In the not-so distant future, the United States has fallen prey to a secretive and authoritarian government. In this dark world, a history teacher named Laek who lives in New York City tries to hide his radical past. After a violent confrontation with police, however, he decides that he has to flee his native country.
Together with his partner Janie, an activist lawyer, and their two children Siri and Simon, the family flees to Quebec on their bicycles where they pretend to be eco-tourists. Once inside Canada they apply for refugee status.
Now in their new home, the four U.S. ex-pats must find a way to integrate into the French-speaking province, while convincing Quebec officials to grant them sanctuary. This premise is the story behind Cycling to Asylum, the debut novel of Montreal-resident and former New Yorker Su J. Sokol.
The book is published by local outfit Deux Voiliers Publishing from Alymer, Quebec,
“I got the idea for my novel biking home from work one day,” says Sokol in an email interview with Apartment613. “I thought to myself, ‘what if a family were to bike across the border and make a claim for political refugee status?’”
Historically, Canada has been a source of refuge for different communities in the United States, from African Americans fleeing slavery to Vietnam War resisters.
Despite these important moments from our past, for many people the thought that U.S. residents could qualify as refugees today in Canada is absurd. That is why the novel, which was nominated this past summer for a Sunburst Award, is set in a world in which the United States abuses many of its citizens.
“This way, it would make sense both to readers who view the issues I am writing about as contemporary social and political problems, as well as those who think that they are merely features of dystopian fiction,” says Sokol, who previously worked as a lawyer in New York City.
Given Sokol’s legal background, as well as her decision to leave the United States for Montreal, the obvious question arises if her novel is partly autobiographical.
“I think it is important to be clear that Cycling to Asylum is entirely a work of fiction in terms of plot and events and storyline,” replies Sokol, who has also published two short stories. “This is important for people to understand since some of the things that happen to these characters, particularly to Laek, are pretty intense.”
That being said, like many authors, Sokol does draw from her life experience – although these real-world elements are ultimately blended together with her imagination.
For instance, while Janie is a community housing lawyer – an area that Sokol worked in as an attorney in the United States – there is not much else that ties this fictional character to the real-life author.
But where there is one strong autobiographical element is in the immigrant experience.
“I know what it feels like to leave a place that was home for so long and to try to start a new life in a brand new country – to miss friends and family and community, and the different ways this experience can make you feel sad, relieved, guilty, euphoric, full of regret and full of hope,” says Sokol.
“I also know what it is like to be an activist and a parent and how trying to balance the two can be excruciating at times. When my characters are experiencing these things, how they feel is partly autobiographical.”
In addition to the immigrant story in the novel, one of the interesting things about this book is how the narrative is structured. Rather than using a single voice, the book swings between four separate viewpoints, with the two parents and children offering their respective points of view.
“I believe that the more perspectives you can understand, the closer you will come to perceiving the truth,” says Sokol. “Seeing different points of view is also an important way to gain empathy for others. I wanted to write a fuller, more empathic story than one perspective may have offered.”
When asked about her current projects, Sokol replies that she is working on a second novel. As for Cycling to Asylum, she hopes to translate into French and also turn it into a screenplay.