“A memoir of a political childhood,” Saïd Sayraﬁezadeh writes of growing up as a child of an Iranian father and a Jewish mother who were members of the Socialist Worker’s Party. His parents separated when he was very young, so for most of his early years, his father was absent ﬁghting for the revolution, while he stayed with his mother attending party meetings and selling The Militant on street corners. It’s an intriguing look at how political ideology can be confusing to a child, as when Sayraﬁezadeh doesn’t understand why he can’t eat grapes during the 1965 boycott in support of striking workers. Eventually his mother relents, to a degree, by encouraging her son to eat them in the produce aisle, since stealing from a capitalist system seemed enough of a form of revolt to her. Later during the Iran hostage crisis, Sayraﬁezadeh struggles in school because while he fears that his classmates will discover he is Iranian, he also can’t help but speak of the US as an imperialist country that basically got what it deserved. As an adult, he pursues acting before settling in to a job working for Martha Stewart designing packaging. The transition between these eras of his life is not given much detail, though the evolution of his relationship with both his parents is knit together with more clarity.
Despite the heaviness of some of his emotions, especially the diﬃculty in living a life of privation when it seems an entirely chosen set of circumstances, Sayraﬁezadeh’s writing style is wry and rather cheerful, considering the level of dysfunction present in his family. He’s able to see the extent of his naïveté, as when he tries to explain to his girlfriend as an adult why he is an communist:
Flaring inside me was the impulse to respond with generalizations, or various patched-together facts, or to just simply steer the conversation into familiar territory, where I could speak with authority. To do this, however, felt immoral and unforgivable in the face of Karen’s authenticity. Eventually I stopped trying to answer, and muttered to myself, “I guess I don’t really know what I’m talking about,” and she had responded, more surprised than accusatory, “Yes, it sounds like you don’t.”
This aspect of the story made it clear to me how important it is to teach kids to be critical thinkers, regardless of political leanings. It seems like Sayraﬁezadeh only learned to parrot information, without truly understanding the ideas and implications underneath. Even on a visit to Cuba, he is just not able to fully appreciate being there or grapple with what he’s seeing, although the other kids on the visit are perhaps equally unquestioning, even if they are more engaged in the factory and farm visits, as they see it as a kind of utopia or ideal. Possibly he resisted being critical of his parents’ beliefs because he sensed agreeing with them no matter what was a way to stay close to them, since they were so dedicated to their political lives. There is a lot of sadness bubbling underneath, but ultimately Sayraﬁezadeh doesn’t begrudge his unconventional upbringing and has crafted an entertaining narrative out of the experience.