Friday, June 12, 2015

Indie Friday: Cycling to Asylum

Guest post by Su J. Sokol

Cycling to Asylum is the story of a family living in the near future who are forced to flee from a home that, despite many hard things about it, they love. In the first half of the novel, the reader learns why they must flee. The second half shows the family's struggle to find safety and happiness in a new place while battling threats—both external and internal—that have followed them from New York.

I came up with the idea for this story while biking home from work. A thought suddenly popped into my head. What if a family were to cross the border from the United States into Québec by bicycle and claim political refugee status? The parents would be activists, wanted by the government, but the kids are innocent, believing themselves to be on a bicycle trip during their summer vacation. As a cyclist, an immigrant, a parent, and an activist who works with, among others, political asylum seekers, I felt this was a story I could, and badly wanted, to write.

I worried about was whether certain readers would find it credible that someone coming from the United States would need to seek asylum. For this reason, I decided that the novel would be set in the future so as to contain dystopian elements that could be a combination of true, invented, and exaggerated aspects of the current political situation. The next thing I decided was that the story should be told from the points of view of all four family members. Truth is already obscured by an inevitable narrowness in perspective; I wanted to have the chance of broadening the focus and thus shedding more light into the situation. 

Cycling to Asylum is a work of interstitial fiction; it does not fit neatly into any one genre. While it takes place in the future and has speculative elements, it reads more contemporary than sci-fi. Moreover, C2A is a family drama with chapters that could comfortably fit into a YA novel; at the same time, it is an alternative, edgy, outside-the-box love story with adult themes. It's also an adventure containing political intrigue, a psychological drama, a tale of activism and friendship, a cycling voyage, and urban fiction with noir elements. The writing is fast-paced and easy to read. Many readers have told me that they could not put the book down. At the same time, there are challenging, literary elements to the writing. For instance, it is written in present tense, first person, with four separate points of view including two children. It also contains long and idiosyncratic dialogue passages that are almost too realistic.

The interstitial elements of the book are, I believe, both its strength and a source of challenge. For me personally, it is part of what made it so difficult when I decided to try to get it published. As a new writer with few publications and no agent, I could not get a big publisher interested, and many small publishers have placed themselves in a narrow niche for reasons of resource management and focus. For science fiction publishers, my book is not sufficiently sci-fi. For literary publishers, my story is too "genre." Even now, after the book was published by a local micro publisher/not-for-profit, I have trouble deciding whether to ask bookstores to put it in the science fiction section or the regular fiction section (or in alternative bookstores, whether it should go under anarchist fiction or cycling fiction.)

In writing this story, I hoped to do a number of things. As with most dystopian fiction, I wanted to point to political and social trends that are troubling and say, "Let's please avoid or fight against this." By including utopian elements, I also wanted to say, "See these positive trends? Let's try to move in that direction." I sought to speak to the struggles that activists face, particularly those who have young children and must balance their responsibilities as parents against their duties towards the larger community. There are certain issues for which I feel a special passion and therefore present in the story. These include police brutality, the rights of migrants, the need to create healthy and sustainable communities and lifestyles, love and friendship, and the arbitrary nature of borders — whether we are speaking of physical borders or psychological ones. I also wanted very much to write a story that describes how the world looks from the seat of a bicycle instead of from behind the wheel of a car. 

Writing this novel was a voyage for me as well as for my characters. It was also a means to cross a border into another type of life: the life a writer. There have been many satisfying moments for which I am very grateful: the first time I saw the book in print with Lin-Lin Mao's vibrant cover art; my two book launches—in Montréal and in Brooklyn; the first time someone contacted me to say they loved the novel and couldn't put it down, and most recently, when I learned that the book had been long listed for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. There have been difficult moments too, but like going into labour, you hope for a bit of amnesia from the pain so as to leave open the possibility of giving birth a second time. This is something that I am in the process of trying to do; that is to say, I am working on a second novel.


Cycling to Asylum by Su J. Sokol


Twitter: @sujsokol


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