Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free recounts the author’s youth as the son of two diehard socialists, Party members who are far more devoted to the impending Revolution than their family. Sayrafiezadeh’s father, an Iranian intellectual, leaves the family before the boy can even speak, and throughout the book he remains a paradoxical touchstone, a living emblem of Sayrafiezadeh’s alienation. Sayrafiezadeh is raised by his Jewish-American mother, first in New York City, then in Pittsburgh, always in poverty. His mother Martha is such a committed socialist that she willfully chooses a life of poverty for both herself and her young son. Sayrafiezadeh writes:
…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. It was the fulfillment of ourselves. My mother was no doubt emboldened by the philosophy that ther was honor in wretchedness, virtue in misery, nobility in hardship.
The passage above is one of the rare reflective moments in this memoir; most of the time, Sayrafiezadeh’s strategy is to relate his youth in simple, immediate terms. We see Sayrafiezadeh and his mother move from squalid apartment to squalid apartment, we experience the boredom that a young boy would feel at Socialist party meetings, we feel the strange alienation Sayrafiezadeh experiences at school–an alienation that does not emanate from his parents’ political stance alone, but also in his ethnic identity. To be in middle school is hard; to be in middle school as a person of Iranian descent during the 1979 hostage crisis is really hard. Sayrafiezadeh always follows the “show don’t tell” dictum of good writing, and, as a result, his description of the suffering he experiences as a young person–poverty, confusion, and alienation–never seems contrived or out of place. Indeed, these are feelings common for any kid, here magnified exponentially. Ultimately, however, it is not so much sympathy that the reader experiences but anger, a specific, concentrated anger at Sayrafiezadeh’s selfish parents coupled with a more muted sense that pure adherence to any ideology can be emotionally destructive.
The book moves episodically between a chronological telling of Sayrafiezadeh’s life and the narration of a grown-up Sayrafiezadeh still navigating his strange identity in contemporary New York. This grown-up Sayrafiezadeh is hardly a screw-up, but he is clearly marked by the ideology his parents have attempted to imprint upon him. In one clever passage, an adult Sayrafiezadeh ponders over tissue box holders–ephemeral, essentially unnecessary items, products born of capitalism’s need to manufacture desire–and buys a ridiculously overpriced one with a certain relish. The scene plays as a muted “fuck you” to his parents, but is perhaps unnecessary in this regard, as the whole of When Skateboards Will Be Free paints Sayrafiezadeh’s mother and father as neglectful figures. Sayrafiezadeh’s father not only abandons the family, but is largely absent from his son’s life in any regard. He’s late–often months late–to special birthday dinners and any scene where the two interact shows that they do not know each other. While Sayrafiezadeh’s mother manages to eke out a living for the two of them, it is also repeatedly clear that her ideological choice to live in poverty has hurt her son beyond mere embarrassment. Sayrafiezadeh is the emblematic latchkey kid, left to himself for long stretches of time–even whole weekends–at a very young age, as his mother attends her Socialist meetings. In one grim episode, a very yong Sayrafiezadeh is sexually molested by a “comrade” of the Socialist party who has generously volunteered to babysit. This is just one extreme example of the underlying irony of the memoir, an irony that Sayrafiezadeh does not specifically name: his parents, in the name of a political philosophy that espouses the value of caring for one’s fellow man, have failed to adequately care for him.
Written in a brisk, lucid style with simple dialogue, When Skateboards Will Be Free effectively compresses a young life into three hundred pages that can be read over three or four afternoons. We’re not exactly big fans of the memoir around Biblioklept, but Sayrafiezadeh’s effort eschews many of the genre’s hallmarks (sensationalism, overly-reflective post-event analysis) in favor of a style that allows his readers to draw their own conclusions. This isn’t to suggest that Sayrafiezadeh doesn’t lead his readers to some definitive ends, but rather that his writerly approach is less overt manipulation than the stuff of most memoir. While Skateboards isn’t exactly essential reading, those who can’t get enough memoir in their reading diet will surely appreciate its vitality and generous honesty.
When Skateboards Will Be Free is available in hardcover March 24, 2009 from Random House.