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The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we’re launching The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday from now through August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

This week, we spoke with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, who is of the rare breed that can write ambidextrously in both fiction and nonfiction. His memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, tells the hilarious and wacky story of growing up with a Jewish mother and Iranian father, both zealous members of the Socialist Workers Party, who brought him up to devoutly await the fall of Capitalism. Sayrafiezadeh’s short stories, which have appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, have that same absurdly haunting voice that made his memoir so addicting. Except they aren’t narrated by some fictional stand-in for the author; they’re told from from the point of view of a white man. When reading Sayrafiezadeh’s stories, one gets the same feeling as reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room — that the author has seen the view from all sides of the enemy lines. Sayrafiezadeh’s stories capture a myriad of ethnic and political perspectives, and their dreams and anticipations on everything from sex to war to deportation. The result is always funny, surreal, wrenching, and bitingly revealing. Sayrafiezadeh has just completed his first collection of short stories, and is currently at work on a novel.

How would you describe the state of American fiction today? Is there anything you love or hate about it?

If the Caribbean cruise ship I was recently on is any indication, the state of American fiction is quite robust. Robust with James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and Fern Michaels. It was a shocking realization for me that many — if not most — of my fellow Americans’ literary preference does not coincide with mine. During my seven days on board, the only genuinely literary book I spotted among the impressively large number of people who were engaged in reading was The Satanic Verses. But who am I to judge what constitutes exalted literature? It’s really none of my business. My concern should be with the work that I’m creating, never mind public taste. This probably should apply to all writers out there. Besides, my fellow cruise ship passengers appeared quite content with their choice of books. As for me, I was traipsing around with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom — feeling highbrow as I was undergoing one of the most miserable reading experiences of my life. My sense of superiority was additionally tempered by the fact that my copy of Absalom, Abasalom had been checked out of the New York Public Library, a transaction that does nothing to help the publishing industry or the state of American fiction. In fact, most of my books come from either the public library or Housing Works Bookstore, which sells only used books. So those who were happily sunning themselves as they read their twenty-eight dollar Michael Crichton were doing more than I am to help keep literature of all kinds afloat — no pun intended.

Your short stories often take place in ethnically diverse post-industrial towns, yet they’re all told in the point of view of a white man. What does storytelling through a white man’s perspective reveal that your nonfiction doesn’t?

For one thing, it reveals that I’m actually a white American man from a post-industrial town. Nothing could be more liberating for me than to be able to finally assert it. This after years of having to stumble over a false definition of myself as an Iranian-American, or a Jewish American from Iran, or some variation of those. It’s one of the fantastic rewards of being a writer: I now have the ability to define who I am. For many years I tried to pursue an acting career, but was generally called in to audition for roles like taxi driver, deli owner, or third-world despot… None of the casting directors could get past my name. And of course, they were all disappointed when I showed up with light skin and no accent. To put it mildly, it was a humiliating and unsatisfying artistic experience. It also reinforced what I had grown up with — the acute understanding that I was a permanent outsider despite having been born and raised in the United States. As you point out, my memoir deals specifically with this complex upbringing. It was complex both politically and ethnically — and one of the themes of the book is how much I was defined by other people, including my parents. But now as a writer I have been able to undo some of this. Partly by ceasing to address it. I’m not an Iranian writer or a Jewish writer. I’m an American writer and I write about America. My fiction bears this out.

Your two most recent stories, both published in The New Yorker, take place during an unspecified war that bears many similarities with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Especially in a time where America’s anxieties about terrorism and nuclear threats direct many of our national interests abroad, how do you think the stories we tell about war today are different from those in the past?

I’m not so sure there’s much difference. The thing that I’m most in touch with, and which I try to address in my writing, is how romantically many Americans view war, current and past. I suspect that this has always been the case — with the exception possibly being the Vietnam War. We generally consider our wars justified and our soldiers noble, while the enemy is bloodthirsty and faceless. This doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years even with our new media that should be able to give us some direct and immediate connection with those we’re fighting against. One of my influences in writing my stories has been Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead.” It’s a very brutal, direct depiction of what it was like to be a foot soldier during the Second World War, written by someone who was there. His American soldiers are flawed, complex people who are compelled to murder precisely because of their occupation. But I’m not necessarily trying to make a case regarding Afghanistan or Iraq. I want the war in my stories to be generic because it affords both the reader and I some space to think about the timelessness of it. I want our focus to be on war in general, all wars, or perhaps the next war.

There’s a line in your story “Paranoia” that says, “Everyone was happy, and then everyone was scared” in response to a sudden rush of cold weather in August. Nearly all your fiction, though often funny, strikes that mood of mordant, irrational fear. What compels you to write about your characters’ worlds this way?

There’s a jittery strain that runs through the American public that I’m certainly not immune to. It didn’t begin with 9/11, but it was certainly enhanced by it. However, the real provenance of my paranoia is probably my own upbringing in the Socialist Workers Party. We were sure that there was going to be a worldwide workers’ revolution. We were sure it was imminent. And if the workers’ revolution didn’t come then fascism would come. That was the choice. So I lived my life expecting some sort of cataclysmic event to occur, ether for good or bad. And as we waited, my mother and I endured a very difficult existence. We struggled with money and depression. We struggled with the breakup of our family. In short, our private lives mirrored our political lives. The fear I write about, therefore, is not entirely “irrational.” Tragedy does befall some of my characters in the same way that tragedy befell my mother and me. Writing about it probably exorcises some demons.

From your perspective, what do you think American fiction will look like in ten years?

I have no idea, but I hope I’m a part of it.

What was the last good book you read?

I’ll give you two: No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer.

Illustration by Geoff Mak.

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