them. Their accumulation was quick and significant: forty-eight issues a year. When we moved from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh, when we moved from Ophelia Street to our next apartment, when we moved from that apartment to the next, and the next after that, and after that—half a dozen apartments in two years—they moved with us, each time larger, heavier, more cumbersome, the years all thrown out of order as they were carried to and from the truck by those comrades who had so graciously volunteered to help us move yet again. “One day I should organize all of those,” my mother would say, but she never did.

Copies of the Militant spill out of their front-hall closet in messy piles, embarrassing him when people come to visit. One day he organizes and tidies them, and eventually mother and son move them into a basement storage space. “In their lurking presence, such domestic piles are a reminder of things we mean to do but never get around to, of the gap between how we hoped life would be and how it has turned out.”

Even into adulthood, Sayrafiezadeh can’t shake the Militant. During a rare, awkward dinner with his father, Mahmoud tries to sell him a subscription. The boy, who has longed for his father’s attention and approval all his life, makes the purchase.

 

It’s possible that even without the Socialist Workers Party, the author’s parents might have been deficient. His well-meaning mother might have been just as lonely and poor and overburdened, and found it just as necessary to leave her child in the hands of random strangers while she tried to find meaning in life. His father might have left the family anyway even if he hadn’t been driven by the apocalyptics of the party’s politics. But Sayrafiezadeh understands that ideology becomes self-reinforcing through sacrifice: the more that is forfeited, the more you strive to convince yourself that the losses were worthwhile.

He tells of the climactic moment when, at the age of twelve, his mother sends him on a summer trip to Cuba. She puts him on a twenty-hour bus ride from Pittsburgh to Miami, wherefrom he flies to Havana to join a tour group of American Communists. Feigning enthusiasm amid visits to a cigar factory and a sugarcane farm, Sayrafiezadeh vacillates between trying to show grown-up interest and dealing with the devastating anxiety of missing his mother (and also the possibility that he will have to use one of the filthy Cuban public bathrooms). At Revolution Square in Havana, under an enormous portrait of Che, he watches as Cuban children surround the group of Americans and beg for candy. The begging children are an aberration in the tour group’s careful itinerary. They are bad Cubans, bad revolutionaries, displaying their uninhibited want. The Cuban revolution, Sayrafiezadeh writes, was supposed to produce “a new, selfless kind of person,” but here was evidence of a glitch. He follows his older comrades’ order to ignore the children and disappears into a store to do some shopping.

The hothouse of Sayrafiezadeh’s childhood produces an apolitical adult. One senses that even as a grown-up he is still discovering the weirdness of his childhood, as though it can only be understood from a distance. When he’s in his twenties, a new girlfriend asks him probing, sincere questions about the nature of Communism—whether he considers himself an adherent, what the point is—and he gets lost trying to explain. He reflects, “I wasn’t sure if under Communism the goal was for there to be overwhelming abundance or for everyone to have evolved to where they no longer desired material things.”

If there’s a single moment when he starts to break away from his oppressive upbringing, though, it’s a decade earlier, when he’s still in his teens and living with his mother. One day, just a week after going out campaigning for a Communist presidential candidate, his mother “did the unthinkable,” he writes. “She resigned from the Socialist Workers Party.” Shortly after that, she undergoes a psychic breakdown with nearly tragic consequences, as though the gaping hole left in her life was impossible to fill.

The author eventually moves to Manhattan, where he works for billionaire capitalist Martha Stewart, nurtures ambitions to act and write, and wonders whether he should move in with his girlfriend. For someone with a more normal upbringing, it would be an unremarkable urban American life, but for Sayrafiezadeh, it’s a triumph.

Elisabeth Eaves is an editor for Forbes and the author of Bare.

OG Image: 
US