The Political is the Personal
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s new memoir about life in the Socialist Workers Party shows the effects of political idealism on a child’s upbringing
Politics are kind of like life. In fact, it’s really easy to confuse the two. How many of us got caught up in Obamamania, blurring the line between the candidate’s success or failure and our own personal joy or shame? Maybe it’s because politics can affect things like money and education and health care and law, all those public affairs that impact our daily lives. Ultimately, though, politics fails to address those messier, private things that make us human: emotions.
“The ideological,” says the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, “was merely a superfluous veil for the real concerns of life.” If such is the case, then Mahmoud Sayrafiezadeh and Martha Harris—the central figures in Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free—aren’t just wearing veils, but full-length polyurethane bodysuits.
Skateboards is a memoir about growing up within the American faction of the Socialist Workers Party. Though they separated when he was an infant, both of Sayrafiezadeh’s parents remained loyal to the cause, reliable mouthpieces for the party’s creeds and ideals. When the party told them to vote for Clifton DeBerry in the 1964 presidential election, they voted for Clifton DeBerry. When a boycott of grapes was called for due to unfair labor practices, the Sayrafiezadehs stopped eating grapes.
For people like Sayrafiezadeh’s parents, alignment with a political party is tantamount to inventing an identity. One can erase the past and say, “This is what I stand for. This defines me.” Through the party, they transformed themselves from students at the University of Minnesota into political operatives, pawning their family histories for the Cause. But that transformation had devastating consequences for Saïd, who spent much of his childhood living in a state of unnecessary deprivation:
“The difference between us and the other poor families… was that our poverty was intentional and self-inflicted. A choice chased after, as opposed to a reality that could not be avoided… My mother actively, consciously, chose not only for us to be poor, but to remain poor, and the two of us suffered greatly for it. Because to suffer and to suffer greatly was the point.”
There aren’t many nuggets of self-revelation in Skateboards; nor does Sayrafiezadeh weigh in on the ways in which his family’s experience might be indicative of American life. But his narration is measured, steady and fearless. Here is the scene where Saïd is abandoned by his father. Here is the scene where Saïd is raped by a party member crashing in their apartment. Here is the scene during the Iran hostage crisis where his schoolmates ridicule him for being Iranian. Proper attention is administered to each vignette, but with an equanimity that avoids sensationalism or self-exploitation.
What emerges of Sayrafiezadeh’s character emerges slowly: a boy (and man) who desperately wants to be normal and who, despite what he endures, has a keen sense of what normal is. Nine-year-old Saïd longs to have two parents and to be included in the neighborhood pick-up baseball games; the adult Saïd wants a stable relationship with his co-worker, Karen. But these are unlikely, nearly impossible, dreams.
His parents’ belief in the socialist cause is mostly sincere, but the party itself is so inconsequential that, in Sayrafiezadeh’s narration, it comes off as a crock. Sayrafiezadeh shows readers the stark discrepancy between dream and reality, between believing in ideals and believing an imminent revolution will make those ideals actually matter. We are meant to smirk when we read, “President Clinton had just begun a four-day bombing of Iraq… and in response the Socialist Workers Party called an emergency meeting to map out a strategy on how the working class should best respond.”
Of course, the party’s absurdity isn’t the point of Skateboards, but rather its relationship to Sayrafiezadeh’s life. What dominates the book is Sayrafiezadeh’s father, or more accurately, his father’s absence. Mahmoud left home when Saïd was nine months old, “to fight for a world socialist revolution.” The author seizes upon his father’s infrequent semi-affection, the sporadic letters and telegrams and appearances at political rallies. His filial pride is, amazingly, never lost. Even when Mahmoud implicitly disowns his son, referring so him as “Saïd Harris”—his mother’s last name—Saïd feels no betrayal. Their relationship is awkward, tacit, disharmonious, and beautifully rendered. “His phone calls grew increasingly infrequent until they ceased altogether,” says Sayrafiezadeh, “and our joyful reunions became more like occasional punctuation marks in long paragraphs of silence.”
Likewise, Sayrafiezadeh’s mother, Martha, seems unable to rid herself of her love for Mahmoud. She agrees to remain married to him after he leaves her so that he can continue to live legally in the United States, even after he takes another wife in Iran. Though she is the lone parent raising Saïd, their household is greatly influenced by the absent Mahmoud, whose exploits—including an unsuccessful run for president of Iran—are sometimes chronicled in the socialist newspaper The Militant. Gradually, her ties to the party weaken—here she lets Saïd eat a single forbidden grape, here she refuses to take a mandated job as a manual laborer—but her suffering never eases.
Sayrafiezadeh describes his mother as “a victim of the world, at the mercy of those more powerful than she.” Her suicide attempt is yet another ordeal the young Saïd must endure. It starts to become clear that Martha uses the socialist party as a shield, diverting her emotional energy into its causes to distract herself from her own shortcomings. Unfortunately for her, the party is itself dysfunctional, just as fallible as the humans that support it.
As such, despite devoting his life to it, Mahmoud’s pious adherence to the party seems to say more about his own personality—stubborn, erratic, irresponsible—than about the greatness of socialism. This is the great strength of When Skateboards Will Be Free: in deftly narrating his traumatic childhood and his parents’ mistakes, Sayrafiezadeh has de-politicized his family, which might be the same thing as re-humanizing them.