Dec 12, 2013
Chesa Boudin on Growing Up Radical
Posted on Apr 17, 2009
By Chesa Boudin
When the revolution comes, skateboards will be free. At least that’s the line Said Sayrafiezadeh’s mother used to avoid buying him a coveted toy. Her response to his request is but a symptom of being more committed to a left-wing, radical-fringe political organization than to one’s own family. His mother’s line also inspired the title of “When Skateboards Will Be Free,” Sayrafiezadeh’s gripping new memoir.
Pop is an Iranian immigrant who came to the United States on a student visa and met Ma in 1964 at the University of Minnesota. Ma, the sister of Mark Harris, the author of “Bang the Drum Slowly,” a well-received novel that was made into a movie, is from a middle-class Jewish-American family. But it is Sayrafiezadeh’s parents’ politics that define his upbringing. Throughout his life, Sayrafiezadeh’s parents are both active members of the minuscule Socialist Workers Party. When Pop runs off to live with a female Comrade 20 years his junior and to participate in the short-lived secular socialist movements in the Iranian Revolution, Sayrafiezadeh’s mother creates a hagiography based on the absentee dad’s altruistic intentions and revolutionary zeal. The author’s father is thrown in jail for a time when the religious factions in the Iranian Revolution realize they no longer need the support of the socialists and the senior Sayrafiezadeh decides that all great revolutionaries go to prison at some point in their lives. Sayrafiezadeh’s writing is lyrical and poignant as he describes the ongoing separation: “There was something so immensely redemptive and exciting for me to imagine that my unknown father was not just a man who had abandoned me but a noble man of adventure who had no choice but to abandon me.” Over and over, weeks and months pass with no contact at all. Then, just as the author begins to wonder if he will ever hear from his father again, “a postcard will arrive from Istanbul, or Tehran, or Athens, or Minneapolis, where he has gone to attend this or that conference or to deliver this or that speech. ‘The weather is beautiful here,’ he will write in enormous swirling optimistic cursive that fills the white space, leaving room to say nothing more.” These occasional emotionless postcards fail miserably to make up for all the missed birthdays when his dad was just across town.
Despite his day-to-day absence, Sayrafiezadeh’s dad is a constant presence in the book. Pop is clearly loved and respected even as he is scorned and reviled. Sayrafiezadeh describes him as “a socialist missionary among proletariat savages, and all social intercourse presents itself as an opportunity for conversion.” The author’s 30th birthday is one of the rare moments where he and his father interact face to face. “I assume he is going to give me a gift for my birthday, and I look away and then down at my hands, because to look directly at someone when he is preparing to give you a gift is coarse, unmannered, and above all presumptuous.” Pop then pulls out a marked-up copy of the latest edition of The Militant, the Socialist Workers weekly, and proceeds to sell it to his son, along with a 12-issue subscription.
Another writer might take the opportunity to voice pent-up rage because of the skateboard denied, the Sunday afternoons spent alongside stands selling socialist literature, the Comrade who sexually molested him as a child, the single mother who attempted suicide. But not Sayrafiezadeh. He turns his childhood deprivation and adversity into laugh-out-loud humor, intricate human portraits, and a book that practically turns its own pages. The time frame alternates between the author’s childhood and present-tense adulthood, with the two threads converging at the end. There is no apparent mystery or suspense, no single tension driving the narrative—often a fatal flaw in writing, but not here. The unsatisfying part of this memoir is that the author never fully reveals his own politics, his own analysis of the world. He deprives the reader of black-and-white pronouncements about his parents and his intellectual inheritance. But the gray areas are often enthralling. The book consists of more than 30 short chapters, which, in turn, are made up of countless short stories and anecdotes that read like pointillism on the page.
One such scene comes when Sayrafiezadeh and his mother are homeless in Pittsburg. They sleep on the floor of an apartment belonging to Comrades from the party until his mother finds a sufficiently proletariat job and an apartment of their own.
They continue to live in Pittsburgh’s ghettos for some time in a kind of self-imposed poverty. The author fully realizes that his deprivation is his mother’s choice only when she comes up with the $900 necessary to send him to Cuba with a delegation of Comrades from the party. Sayrafiezadeh is uninspired by what he sees in Cuba—especially the run-down outhouses—but relishes the basic luxuries available upon his return to the United States.
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