When Saïd Sayrafiezadeh was 6, his mother took him on a Greyhound bus from New York City to Oberlin, Ohio, for the national convention of the Socialist Workers Party. Comrades from all over the country tousled his hair and called him “little revolutionary.” His father, the Iranian immigrant mathematics professor who left the family when Saïd was a baby, was there. His sister and brother, who had both left to live with their father years earlier, were there. And everyone basked in the glow of Marxist fervor, certain that their efforts selling copies of the newspaper The Militant outside factory gates and on street corners were helping bring about the revolution. “Comrades,” proclaimed party leader Jack Barnes on the final night, “the Socialist Workers Party is now at the vanguard of the working class.” The cheers echoed for minutes on end. Back in their too-tiny New York apartment, Saïd asked his mother when the revolution would come. “When I’m seven? When I’m eight? When I’m eighteen?” And his mother, tired of the question, said, “When you’re eighteen, the revolution will come.”
In the exquisite When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir Of A Political Childhood, Sayrafiezadeh weaves together his ideological upbringing with brief glimpses of his adult life, in which he designs packaging for Martha Stewart’s line of home products, has a crush on a co-worker, lives in a rent-controlled apartment, and can’t explain communism. Somehow that present is connected to a past of blurting out slogans about U.S. imperialism in school, taking educational trips to Havana, stealing grapes during the boycott, and visiting convicted murderer Stanton Story in prison in support of the party’s effort to force a new trial. With spare, beautiful language and an impeccable ear for telling juxtapositions, Sayrafiezadeh turns familiar American scenes—playing football with schoolmates, watching Walter Cronkite on television, working as a grocery bagger—into minefields of political meaning. Oppressed minorities are right, the government is wrong. The Iranian students who took hostages in the U.S. Embassy are right, Jimmy Carter is wrong. During the evening news, Saïd asks his mother to identify whether the world figures shown are good (Arafat) or bad (almost everyone else). To his peers and teachers, of course, this worldview is upside down. So when he can, Saïd keeps quiet. And when he can’t, to his shame, he sometimes betrays the revolution.
When Skateboards Will Be Free isn’t a shocking exposé. In fact, its one serious misstep is a jarring chapter about a comrade who offers to baby-sit Saïd while his mother goes to a party meeting, but turns out to have less-than-pure motives. Aside from that brief detour into more conventional why-my-childhood-was-so-screwed-up territory, Sayrafiezadeh portrays his strange upbringing through fresh eyes and with a clear, honest voice. As the fates of his idolized but absent father and his long-suffering but badly damaged mother emerge, Sayrafiezadeh’s skill at crystallizing the deep emotions of this oddball family drama become evident. His simple, beautiful prose makes it a wonder that he ever bothered with Martha Stewart. Sayrafiezadeh is a born writer, and providentially, he’s been given an amazing story to tell.