Su J. Sokol (author of the lovely “Je me souviens” in The Future Fire 2012.24) has an interstitial novel out with Deux Voiliers Publishing, Cycling to Asylum, a story that touches on themes of immigration, asylum, oppression, marginalization and other issues that interest us. Djibril, general editor of TFF, asked her a few questions about her writing.
Djibril al-Ayad: Tell us briefly about Cycling to Asylum—where did the concept come from? Did you hope to convey a message as well as tell a story?
Su J Sokol: The idea of Cycling to Asylum came to me one day when I was biking home from work. I thought to myself: “What would happen if a family from the United States crossed the border into Québec by bicycle and made a claim for refugee status?” As a social rights advocate, I work with immigrants and refugees, and my own family immigrated to Québec from the U. S. for political reasons. On top of this, I’d recently been spending more and more time cycling, and I’d been thinking a lot about how differently you experience the world from the seat of a bike I realized right away that there was a story here that I wanted to write, but for the story to work, it would have to take place in the future; otherwise, too many people would be skeptical about the possibility of a family from the United States truly needing asylum. I decided to present the U. S. as a near-future dystopia, using this genre to sound a warning about disturbing political and social trends. Because I also wanted my story to be hopeful, I decided to present Québec as something of a utopia in order to bring attention to more positive possibilities.
DA You are originally from New York and now live in Québec. Do you ever feel like a refugee in any sense?
SJS: Yes. As I mentioned, we left the United States and our home in Brooklyn—a home that we had loved—for political reasons. We were not real refugees—our lives were never in any immediate danger—but my partner and I had both experienced some degree of harassment especially after 9/11 as a result of our political activism. I will not go into details here. In addition to this harassment, we also decided that we did not want to raise our children in an atmosphere of fear and hate mongering, and we no longer could tolerate the idea of our taxes paying for war abroad and repression at home. Like real refugees, despite the problems and imperfections in our new country, we still felt like we had experienced a narrow escape. At the same time, I have not quite gotten over feeling like I have been displaced from somewhere else, somewhere I had once belonged. The whole series of events that led to our decision to immigrate was tinged with pain as well as hope and left me with a rather traumatic relationship with our former home.
DA: I’m thinking of objects found with the bodies of people who were trying to flee Pompeii, and it raises the question—if you had to flee the country, leaving your whole life behind, what one personal thing would you take with you?
SJS: It’s funny that you ask this question because it comes up in one of the chapters in my novel, just after the family has crossed the border. Janie, one of my main characters, is thinking about how she made sure that each family member had one comfort item for their flight from New York. Hers was a ukelele. Like Janie, if I had to flee the country, I would bring something related to an art I loved. This might be a small musical instrument or musical recordings, or a favourite photo, or a small carving. Or it could be a book. 🙂
DA: Are you involved in cycling activism? What do you think are the most important issues there?
SJS: Cycling as transportation is linked to environmentalism. It is a sustainable, healthy, non-harmful, non-polluting way to get around. It also touches upon economic issues since it is a more affordable form of transportation than a car. Less dependence on motorized transport also frees us from oil dependence. Aside from the environmental impacts, there is also the fact that such dependence in the West has been used to justify war and imperialism. Finally, cyclists are the underdog. Cars and trucks are powerful and dangerous, and drivers can and do play the role of bully on the road. There have been many reports of violence and even murder of cyclists in North America. I know of a number of famous cases in New York, Toronto and Québec, for example.
My own participation in cycling activism has included attending bike demonstrations and participating in community discussions. Recently, I have been using my novel to organize events where we talk about cycling activism and how to create a safer, healthier and more sustainable environment that encourages cycling as part of a larger vision for a more liveable city. I think that one of the most important ways to engage in cycling advocacy is simply to be a cyclist—visible, tenacious and claiming our right to share the road.
DA: Prominent characters in Cycling to Asylum (as well as in your TFF story “Je me souviens”) are multicultural, queer, and otherwise marginalized. Did you have to go out of your way to create that diversity in the narrative?
SJS: No, but sometimes I think that maybe I should. As a white, middle-class person in a heterosexual relationship, I do often write about people like myself, but I also include people of colour and queer characters in my stories, among others. This is because they are part of my world as well as being part of the world, and leaving these folks out would be unrealistic and artificial. Also, I have also always been interested in “the other,” as well as in the underdog. This is also why I write about children, about people living with mental illness, about immigrants, and about independent thinkers, as well as about others who may be marginalized. It is these people who are often able to see our society, our majority culture, with a clear eye, and to think more critically about what is flawed and needs to be changed.
DA: How is the promotion of Cycling to Asylum going? What sorts of readings, performances and other events have you taken part in?
SJS: I am very grateful for the community surrounding me that made the official launches of Cycling to Asylum in Montréal and New York the successes that they were. To my surprise, I ended up having standing-room-only crowds and sold a lot of books. 🙂 Now I am concentrating more on promoting the political and social issues that my story addresses rather than the book per se (although it would be great to sell more books too!). For example, I have had two events (in Montréal and in Toronto) where I read cycling passages from my book which were followed by a discussion moderated by a cycling activist. I am planning another such event at Maison des cyclistes in Montréal on October 14th. I am extremely excited about another event I am planning for November with the organization “Solidarité sans frontières/Solidarity Across Borders. ” Activists will talk about making a real solidarity city out of Montréal—to make it into a place where everyone has the right to an education, to healthcare, to social services and access to all basic needs regardless of immigration status.
In late autumn, I am hoping to organize a political discussion combined with a reading in either London or Paris. Meanwhile, I am attending my first con—the CAN-CON in Ottawa—where I am going to be on three panels including one on political and social science fiction and another on whether the superhero trope devalues collective action—ironic since my TFF story “Je me souviens” was a superhero story about collective action! I have also had some interviews, both on blogs and on the radio. I enjoy this very much, especially when the interview allows me to talk not just about my passion for reading and writing but about places where literature consciously intersects with social and political activism.
People can visit my website at www.sujsokol.com to learn about upcoming events as well as where my book can be purchased.