Author, Said Sayrafiezadeh
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is the author, most recently, of the critically acclaimed memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free. Dwight Garner, writing in the New York Times, praised it as being "exacting and finely made... [written] with extraordinary power and restraint." Sayrafiezadeh's stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Open City, and other publications. He lives in New York City with his wife.
I met Said at a small neighborhood bookstore in downtown New York when I overheard him tell the cashier that he was an author. Then he asked to sign a few copies of his book. I continued to eavesdrop and when I could no longer resist temptation, I interrupted the conversation to ask if I could look at a copy of his book.
When Skateboards Will Be Free has turned out to be one of the most charmingly honest and personal journey's I have been privileged to take in awhile. Said masterfully weaves humor in and out of his colorful memories of growing up as a child whose parents were members of the Socialist Workers Party and succeeds in striking a chord of courage and truth.
Thank goodness for my willingness to eavesdrop and to insert myself, uninvited, into a private conversation - I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and talking to Said Sayrafiezadeh.
DR: Tell me about your life.
SS: I have this huge name. My name comes from my father who is Iranian. I didn't know my father well because I grew up with my mother who is Jewish. I could make the argument that I am more Jewish than I am Iranian. I don't know anything about the Iranian culture. I don't know anything about the language but, here I have this name.
For me, writing the book When Skateboards Will Be Free was a way, to some degree, talk about that complexity in me, the other sides of me that are not so apparent.
I used to be an actor and in the theater world, for instance, you are just your name. (I entertained changing my name but I just never did it). As a writer, I don't get pegged as a "Middle Eastern writer". People aren't coming to me...
DR: To write Middle Eastern publications...
SS: Yeah. I am doing a book review now for Jonathan Lethem. I wasn't asked to do a book review for another Middle Eastern writer.
There is a piece I wrote recently, an anthology. It's an anthology about flying. They thought specifically that maybe I might have experienced some discrimination at an airport because of my background and I was more than happy to write that and yet, I didn't feel like I was being pegged as "The Middle Eastern Guy". Part of that is because when I write about that, I can write about it from a more complex perspective.
DR: It's interesting– having an Iranian father and heritage and yet, being raised by a Jewish mother in America, is not so straight forward. That makes you hard to peg.
I have a similar experience, I think. Being Black and growing up in Wisconsin, my experiences are of someone in Black skin in a place where having Black skin can be a liability. I was raised in a White environment and I have Black skin. Very complicated.
SS: There is one experience that I talk a lot about...
I was in sixth grade at the time. I went to a school to a school that was 80% black. In the beginning of the school year everyone was tested and we were basically segregated. Most of the White children went into what was called "The Scholar's Class". Everybody else, which was most of the Blacks, went into what was called "regular classes". I was in "The Scholars Class" with mostly White children. I think that was a really bad thing to do. That was the first time that I experienced Whites being racists toward Blacks. The things that they would say about Blacks.... I think a lot of it was because we were not together in the same class. We were all strangers. The elementary school that I had been to before had been integrated. I had no experience with racism there but here, being segregated, it came out.
When the Iran hostage crisis happened and my White friends essentially turned on me.
DR: On a dime?
SS: Part of the problem was my own stupidity. One of my good friends asked me what I thought about the hostage crisis, and growing up in the Socialist Workers Party, you are taught to support Iran. You support the hostage takers. It's like the third world is standing up to the first world and, I said that.
I mean, do you remember the Iran hostage crisis?
DR: Well yeah...
SS: Yeah...That is not what you say.
The Iran hostage crisis was as close to the feeling of war that you could get. And, it wasn't even like the war with Iraq because that was more like,
"We hate Saddam".
But with the Iran hostage crisis it was like,
"We hate Iran and we hate Iranians".
So I asked to be transferred to "the regular class" which was considered the dumb class and the irony is that I went into that class and I was never bothered about the fact that I was Iranian. I remember being in that class that was almost all Black and not feeling discriminated against at all.
DR: Tell me more about your book.
SS: It has so many elements. I talk about not growing up with a father, about growing up with a single mother, about growing up with a mother who was a frustrated artist, about being Jewish, being Iranian, about living in Pittsburg, and about surviving the whole thing.
The thing about the Socialist Workers Party is that, it is a very insulated group where we all look to this higher figure who makes the policy. I think the party is as close to a cult as you can get without being a cult. There is a cult check list, for instance, and I have checked off 18 of the 20 on the list for the Socialist Workers party.
The book is really about family; about a family that dissolves. We were a very fractured family and very dysfunctional and politics was always used as an excuse for everything. Blaming Capitalism for everything was sort of a motif:
"Things are bad now but, when the revolution comes, it will all be great."
DR: How do you think that particular way of thinking affected the way that you now look at life?
SS: I have disavowed myself of that now.
There must have been a point at which I realized that the revolution wasn't coming; that a lot of what I was taught to believe as a child – it wasn't even that it was erroneous. It was duplicitous. It was sort of the thing that was given to me just to, in some ways not ask questions or demand certain things. Like the skateboard. I asked for the skateboard and it was like,
"Don't ask me again. We don't have money but when the revolution comes it'll be fine. Skateboards will be free."
DR: We're laughing but that tough. For a kid, that must have been a hard thing to reconcile. Kids just want to be like everybody else.
SS: I was taught not to ask but it didn't make me stop wanting. The idea of deprivation was self enforced. I talk about it in the grapes chapter. You are not even supposed to desire these frivolous capitalist trinkets. All of your passion should go toward this revolution.
I think I've had transitional phases of believing, questioning, of being angry about realizing that... once you take away that belief that I was given, you have to reassess everything that has happened. So then there is the anger stage of that, which I don't think ever goes away completely but I am less angry at my father now than I was. That was the thing, I always thought,
"The reason why my dad's not here is because he is fighting for the socialist revolution".
Press the button and fast forward 35 years later and I think,
"What did he actually do?"
DR: What is your belief system now then?
SS: I voted for Obama. That is huge.
WHEN SKATEBOARDS WILL BE FREE
While images of athletic and Hollywood celebrity decorated the rooms of his classmates, the walls of Said Sayrafiezadeh's youth were adorned with fierce glares from heavily-bearded revolutionaries. As the son of an Iranian father and Jewish-American mother--two souls united by a commitment to an impending socialist revolution--young Said spent his childhood working to make the comrades proud. He hawked the movement's rag, embraced a moniker of "the little revolutionary," and even embarked on a confusing trip to Cuba to spark his political awareness. Despite the seriousness of his cause, When Skateboards Will Be Free describes a politically-charged childhood with an innocence that forces smiles in unexpected places and reveals the heartache of a home soaked in idealism. The arrival of a socialist state not only promised to bring skateboards in bubblegum-bright colors to the masses; it also pledged to repair the rifts within Sayrafiezadeh's own home. – Dave Callanan
"[Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is a name] that you may want to remember... if this exacting and finely made first book is any indication…[He] writes with extraordinary power and restraint…[His] prose has some of [Isaac Bashevis] Singer’s wistful comedy, and good deal of that writer’s curiosity about the places where desire, self-sacrifice and societal obligation intersect and collide."
—New York Times
“[Sayrafiezadeh] writes with grace and clarity about growing up juggling deprivation and desire.”
"Sayrafiezadeh looks back with wonder, even humor, at the many difficulties he faced in his childhood…[He] maintains a generous spirit throughout this eloquent memoir."
"A memoir is a bold thing to write so young, but the author pulls it off with pathos and humor, proving some histories are best written early."
"[A] wry, lovely memoir."
—O: The Oprah Magazine
DR: Do you find yourself consciously resisting what you grew up believing?
SS: Yeah. I still think there is some element of truth that the revolution is going to come and that Socialism is the great economic system. I look at a newspaper and read an article and I imagine,
"What would my dad think?"
"What is the right way to think about this?"
It's very difficult for me to think for myself so then I just run into the problem of thinking the opposite of what I was taught to believe. That's not necessarily the right way to go either.
Before Obama, I didn't want anything to do with politics because I needed to vote for the Socialist Workers Movement and it was like...
DR: Wasting a vote?
SS: No. It wasn't even that. I felt like I was succumbing to the power of my father and his mode of thought. I knew I wasn't thinking independently.
Roger Colera ran for the socialist workers party candidate and he was all the way at the end in the election booth...
DR: Hmmm, I don't remember him...
SS: Well why would you? I mean...
I remember feeling extremely guilty about pulling the lever for Obama. There was that feeling of,
"They are right".
I am like somebody who grew up in a fundamentalist household who still feels the rapture even if they consider themselves an atheist.
DR: Is there something that you would change if you could go back in time?
SS: I don't know. So much of it was done to me. I was just at the mercy of:
"This is just what we do".
I do have fantasies, however, of going back and telling my mother that leaving me home alone at such a young age was not right. I fantasize about being five or six and telling my mother,
"This is preposterous what you are doing".
You know, sort of being able to be who I am now and going back to then.
DR: What do you hope that people take away from the book?
SS: When I was writing the book people kept saying,
"That must be cathartic".
I didn't feel that it was cathartic. My idea of cathartic is that you relive something, you come out of it and you feel that there is something that has lessened. I was certainly reliving it but there was no feeling like,
"I have emerged from this."
The book is being well received. I get emails from former members of the Socialist Workers Party, who are saying,
"You got it all right and I am sorry".
But it runs the gamut. People from high school and middle school and strangers have all really appreciated the book and have thanked me for my honesty. That to me feels like a catharsis.
I am not sure that there is one thing that I want people to get. It works on a lot of different levels with a lot of different layers. I appreciate that it is being accepted and that people understand that it was an act of bravery for me to write the book. I don't speak to my father anymore. He stopped speaking to me. I wrote a portion of this that was published in Granta magazine four years ago and he hasn't spoken to me since. I knew going into this that it was a risk. I think readers understand that it was a risk and that there was a lot that went into laying it out.
DR: I understand, from reading the comments on the cover, that there is an appreciation of the courage that it took to write this book. It's encouraging to people that you were so courageous.
SS: If you can see someone do what you wish you could do...Yep. That's exactly right.
One of my favorite writers when I was younger was James Baldwin. It was an act of courage for him to write some of the things that he wrote and to be so honest about his upbringing and his sense of himself. I think that I must have taken something from him and wanted to do that for myself because I saw him do it.
DR: I didn't know that your dad stopped speaking to you and so now that I know that, I am having a whole new appreciation for the book. A lot of people would not have paid that price.
SS: That's right! And I felt like I needed to tell this story about my life and whatever was going to happen, I was going to have to accept it. Honestly? It's been worth it. If the price that I have to pay is that my father doesn't speak to me, then it's been worth it because the other option is that I keep this story to myself. That is what I have done my whole life – I have kept this inside.
The other thing is - he wasn't there for me when I was a child. He was absent. That is when I needed him. I don't need a "Daddy" now.
DR: Somebody recommended to me the documentary My Architect: A Son's Journey...
SS: Oh, I saw that...Yeah.
DR: You know the last interview at the end where he has gone to India to the building that his father built and the guy that he is interviewing finds out that only 10 minutes of the film is going to be devoted to that building and he tells him that is completely unacceptable. He goes on to share what Louis Kahn meant to the people in India and what a loving man he was to make the sacrifice to build them that building and the son says resentfully,
"Well he died doing it"
And the man says,
"Exactly. He gave his whole self for us".
And the man is crying. I start crying...
"Men of that greatness who have that kind of love to give and that kind of genius to give, the people who suffer are often the ones closest to him – the children".
I am wondering - did you experience anything like that with your dad?
SS: Well, it's interesting. I have thought about his greatness. As a child, I thought of him as a great man. He was this revolutionary who had gone off to save the world. Then at some point, and this is where the belief starts to get chinks in it –
"What has he done?! What has he done?! What has the Socialist Workers party done?"
Seventy five years of them being in existence and I can't point to anything that they have ever accomplished. I remember thinking of Nelson Mandela and thinking that he has five children and that whatever feelings that they have about him not being there and about his revolution, the one consoling thing that they have is that he actually accomplished something. Not that everything has to be a success...
I don't think the Socialist Workers Party really wants to achieve this great society. I think that they really just want to be struggling constantly and angry and vengeful and always feeling that they are embattled and that the world is out to get them. I think it satisfies something psychologically within its members. Roger Colera, who they ran for President, is not an American citizen so if by some miracle he had gotten the votes, he still would not have been electable. Why would you run somebody who is not a citizen? You are running a minority who is not an American citizen in this third party fringe organization. Your appeal to people is shrinking and shrinking and its sort of occurs to me that you are not interested really in change or in reaching people and having a message that is going to get out. You just want to be struggling, struggling, struggling.
What have you done?! What have you done?!
My mother was in the organization for twenty years and when she left she had to look back at these twenty years of her life and, not only see what she hadn't done, but see what she had done which is, you a have family that was decimated. But,
"The revolution is coming. The revolution is coming".
Once you stop thinking that way then you have to start thinking responsibly. I think with my father the real reason why he doesn't speak to me, is that he doesn't want to face how his absence effected us and what his life was about. To have to reassess your life at seventy five would be too much to bear...
DR: Yeah. That is your whole life and what was it all for?
SS: Everything he has done has been for the Party.
DR: You write about such painful things with such a sense of humor. I would imagine that your sense of humor is something that has served you well.
I don't think that I would have been able to write the book if I wasn't able to infuse it with humor. I certainly would not have wanted to read a book like that....
DR: The book is funny...
SS: I know.
Some of it comes easy because of the absurdity. I think as a child there was something inside of me which I don't think I am totally aware of now. But it must have really sustained me through some of this. I have managed to maintain some sort of levity.
I don't want to be too heavy with some of the things I write about. I am not looking to bring the hammer down. Actually, sometimes you can bring the hammer down more so with humor because you can allow the reader too...
DR: Arrive someplace on their own...
SS: And absorb the point more easily.
DR: Do you consider that you have a personal guiding force?
SS: I am not a believer of anything because that has been problematic for me. I do believe that I still have that in me to want to just give myself over to,
"Tell me what to think."
I have a good relationship with my therapist. That is a guiding force in a way.
I have been working on how to think for myself which has been a good replacement for these other belief systems that were not healthy.
DR: So what is next?
SS: I just started writing another book and it is just in the early stages even though sometimes I feel like I might have nothing left to say...
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
SS: Well, I like to think that I have not done yet what I want to be remembered for.
Said Sayrafiezadeh: Upcoming Events
When Skateboards Will Be Free
University of South Carolina
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
When Skateboards Will Be Free
June 16th-18th, 2010
Writers in New York
Date TBD, 2010