When Saïd Sayrafiezadeh was four years old, his mother informed him that they would no longer be eating grapes. The edict had come from the Socialist Workers Party, to which Saïd ‘s mom was ardently devoted, in sympathy with the boycott called by the United Farm Workers. As often happens with prohibitions, this one led young Saïd to fixate single-mindedly on the object denied him. After months of being badgered by his demands for grapes, during a trip to the supermarket, Saïd’s mother instructed him to eat one grape, reasoning that his desire would be satisfied without violating the boycott. Before long he was spending their trips to the market in the produce aisle, gorging himself with the fruit while his mother shopped, all the while wearing a “Don’t Eat Grapes” button on his jacket. Recalling this sanctioned stealing, he observes that the rules he grew up with “had set me in opposition to the rest of the world, where my right was everyone else’s wrong, and where my wrong was everyone else’s right, and where I would be helpless in ever being able to distinguish for myself which one was which.”
Sayrafiezadeh has as much tragicomic family dysfunction as the next memoirist to mine for his first book, When Skateboards Will Be Free. But what elevates this elegant, moving memoir of growing up the son of socialists is Sayrafiezadeh’s poignant struggle to figure out how to be an American kid while being raised to despise so much about America, from its government to its legal system to its consumer culture. Sayrafiezadeh’s mother, Martha, despite her education and dreams of being a writer (her brother was novelist Mark Harris, author of Bang the Drum Slowly), spends decades as a secretary in Pittsburgh, forgoing personal ambition for an “authentic working-class experience.” She and Saïd move from grim to grimmer apartment, different from their neighbors only in that their poverty is “intentional and self-inflicted.” Meanwhile, Sayrafiezadeh’s Iranian-born father abandons the family when Saïd is an infant, and the author, told that Mahmoud “went off to fight for a world socialist revolution,” grows up believing that his father will return to them when the revolution is won.
The sense of moral confusion that accompanies the grape theft never leaves him, becoming most pronounced when American diplomats are taken hostage in Iran in 1979, when the author is in sixth grade. As his mother listens intently to the news on the radio, Saïd scans her face, trying to figure out what it all means. “I had learned well that often what sounded like bad news was actually good news, and vice versa,” he writes. By then his father has moved back to Iran to establish a socialist party in his homeland (after a failed run for president and a brief imprisonment related to the publication of his socialist newspaper, he returns to the U.S. permanently). A month into the crisis, when a friend asks Saïd what he thinks of the situation, he parrots his mother’s opinion, replying, “The hostages are spies and should be tried for their crimes against the Iranian people. They’ll deserve whatever they get.” As a result of that response, he’s ostracized from his friends; before long his Iranian heritage makes him the target of bullying.
Sayrafiezadeh’s childhood is beset by “chronic uneasiness” as he attempts to reconcile his home life and his school life. A well-off classmate visiting his shabby apartment points to a picture of Fidel Castro on the wall and asks, “Who’s that?” When Martha explains that it’s the leader of Cuba, the boy asks why they have a picture of him. “He’s a revolutionary,” she says. “What’d he do?” the boy asks.
“He fought for communism in Cuba.”
“Communism? Communism’s bad.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Capitalism is what’s bad.”
“I like capitalism.”
“Capitalism makes people poor.”
“No, it doesn’t. It makes people rich.”
“That’s what they want you to think.”
“Who wants me to think that?”
Saïd remains silent and uncomfortable throughout the exchange.
His childhood is also achingly lonely at times. Left at home alone from a young age while his mother attends party meetings, Saïd depends on the television for comfort, and when he turns it off, he writes, “The silence rushed into me, clogging my ears.” Martha’s life seems lonely too — she has comrades, but no friends. During Saïd’s teens, she abruptly resigns from the Socialist Workers Party — “just like that, it was all over,” Sayrafiezadeh writes. Not too long after, unable to kick-start a writing career, she suffers a breakdown.
In adulthood the author ends up connected to another Martha — Stewart — doing graphic design for the lifestyle guru’s line of home products and feeling guilty every time he buys a marginally useful home accessory, his ambivalent consumerism a response to years of deprivation. (The book’s title refers to his mother’s reply to his request for a skateboard: “Once the revolution comes, everyone will have a skateboard because all skateboards will be free.”) He also — awkwardly, haltingly — gets to know his father, who still invariably cancels dinner dates because some political crisis has arisen. Interestingly, Sayrafiezadeh, once called the “little revolutionary” by party members, appears to have absorbed little from a childhood spent accompanying his mother to meetings and rallies. When his girlfriend asks him if he considers himself a communist, he replies, “I guess so,” but he’s unable to offer coherent answers when probed about his political beliefs. “I guess I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he finally admits.
But the only bitterness that creeps into this open-hearted memoir is in the author’s description of a sexual assault he suffers as a young boy at the hands of a comrade Martha leaves him with while she attends a meeting. When she reports the assault to party headquarters, the response is that “under capitalism, everyone has problems.” Otherwise, Sayrafiezadeh is remarkably generous, both to his absent father and to a mother who often places his interests second to a cause. Getting into the head of his father, an elusive charmer who is “invigorated” by the world’s problems, Sayrafiezadeh writes, “The revolution will come, certainly, and when it does, all will be well. Until then, there is work to be done, food to be eaten, wine to be drunk, and sex to be had.” He adds, wistfully, “I am sure my father will live to be a hundred.”