Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, a talented novelist, memoirist, and professor, visited the Shapiro Creative Writing Center on Monday night. He demonstrated not only his skill, but also his humbling charisma and his willingness to place himself on the same level as his audience.
This event marked the end of a series of workshops Sayrafiezadeh has taught throughout the semester, all of which focused on writing fiction. Each session explored structural and technical aspects of crafting stories, and Sayrafiezadeh provided his students with prompts to help them each write two stories.
“The reading was a nice way to wrap up the class,” said Anna Sanford ’18, who participated in Sayrafiezadeh’s courses this semester. “It was great to be able to introduce such a thoughtful and engaged writer to the rest of the community.”
Sayrafiezadeh’s rapport with his students came across strongly during the reading, which they all attended. They were the most eager to ask him questions in a Q&A session after the reading, and to jump in when he engaged the audience. He often turned their own questions back upon them, or handed them over to other students to respond, as if he hoped to continue the learning process they began in workshop.
Before the reading began, the Center held a small reception with food and wine, during which Sayrafiezadeh sat on a chair chatting with students. It took me a minute to register the fact that he was the visiting writer; he could have passed as a student had my gaze not lingered on him, his lack of pretension rendering him almost unrecognizable as the distinguished and accomplished writer that he is.
A little after 9 p.m., Zenzele Price ’18 led attendees into the main room of the Center and briefly introduced Sayrafiezadeh, who began by noting his admiration of her sans-paper introduction. Sayrafiezadeh leaned over the podium as if to speak as intimately as possible with each audience member throughout his reading. He both opened and closed with casual conversation, as if the audience were new friends whom he was just getting to know.
“There’s refreshments in there, by the way,” he remarked, pointing to the adjacent room from which we had all traversed a mere five minutes ago. “Has everyone partaken?”
He then joked that all his students would most likely hear in his writing all the things he had told them not to do in their own. Sayrafiezadeh asked if anyone in the audience was from Pittsburgh, as he had been informed that his friends’ niece attended the University. (One attendee was, although he was not the niece). Sayrafiezadeh later asked the Pittsburgh native if he could tell in which neighborhood of Pittsburgh Sayrafiezadeh’s fictional short story took place.
Why was so much attention lavished on the Pennsylvanian city? Sayrafiezadeh grew up in Pittsburgh with parents who were both members of the Socialist Workers Party, and his memoir, “When Skateboards Will Be Free,” recounts his experiences growing up with the belief that a socialist revolution was just around the corner. These memories are spliced between more recent “flash-forwards” to his adult life, sequences that Sayrafiezadeh added after he was informed that he needed to give the reader a breath between the darkly traumatic childhood stories.
“I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said, ‘Don’t follow a hurricane with a tornado,’” he said during the Q&A session, as an explanation for this interspersion of childhood and more recent memories. This change to his memoir, along with countless other little habits and tweaks he mentioned, spoke to Sayrafiezadeh’s tendency to empathize with others, something that a student of his pointed out during the Q&A session. Sayrafiezadeh constantly imagines himself in others’ shoes, whether those of his readers, his audience at a reading, or even his characters, and adjusts his own behavior according to these considerations.
“I always worry about boring the reader,” he expressed in another display of his empathetic approach.
Sayrafiezadeh gave the small, intimate audience the option of hearing from his memoir or from his collection of short stories, entitled “Brief Encounters with the Enemy.” After an audience member voiced a preference for fiction, Sayrafiezadeh read animatedly, holding the book with one hand and motioning constantly with the other, never standing completely still. Sometimes he leaned over the podium so intently that his torso was essentially perpendicular to his lanky legs. The movement wasn’t quite distracting, though, as it is with most fidgety readers—instead, it added a sort of energy to his words, accentuating the writing’s casual, somewhat edgy humor.
He’s not a strict reader, either. Sayrafiezadeh jumped around in the story, showing the audience how marked-up his copy of the book is and explaining that one of the characters in the story doesn’t work when he reads them out loud, so he wouldn’t introduce them. Similarly, one line of the story mentioned “E.T.,” prompting Sayrafiezadeh to ask if anyone had seen the movie. He then recounted a memory of skipping over this particular line (which involves a somewhat raunchy joke about the film) while reading the story to a group of older ladies.
In his writing, Sayrafiezadeh likewise bounces between profound and mundane. In a short story published in The New Yorker in July of 2014, he follows a paragraph that ends, “Only the dead rest in peace,” with one that begins, “I’d taken the afternoon off from work so that I could accompany my mother to her doctor’s appointment.”
This middle ground might come through due to his stories’ mirroring of real life, for even in his fictional works, Sayrafiezadeh uses his own experiences as a jumping pad for his writing. He calls it “fictional biography,” and says that it works because, as the old adage goes, you’re supposed to write what you know best.
Stylistically, Sayrafiezadeh’s writing is relatively straightforward, without flowery or elaborate language. He remains on his readers’ level, connecting to them as if they were long-time friends but also maintaining a reader-writer relationship. He acknowledges that he’s writing for strangers but shows that he relates to them and expresses his comfort with sharing information.
In yet another indication of Sayrafiezadeh’s humility, the Q&A session became a sort of group conversation about why we like critiquing—and sometimes ripping apart—each other’s writing. He brought up his wife, who he says is the only person he listens to for critiques.
“If I had another voice in my head, I wouldn’t know what to do,” he said. He also mentioned that his wife mostly lets him know what’s interesting, aiding him in his constant empathic process. Especially in memoir writing, it can be difficult to discern what’s interesting to people who don’t know the author, and he said that his wife served as a sort of sounding board for this aspect of his work.
Sayrafiezadeh is a writer who cares. Not only is he deeply invested in his writing, his characters, and his own experiences, he is devoted to his readers and his students and relates to them not as a voice of authority, but as a fellow human.
“So when are finals?” he asks his audience after we run out of questions, as though killing time while we wait for a train together. And, in a way, we were – he departed at 10 to catch the last Metro North train out of New Haven, leaving us with the warmth and gratification of a night spent making a new friend.