May Day? Labour Day? Loyalty Day?

The following is excerpted from one of our favorite freely-found books, Alice van Straalen’s The Book of Holidays Around the World:

May Day Worldwide In a festival that lasted from April 28 to May 3, the Romans offered flowers to Flora, their goddess of spring. They brought the custom to all the European lands they conquered; and by the Middle Ages it became especially popular in England. People rose early in the morning to “bring in the May.” They gathered flowers and tree branches to decorate their homes and later went to the town square where the maypole–often over 100 feet tall–was raised, and a woman representing the May Queen presided over the celebrations. Dancers held the streamers that fell from the top of the pole and, as they circled around it, wove them into tight patterns. When they changed directions the streamers untangled again and blew free, a tradition that some towns in England and America have continued. In 1889 the Second Internationale, an association of French socialists, dedicated May Day to working people, and today in many countries it is celebrated as a labor day. The Soviet Union marks the day with a military parade in Moscow.

Soviet Union…yeah, the book is almost 25 years old…

Workers of the World Unite -- Rockwell Kent
Workers of the World Unite -- Rockwell Kent

But don’t worry, God-fearing Americans! It turns out that, in order to reclaim May Day from pinkos and anarchists, the U.S. government declared May 1st “Loyalty Day.” From 36 US Code §115:

(a) Designation.— May 1 is Loyalty Day.

(b) Purpose.— Loyalty Day is a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.
(c) Proclamation.— The President is requested to issue a proclamation—

(1) calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Loyalty Day; and
(2) inviting the people of the United States to observe Loyalty Day with appropriate ceremonies in schools and other suitable places.

Loyalty Day? Okay, sure, why not? I wonder though, in 2009, are the two perspectives on this ancient festival–the concept of workers standing up for the right to control the means of production, etc., and the idea of being loyal to America–are they so different?

Flag -- Jasper Johns
Flag -- Jasper Johns

When Skateboards Will Be Free — Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

skateboardsSaïd 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.

U.S.!–Chris Bachelder


Chris Bachelder‘s superb novel U.S.! portrays an alternate (and somewhat hyperbolic) United States where the Left (big-L) keeps bringing Upton Sinclair (that guy who wrote The Jungle (maybe you read it in high school (I didn’t))) back to life. These would-be revolutionaries try to keep Sinclair (and hope) alive in spite of the fact that right-wing reactionary populist heroes keep assassinating him. In fact, in U.S.!, Upton Sinclair assassination is its own cottage industry.

Bachelder uses a dazzling range of approaches in the first 200 pages of the novel, employing everything from folk song lyrics to Amazon reviews to talk show transcripts in order to flesh out his alternate universe. The first part of U.S.! essentially sets up the last third of the novel, a relatively straight-forward third-person omniscient account of a Fourth of July book-burning in a Southern state. I won’t reveal any more of the plot, because I’m lazy and you should read this book for yourself.

Bachelder’s writing crackles with wit and surprising warmth, especially in the character of Sinclair, who comes across as a (literally) dusty out-of-touch relic, an idealist as equally unable to effect any change in the modern world as he was able to in his own era. Sinclair and the would-be revolutionaries who resuscitate him serve as Bachelder’s critique on America’s stale, impotent left (or is it Left?). Bachelder also savagely criticizes Sinclair’s rhetoric; one of the funniest sections of the first part of the book involves an analysis of exclamation points (and their overuse) in Sinclair’s novels. Toward the end of the novel, Bachelder employs a meta-critical strategy of adding more and more exclamation points to his own writing; the exaggerated gestures comically highlight the cartoonishly grotesque world of U.S.!, at the same time counterbalancing the understated but profound sadness of the novel.

My only gripe with U.S.! would be Bachelder’s rare lapse into what I like to call “workshop fiction”–fiction that seems the contrived and overwritten product of MFA work-shopping (did I mention that Bachelder got his MFA at my alma mater, the University of Florida at Gainesville? (other great writers associated with this glorious institution include Padgett Powell and Harry Crews)). As I noted though, these instances are rare and mostly notable because the majority of the novel is so fresh, original, and readable. This book is funny, poignant, and you should read it.