Reconciling Contradictions: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

There was a time when Saïd Sayrafiezadeh would have chafed at the attention he’s getting from what he was raised to consider the mainstream elite. His memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, was hailed by critics as extraordinary, compelling, and deadpan hilarious. A book critic for The New York Times compared his prose to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s and named the book one of the 10 best of 2009. He received a 2010 Whiting Writers’ Award—$50,000 given to “writers of exceptional talent and promise in early career”—and his short stories have recently appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. In February, he went to Washington, D.C., for the annual bacchanal of the academy literati, the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference.

After 15 years of therapy, Sayrafiezadeh embraces the adulation.

“I love it. I feel like it couldn't have come sooner,” he said in a recent interview with Pasatiempo. “I think twenty years ago I would have still tried to stay marginalized and thought of The New York Times as the capitalist press, but I don’t feel a contradiction now.”

Sayrafiezadeh reads from his memoir at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design on Tuesday, March 22. The event is sponsored by the school’s Creative Writing and Literature Department. When Skateboards Will Be Free (published by Random House) is Sayrafiezadeh’s account of his childhood with his Jewish American mother and his absentee, Iranian-born father; both parents were active members of the Socialist Workers Party. Sayrafiezadeh’s father left the family when he was 9 months old, and Sayrafiezadeh had little communication with his father until he was 18. “‘Mahmoud went off to fight for a world socialist revolution,’ my mother would tell me with proud determination when I was a little boy,” Sayrafiezadeh recalls in the memoir—an explanation that left him convinced his father would return once the revolution had been achieved. “The roots of suffering are in the capitalist system,” his mother told him. “We must do away with capitalism in order to do away with suffering.” His mother was an avid hawker of the party-produced newspaper The Militant and hoarded back copies in their apartment for years. In 1979, Sayrafiezadeh’s father ran for president of Iran as the Revolutionary Workers Party candidate and lost by a landslide. During this time of the Iran hostage crisis, Sayrafiezadeh was struggling with his cultural and political identity at an inner-city public high school in Pittsburgh.

“The thing about the Socialist Workers Party is that it’s about staying closed off from the rest of the world,” Sayrafiezadeh said. “You want the world to acknowledge you, but you don’t want to make any effort to be acknowledged, so I behaved that way for many years. But once I started putting myself out there, I started wanting to be seen and heard and acknowledged by the mainstream media, which I love.” Though he was raised to believe the Socialist Workers Party held the morally correct position on all things, Sayrafiezadeh said he doesn’t have to believe that anymore.

Sayrafiezadeh was a struggling playwright and fiction writer when he took a job in Martha Stewart’s graphic-design department in 1998. After Sept. 11, 2001, he began posting essays about growing up as an Iranian American on author Tomas Beller’s website, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. After the 2004 election, Sayrafiezadeh posted an essay about his deep-seated difficulties in voting because to cast a vote against the Socialist Workers Party meant betraying his father. He was soon contacted by the deputy editor of Granta magazine. The piece he wrote for Granta became the foundation for the memoir, which he quickly sold to Dial Press, and in 2006 he was able to quit his day job to write the book full time.

“I wanted to write the book not just for the sake of revealing,” he said. “I wanted to create a work of art. I wanted to create drama and arc and characters and write it with a certain style—some comedy, some irony. For me that was the big motivator, and I just also happened to have this crazy story I was born into. I don’t think I left any stone unturned. There was something extremely cathartic to me to be able to openly acknowledge these things and describe them. I was very much aware of the reader while I was writing. I would think often about changing the tone so that it wouldn’t be a one-note type of book. I don’t want to read those types of books, and I wouldn’t want to write one.”

Mahmoud Sayrafiezadeh stopped speaking to his son after Saïd began publishing essays about his childhood. Since the memoir came out, members of the Socialist Workers Party have condemned Sayrafiezadeh for writing about his father, whom they admire. “The irony is that the Socialist Workers Party is supposed to be all about being open and critical,” Sayrafiezadeh said. Other readers have been far more receptive to the portrait he has drawn. He has been contacted by other people who grew up inside the party, other Iranian Americans who were glad to read about living through the hostage crisis, and Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as others from ideologically restrictive upbringings and those he calls “average Americans who had problems with their parents. It cuts across.”

Sayrafiezadeh said he thinks his parents were looking for something to belong to when they first encountered the Socialist Workers Party in Minnesota in 1964. “They were looking for a family, looking for something warm and cozy. I think they had left-leaning ideals as well, but I think the nature and the extreme quality that they exhibited, and that it endured for so many years, especially for my father—it speaks less about politics and more about the psychological framework. Their own anger, their guilt—in the case of my father, guilt at having left his country and having a better life here in the United States, having escaped the shah. Politics were a cover for him not to have to deal with his emotional life and his family. Politics always trumped everything else, every day, no matter what was happening. That was the life, and there wasn’t time to look at anything else or consider anything else. I think that’s what attracted both of them.” Because he was so forcefully pushed into political activism as a child, Sayrafiezadeh sometimes thinks of himself as apathetic, though, he added, “I’m selling myself short. Everything I've written has been political. But I’m extremely burned out. I’m very cautious about knee-jerk reactions from all sides. I voted for Obama; I consider myself a liberal; I’m against the war. But I want to see the world from other people’s points of view and see how they operate and why they’ve come to where they’ve come to. I find the way we usually talk about politics limiting. A lot of it’s not investigative, some of it feels a little formulaic: we know who we’re for, so this is the way we talk about it. I don’t always disagree with it, but I find it tiring.”  


This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 03/18/2011