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When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood Hardcover – March 24, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, March 2009: While images of athletic and Hollywood celebrity decorated the rooms of his classmates, the walls of Said Sayrafiezadeh's youth were adorned with fierce glares from heavily-bearded revolutionaries. As the son of an Iranian father and Jewish-American mother--two souls united by a commitment to an impending socialist revolution--young Said spent his childhood working to make the comrades proud. He hawked the movement's rag, embraced a moniker of "the little revolutionary," and even embarked on a confusing trip to Cuba to spark his political awareness. Despite the seriousness of his cause, When Skateboards Will Be Free describes a politically-charged childhood with an innocence that forces smiles in unexpected places and reveals the heartache of a home soaked in idealism. The arrival of a socialist state not only promised to bring skateboards in bubblegum-bright colors to the masses; it also pledged to repair the rifts within Sayrafiezadeh's own home. - Dave Callanan

Exclusive Amazon.com Q&A with Said Sayrafiezadeh

We caught up with the author of When Skateboards Will Be Free to discuss his present-day perspective, writing influences, and politically charged father.

Has your childhood caused you to embrace or run from politics today?

I have a difficult time thinking for myself when it comes to politics. Considering what my childhood was like I suppose this is a natural consequence. I try to stay up on the news as much as I can but I’m wearied by a lot of it. I’m also uneasy. Especially around election time when my anxiety is inflamed by the extreme urgency of both Democrats and Republicans. As a little boy, politics moved at a feverish pace. According to the Socialist Workers Party the world was always on the verge of total collapse, and it was up to us to do everything in our power to forestall that collapse. So as an adult I try to live above the fray as much as I can. My wife and I recently went to Washington D.C. for a week’s vacation. We took every tour we could: The Supreme Court, the House, the Senate, even the Pentagon. It was fascinating to actually visit these places that I had only ever seen at demonstrations. I found that I had a lot of respect and admiration for our political process. But this was countered by a certain amount of guilt, and, rightly so, reproof at some of the more egregious misrepresentations of American history. I have a curious relationship to my country that I haven’t entirely sorted out yet.

How do you feel about the revolutionary heroes of your youth - Castro and Che, for example - as an adult?

I have a soft spot in my heart for them. I think I always will. Castro, Che, Malcolm X. These were the main revolutionary figures for me when I was a child. I considered them less like heroes and more like family. And I don’t think I’m overstating that. In fact, at times they were more personal to me than my family. Certainly more personal than my father whom I didn’t really get to know until I was eighteen. They acted as stand-ins for him. Even though Che and Malcolm X were already dead by the time I was born, I saw them as living, breathing companions, and I imagined that they were working to rescue me and my mother somehow. I felt comforted by this. Even to this day I cringe when I hear disparaging comments about them. But I’m able to handle criticism about my father.

You recall some very personal memories in this book. Would it have been easier to fictionalize the names and dates and write a debut novel?

Probably. But that’s not what motivated me to write this story. I was driven by a desire to have the truth be known precisely as it had occurred. To fictionalize it would have been an act of cowardice. The Socialist Workers Party has always prided itself on speaking out regardless of the consequences. In many ways I’ve become the ideal party member. That’s the irony.

Who has influenced your writing the most? There is no shortage of eloquent thinkers in your family.

I don’t really know. Perhaps it’s a combination of things. The theatre had a big impact on me, for one. I acted in plays as a child and I was profoundly affected by the experience of dramatizing events. And my uncle, Mark Harris, was a successful author, so I saw that it was something that was possible to do. On the other hand, my mother was consistently frustrated in her desire to be a writer. I would often see her working on short stories or taking classes. She had little or no success, but at least writing was a part of our household. I knew she had other aspirations besides socialist revolution.

How has your father reacted to When Skateboards Will Be Free?

In the fall of 2005, I published an essay in Granta about my childhood, and which ended up becoming the foundation for this book. My father hasn’t spoken to me since then. I’m sure he was offended by what I said about him and the Socialist Workers Party. Maybe he was also mortified about the consequences of his abandonment. I’d like to think so. My father’s still a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, and his reaction has not been much of a surprise since politics have always trumped family. Which is essentially what my memoir is about. So in some ways my point has been proven.


“[Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is a name] that you may want to remember…if this exacting and finely made first book is any indication…[He] writes with extraordinary power and restraint…[His] prose has some of [Isaac Bashevis] Singer’s wistful comedy, and good deal of that writer’s curiosity about the places where desire, self-sacrifice and societal obligation intersect and collide.”—New York Times

“[Sayrafiezadeh] writes with grace and clarity about growing up juggling deprivation and desire.”—Time

“Sayrafiezadeh looks back with wonder, even humor, at the many difficulties he faced in his childhood…[He] maintains a generous spirit throughout this eloquent memoir.”—Washington Post

“A memoir is a bold thing to write so young, but the author pulls it off with pathos and humor, proving some histories are best written early.”—GQ

“[A] wry, lovely memoir.”—O: The Oprah Magazine

"Once I began When Skateboards Will Be Free, I couldn't put it down but to sleep. So rending a memoir, it reaches the reader's innermost consciousness. Its language has the fierceness and humor of a Charles Dickens story about childhood." —Paula Fox, author of Desperate Characters and Borrowed Finery

"Said Sayrafiezadeh has a wry, deadpan sense of humor, an exceptionally open heart, and the wisdom of a true outsider. When Skateboards Will Be Free shows us exactly how he came into possession of these rare qualities. This is a fantastic, beautifully written memoir." —Scott Smith, author of A Simple Plan and The Ruins

"When Skateboards Will Be Free is a brave, honest and elegant book. It felt like the story was being whispered in my ear. I haven't read a memoir in quite a while that has so skillfully made sense of an American childhood." —Colum McCann, author of Zoli

"Sad, angry, hilarious, heartbreaking, and brave—When Skateboards Will Be Free does everything a fine memoir should, and more. That Said Sayrafiezadeh survived his childhood in one piece would be triumph enough, but this beautiful book expands that personal triumph into art. It belongs on the shelf next to the best modern memoirs." —Dani Shapiro author of Black and White and Family History

"Sayrafiezadeh's memoir is lucid, heartbreaking, finally uplifting. This is a jail-break of a book. I loved it." —Thomas Beller, author of The Sleep-Over Artist and How To Be a Man

“Do not pity Sayrafiezadeh his childhood of deprivation—wonder at his ability to transform poverty into comedy and genuine suffering into joy.” —Sean Wilsey, author of Oh the Glory of It All

"This is a remarkable memoir of a fragmented childhood." —Dalia Sofer, author of The Septembers of Shiraz

"When Skateboards Will Be Free is fraught and funny and haunting. Sayrafiezadeh never flinches, but neither does he stint on compassion. A wonderful recounting of a childhood, this book is also a powerful exploration of how belief binds families, and tears them apart." —Sam Lipsyte, author of Home Land

“ Haunting ... A memoir full of surprises.”—Booklist


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: The Dial Press (March 24, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385340680
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385340687
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,333,905 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Golick on March 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover
...and tell Tobias Wolff the news. This is an astoundingly good memoir, and simply a flat-out great piece of writing. Don't let the subtitle sway you -- this is not a political tract, beyond that fact that in every family there is indoctrination. It's just that in this author's remarkable case, the indoctrination was outwardly about politics, but inwardly about emotional deprivation and the justifications that are created to support it. But far from being bitter or sensational, the book is gripping, wry, unbelievably fine-tuned and emotionally satisfying. SS's insights into his childhood, his outsider status (culturally, politically), his parents...it all rings true, and the author's fate ultimately suggests that there is hope for us all.

If, like me, you tend to discount all one-star reviews as uselessly negative, and all five-star reviews as indiscriminately fawning and inflated, I ask you to consider that in this case the five stars are, in fact, fully deserved.
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Format: Hardcover
Said Sayrafiezadeh's When Skateboards Will Be Free is a painful memoir about a child whose parents were self-absorbed revolutionaries. His book reveals quirky parents whose separate lives revolved around the Socialist Workers Party. He paints a vivid picture of the party's campaigns from the vantage point of a child dragged to meetings, street sales and demonstrations. Most vivid is his take of the SWP's annual summer schools and conventions at Oberlin College, where the party's children roamed the grounds and buildings, stuffed themselves at the all-you-can-eat cafeteria, and watched the rallies where members responded to the promissory speeches with sustained clapping, cheering, feet stomping and big collections.

Like all children, Said desired his parents' love and attempted to incorporate their values even when those were fiercely at odds with the world around them. Like many of us from dysfunctional families, Said could not understand the dynamics that drove his parents and ended up having to raise himself.

As someone who was a member of the SWP during much of this period and who has a walk-on part in his memoir, I find the story deeply moving and profoundly true, although written from the point of view of a child who couldn't understand everything he saw and heard, and gets some parts wrong.

Every child wants the family to be happy together, and for those of us whose families split apart for one reason or another, we didn't want that to happen and, as a result, feel extraordinarily alone. Not only did Said's "Pop" leave when he was a baby, but then his sister, and later his brother became part of another household, of which I was a member.
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This is a moving memoir of a childhood deeply-scarred by parental neglect due to a misguided focus on political suffering to the exclusion of all else. The writing is captivating, engaging and amusing, even in the midst of the personal pain caused by the author's mother because of her total devotion to the Socialist Worker's Party to the neglect of the care of her own son, as well as the subjugation of her personal goals and desires to her extreme view of the necessary commitment to the cause of social justice.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh remembers his childhood with surprising compassion for both his mostly-absent Iranian father and his depressed Jewish-American mother, especially given the trauma that was inflicted upon him as a child and as a young man by their chance encounter with, and subsequent devotion to, the Socialist Worker's Party. He poignantly paints a vivid picture of what it is like to grow up as an outsider, of not belonging because of the apparently voluntary extreme deprivation that his mother inflicted upon both herself and him in an effort to identify with the suffering of the masses, of not belonging because of his parents' political idealism and his childhood misperceptions of them, and of not belonging because of his Iranian heritage during the difficult 2 years of the Iranian hostage crisis of the early 1980's.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh tells his story with wit, honesty and insight. This book is highly recommended, and a good read.
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After reading a terrifically funny and sad short story by the author in The New Yorker, I was prepared to love "When Skateboards Will Be Free." But instead I can only admit to just liking this well written memoir. Promoted as "A Memoir of a Political Childhood," this book is anything but. It focuses squarely on the neglect the author was subjected to at the hands of his deeply flawed parents. His parents, socialist ideologues to the extreme, are blind to the family suffering of their own making, and this makes for infuriating and often unsatisfying reading. More there a few times I had to stop reading this book to ask myself, are there people out there who are really this smart and this stupid all at the same time? Sadly, the answer is probably yes because there's little here that doesn't ring true in the telling. Despite the very deft and economical writing, "When Skateboard Will Be Free" fails to deliver, ultimately, what at least I thirst for in a tell all memoir that focuses on family pain -- a powerful resolution of some sort that shows the evolution of the author from put-upon child to damaged but wise man. Basically, I want to learn something. That doesn't happen here, and as a result, the book seems more whiny than wise at times. In the end, what this book does do, and very well, is add credence to the saying that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
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