Bookforum talks with Said Sayrafiezadeh

In Said Sayrafiezadeh’s new collection of short stories, Brief Encounters With The Enemy, the author takes on America’s seemingly unending wars and the moral ambivalence that can come from engaging in them. The book follows Sayrafiezadeh’s acclaimed debut, When Skateboards Will Be Free, which detailed his upbringing as the son of a Jewish mother and an Iranian father, and the family’s complex relationship to radical politics in the 1970s and 80s. Brief Encounters, Sayrafiezadeh’s first book of fiction, reveals his talent for creating the interior worlds of a variety of characters. In an interview conducted via email and over coffee in New York, Said discussed how he moved forward as a writer following the success of his memoir, and what it means to be a politically engaged citizen.

Bookforum: Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis talks about the difficulties of balancing politics and aesthetics, a notion Nabokov takes a more severe line on, saying, simply, that they do not mix. What are your thoughts on the relationship between the political and the literary?

Said Sayrafiezadeh: I sure hope they mix since I spend an awful lot of time crafting stories with political undertones. I owe my approach to my upbringing in the Socialist Workers Party, which instilled a political sensibility in me at a very young age. Everything in my household was political to an obsessive and absurd degree—everything related back to politics and could be explained by politics. My mother gave almost twenty years to the party; my brother and sister did the same; my father is still a member, living in Brooklyn, expecting the revolution any day.

In this collection, I’m interested in exploring how people, whether they’re aware of it or not, are impacted by politics, and by society, economy, and ethnicity. The operative word in that sentence is people. It’s easy when dealing with political ideas to lose sight of people and subtlety, to devolve into sentimentality and wishful thinking. I’m not trying to write polemics.

Bookforum: After writing one book in which your central characters live very politically charged lives, your second book deals with political apathy: soldiers go to war for mostly unformulated reasons, wars go on without a clear cause, and soldiers come home to silence and unfilled promises. Does this shift say more about you or the political scene today?

Said Sayrafiezadeh: I wish I’d been able to indulge in apathy as a child growing up in Pittsburgh among a generally apathetic population. It was painful for me to witness how people “on the outside” disregarded the issues that were so integral to my mother’s and my life. No one cared about the Cuban Revolution the way we cared about the Cuban Revolution. No one cared about the invasion of Grenada, the Equal Rights Amendment, the Falkland Islands. These were issues of great importance for my mother, they brought tears to her eyes, they made her lose her temper. The world always seemed be hanging in the balance with global events either about to swing in favor of the workers and accelerate the coming revolution or swing the other way. It was dismaying to see my friends and neighbors so oblivious, so indifferent—I was jealous of that indifference. This new book reflects both the detached state of that world and my desire to be a part of it. I’ve managed to envision myself in this collection as one of the friends and neighbors I grew up with: moderately conservative, generally apathetic, mostly unaware that the world was about to implode around them. Eight stories later I can tell you that it’s a wonderful place to be.

Bookforum: In the titular story, you have a soldier describe an encounter as follows: "I observed the man in the crosshairs. He was 1.1. miles away. He was five feet ten inches tall. He jiggled himself dry, buttoned up, and started to walk leisurely along the edge of the lake back toward the prairie. Soon he was 1.2 miles away. Then he turned toward the plains, toward the high grass, and just when he was about to disappear for good, I put my finger in the proximity of the trigger. Poof. The gun vibrated gently with its message." Can you discuss some of the salient details—even the word poof—of this passage, and what ideas they carry?

Said Sayrafiezadeh: That scene touches on something that's become a source of pride for the American military: combining advanced technology with extreme distance from the enemy. Earlier in that story I also mention drones flying overhead. Almost everything that's related to war in these stories occurs at arm’s length. It’s remarkable how vague and mysterious the enemy remains—both in this collection and in real life—even though it’s the focal point for everything.

I was very specific about using poof, because it’s a soft word that calls to mind a pillow or evaporation, and I wanted to juxtapose the simplicity and ease of being able to pull a trigger with the simplicity and ease of killing someone. For a while, I’d considered making the gun more realistic, but why? I’m sure at some point we’ll come up with a gun that resembles a smartphone. In fact, I just read recently of a twenty-seven-thousand dollar “smartgun” that can hit a target from one thousand yards away while accounting for things like gravity, wind speed and humidity. It all raises the moral contradiction of enjoying relative safety while committing all-out destruction.

Bookforum: In "Operators" you describe an office celebration for a soldier, writing: "We threw a welcome-home party for him. Some of the girls spent the morning decorating the conference room with signs drawn in blue and red markers, which said things like 'Welcome home, Wally,' 'We're proud of you, Wally,' 'You're our hero, Wally.' When the managing director came around to my cubicle collecting money for refreshments, I gave him three dollars." There are numerous send-off and welcome home moments like this in the book, all told from varying perspectives. What's interesting to me is how you set these events, which are usually depicted as either public and grand, or domestic and private, in workplaces. Why did you want to make this connection between often unexciting work and war?

Said Sayrafiezadeh: There’s something a little pathetic about work parties, at least for me. Sure, they can be fun, but you’re also a captive participant, and when they’re over you have to get back to work. I liked the idea of enforced celebration combined with patriotism, the pressure for everyone to conform, which also occurs at the beginning of every baseball game. “That is an example of how you get caught up in the spirit of the moment,” one of the characters says about applauding when a coworker returns from the war. And remember, no one at these parties is really facing what’s happened or what’s about to happen, namely death. I wanted the reader to be able to observe that and realize how familiar a feeling it is.

Bookforum: Walmart, Kmart, and other megacorporations are almost a leitmotif in the book. To push the previous question a littler further, what are your thoughts on the overlap between working in retail and joining the military?

Said Sayrafiezadeh: Walmart, Kmart, and other retail environments are a leitmotif for this country... By odds alone, some of my characters would have to be employed at one or more of those stores. There are always various motivators that cause someone to enlist, and not all of my characters do so for strictly financial reasons. Joey, for instance, who works at Walmart in the story “Associates,” says he’s joining the military as much for the job opportunity as he is in order to get in shape and have an adventure. My own personal experience also drives many of these stories. I worked at a supermarket in Pittsburgh after high school, stocking shelves on the night shift. I was seventeen years old and I wasn’t planning on going to college and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. About a month after I graduated I got a call from the Army asking if I wanted to come down to the recruitment center and talk. “No, thanks,” I said, “I just saw Platoon.” “Oh, don’t worry,” the sergeant told me, “things aren’t like that anymore.” There were probably thousands of young men my age who took him up on the offer.

Bookforum: What do you think is at stake when an American writer takes on politically charged subjects like warfare, politics, or soldiers killing civilians?

Said Sayrafiezadeh: Speaking in terms of what's at stake for me, it’s worth noting that my father hasn’t spoken to me since the publication of my memoir. With this collection, what I’m trying to ultimately do is just tell stories. That’s what I’m conscious of doing, that’s what takes all of my focus. The easy part is the politics, the hard part is the storytelling.

Bookforum: How much of your writing life, do you think, is framed by your biography?

Said Sayrafiezadeh: After I completed my memoir I had no clue what I was going to write next. I’d been preparing for a long time to write a book about my life, and once that was over I was somewhat bereft of inspiration. I’d always been inspired by James Baldwin’s account of writing Giovanni’s Room from the perspective of a white man, and how he didn’t want his writing limited by the color of his skin. I can’t overstate how galvanizing it was when I gave my first character in this collection an American name, and thus eschewed any responsibility for having to define my ethnicity. The collection is framed by the author’s name, and everything seemed to open up from there: the possibilities were endless. I’ve always wanted to be an average (read white) American with a name like Luke or Jake, and the wonderful thing about writing fiction is that I can finally get to be that. But I’m not just role-playing, of course, because in many ways I already am an average American. I’ve lived in this country all my life after all—born in Brooklyn, raised in Pittsburgh somewhere between the margin and the mainstream. All I’m doing now is bringing these tensions that have always been latent in my own life to the surface for the reader to see. In Brief Encounters, I’m forcing the reader to contend with the idea that these are legitimate stories about America written by an American. It begs the question as to who is doing the encountering and who is actually the enemy.