Growing up poor in Pittsburgh, Said Sayrafiezadeh had to navigate plenty of treacherous waters. He plumbs them artfully in When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood (The Dial Press). The new memoir has garnered positive reviews in The New York Times, Time and elsewhere.
Sayrafiezadeh is the son of an Iranian father and Jewish-American mother whose life has been inextricably linked to the Socialist Workers Party. His parents split when he was a baby, but both remained passionately committed to the party, insisting that capitalism was evil, that the revolution would come, that the workers would rise.
His mother also insisted they remain as poor as possible, filling their series of miserable apartments with back copies of The Militant and stealing grapes at the grocery store during a boycott, because a crime against capitalism could only be good. His father was an absent, but looming presence; at one point he ran for president of Iran.
The family's ties to the party dominated all aspects of the young Sayrafiezadeh's life. But his was such an insular existence that the kids he knew didn't really know about it.
"It's that vague feeling when you have a secret -- you think everyone knows," he said in a recent phone interview from New York, where he's a writer. "I have a friend who said, 'I didn't know any of these stories.' ... It was the embarrassing dark secret in my life."
Mostly the other kids just knew he was poor and had a funny name -- that is, until 1979. Then the 10-year-old Sayrafiezadeh found himself cringing at the sight and sound of his own name. About 40 days into the crisis, he writes, a schoolmate asked what he thought of the Iranian hostage crisis.
"The orator rose," he writes. "I saw him rising and I was helpless to stop him. He entered the stage, took his place behind the podium, and said to the audience, 'I believe the hostages are spies and should be tried for their crimes against the Iranian people.'"
It's a central theme in the book -- the young kid trying to find his voice but existing in a cultural black hole, where his opinions and those of his family are handed down from the party's elite and not questioned.
"Everyone in the party depends on this higher figure to tell us how to operate," he says today. Since the book has come out, he's been accused of betraying the party, a claim he calls ridiculous: "It wasn't a choice" for him to be in the party at all.
"Mom and Dad come up a lot in therapy," Sayrafiezadeh adds. His mother, who still lives in Pittsburgh, finally left the party after decades of sacrifice. His father, who cut ties with his son after becoming the subject of his writing, remains in the party.
"I would probably wager I won't ever speak to him again. On the one hand, he's completely proven my point. Politics trump family. The Socialist Workers Party IS the family."