In this excerpt from his forthcoming memoir about growing up Communist in America, Iranian-American essayist Said Sayrafiezadeh turns a childhood memory of his mother’s grape boycott into a darkly comic, profound meditation on how desire is whetted by prohibition:
In 1973, when I was four years old, César Chávez, president and co-founder of the United Farm Workers, called for a national boycott of iceberg lettuce and table grapes. The Socialist Workers Party, which my mother was a member of, honored the boycott immediately. Under no circumstances, my mother informed me, were iceberg lettuce and grapes permitted in our household any longer….
Even though my mother never once relinquished and allowed grapes to cross the threshold of our apartment, they became a constant, unyielding presence in my life, following me like a shadow. There were political posters about not eating grapes, fliers about not eating grapes, T-shirts about not eating grapes, conversations about not eating grapes. There is a very real possibility that I did not even know what the fruit was until the very moment that it became unavailable to me. I existed in a state of infinite longing that intertwined so tightly with my desire that it was impossible to distinguish one feeling from the other and which set a terrible precedent for me. I was acutely aware that there was something out there in the world that still existed—that was still being enjoyed by other people, even—and that had once belonged to me, but was now forever out of my reach. Desire = longing. All of this culminated in the horrific button my mother made me pin to my jacket, which featured the logo of the United Farm Workers—a stark black eagle with wings spread wide against a blood red background—along with the unequivocal imperative, “Don’t Eat Grapes.” It was not a declaration to the outside world, but a scarlet letter that constantly reminded me of my own sinful desires, which, if I ever managed to quench, would be quenched only through the immiseration of others….
I had become the fox in Aesop’s fable who jumps again and again without success at the dangling bunch of grapes hanging on the branch above him. The rationalization that the fox eventually concocts in order to soothe himself and allay his disappointment is that the grapes themselves are most likely sour and not, in the end, worth his trouble. The conclusion I drew, however, was of a different nature. As the boycott progressed, I began to see what my mother saw: the flaw existed within me. Desire under capitalism—all desire—was a shameful, unwanted condition, and one should never attempt to satisfy their desire, but instead, through heightened consciousness of the world, transcend it, and by so doing rid themselves of it forever.
Read the whole essay on the New York Foundation for the Arts website.
Visit Mr. Sayrafiezadeh’s website here.