Tuesday, April 14th, 2009
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s parents devoted their lives to the Socialist Workers Party, and they did their best to make sure their son followed in their revolutionary footsteps. In his new memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood, he chronicles a radical upbringing, from the father who abandoned him for the cause to his mother’s encouragement of shoplifting. Rebecca Touger recently asked Sayrafiezadeh a few questions about life as a young Trotskyite. -Elizabeth Minkel
How might life have been different if your parents hadn’t come across Trotsky and the socialist revolution during the 60’s, pre-you?
I don’t think it would have been much different. If my parents hadn’t gotten involved in the Socialist Workers Party, then most likely it would have been another organization. They were looking for acceptance and guidance and inclusion. This is what the Socialist Workers Party provided. It also provided a way for them to escape from their own personal responsibilities. The concept of family is considered bourgeoisie by members of the Socialist Workers Party. So is marriage. Boyfriends and girlfriends are referred to as “companions.” Living in this culture, my parents would have been tacitly encouraged in allowing our family to break apart. The contradiction here is that the Socialist Workers Party is really about family. It’s also about intense emotion—love, sadness, anger, fear—but it’s emotion in the abstract; it looks at people in terms of vast multitudes. In many ways, it dehumanizes its members because it urges them to ignore their own complexity. For people who are not capable of confronting the reality of their lives, this is appealing. My parents were two such people.
What level of engagement does your family still have with the Party?
My mother left the party over 20 years ago, and so did my brother and sister. The only family member who is still involved is my father. In fact, he’s a leading member. He’s always either writing speeches or attending conferences or standing on a picket line. The demands are constant and all-consuming. I’m sure he will remain in the organization until he dies. Or is expelled, which is always a possibility. He would never leave on his own accord, though. To do so would force a reckoning of the last fifty years of his life. He’d have to acknowledge that to some degree, his time has been wasted. And also that he’s destroyed some lives along the way. I think that would be too much to bear.
What will your family think of your account of childhood deprivation?
My childhood suffering is not news to anyone in my family. It’s certainly not news to my mother, who was the architect of the deprivation we lived through. She wrote me after she read the book and said she thought it was beautiful and she was proud of me. As did my brother and sister. I have no idea if my father will ever read the book. He probably won’t. This goes back to the idea of personal responsibility. I don’t think he wants to know the damaging effects of his abandonment of me. He’s always believed that whatever unhappiness exists in the world stems from capitalism. My account would not fit with that world outlook.
You write that you sidestepped your father’s radical politics by never voting in any election. Never-never? What are your politics like nowadays? Did you vote in the 2008 election?
As you might imagine, it’s very difficult for me to think for myself when it comes to politics. I’m also burned out by them. Election time is the worst time for me. I can’t feel the same urgency or excitement as everyone else. But I suppose I consider myself “progressive.” Of course, the Socialist Workers Party would say that I’m “reactionary” or “counterrevolutionary.” It’s all relative. I still entertain radical thoughts and fantasies of socialist revolution, though. The beliefs are deeply engrained. But I’m generally more moderate now, more mellow. So yes, I’ve begun voting. In 2008 I voted for Obama, as opposed to the Socialist Workers Party candidate, Róger Calero. And I felt guilty.
You learned a crucial survival strategy, desire + yearning = theft, when your mother condoned your supermarket thievery as a crime against capitalism—i.e. good crime. Do you remember the last thing you stole?
The last thing I stole was from an office I worked in. I can’t remember what it was. Binder clips maybe. I felt entitled. My boss was a capitalist, after all. The odd thing is that my therapist had been telling me for years that it was not good to do that. Then one day I bragged to my father and he said, “No, don’t do that. That belongs to the business.” I never stole again.
What are you reading right now?
The Unknown Knowns by Jeffrey Rotter. We worked together for Martha Stewart ten years ago and we would often talk about our writerly aspirations. His book came out last month, just one week before mine. It’s a really nice, heartwarming coincidence.
What’s your six-word memoir?
I live with feelings of regret.
READ an excerpt from When Skateboards Will Be Free
BUY a copy of the book
VISIT Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s website