In a near-future New York subject to an increasingly authoritarian and hostile government, Laek, a non-conformist history teacher, finds that he can no longer hide his radical past. After a brutal confrontation with the NYPD, he flees the United States with Janie, an activist lawyer, and their two kids, Siri and Simon. They cross the border by bicycle into Québec by posing as eco-tourists. In a Montréal that the future has also transformed, the family faces new challenges: convincing the authorities to grant them refugee status and integrating into Québec society. Will they find safety in their new home? Told from the points of view of the four family members, Cycling to Asylum is a unique work of interstitial fiction from Su J. Sokol, an exciting new Montreal author.
Cycling to Asylum is the story of a family that flees a near-future New York City and crosses the border into Québec by bicycle to demand political asylum. As such, the novel is the story of a voyage, both an actual and personal/metaphorical one. This voyage is experienced differently by each protagonist and it is for this reason that it is told in alternating chapters, using the unique voice and perspective of each of the four main characters. These characters include Laek, a history teacher with a mysterious, radical past; Janie, an activist lawyer and musician; Siri, a tomboy with secrets; and Simon, a dreamy child addicted to violent screen games.
An important aspect of this voyage is that it is a bicycle voyage. The pacing of the story reflects this — at times fast, frenetic and dangerous, like a bike messenger zipping through Manhattan during rush hour; at other times slower and more contemplative, making it possible to notice not only the big landmarks along the way but the road’s pitted surface and the unusually beautiful flowers growing just beside it. Traveling by bicycle makes you aware of your vulnerability as you seek out the sudden gaps and paths that open up between the traffic. You can feel the air on your skin, hot or cold, smell car exhausts and bitter asphalt as well as lilacs and baking bread. You’re free; you can get out of tight spots, but you have to rely on your strength as well as your reflexes. Biking is a very immediate, intimate experience and this is the kind of story that this is. It is why the story not only has four different points of view but is told in the present tense.
Cycling to Asylum is a work of interstitial fiction, embodying one of the story’s important themes: reaching across boundaries to find a way for hope to triumph over despair.
C2A was published in June 2014 by Deux Voiliers Publishing.
Book Launches and Other Readings:
Images from Previous Readings and Events:
How to Purchase Cycling to Asylum:
For independent bookstores and libraries in Canada and the USA, Cycling to Asylum is available from Red Tuque Books (regular trade discounts and return terms apply and delivery is in the same week). Red Tuque Books also offers Book Clubs a 20% discount on orders of three or more books of the same title and free shipping for orders of more than ten books.
Individuals can purchase my book directly from the publisher here.
It can also be purchased from a variety of outlets:
Please also check your with your local library and bookstores!
In Montréal, Cycling to Asylum can be purchased at Librarie Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore, Librarie Bertrand, Librarie Paragraphe Bookstore, Coop La Maison Verte, Maison des cyclistes, and Argo Bookshop.
Cycling to Asylum can be purchased at brick and mortar bookstores in New York, Toronto, Victoria and a growing number of other cities!
Online interview by writer and blogger Dyane Forde where I talk about writing, interstitial fiction, and Cycling to Asylum.
Radio interview on CKUT radio about Cycling to Asylum, art, and politics.
Online interview by Djibril al-Ayad on Fabio Fernandes’ blog, Different Frontiers about Cycling to Asylum, and the intersection of literature, the personal and the political.
Sample from Cycling to Asylum:
I’m counting American flags. Eleven regular-sized, five minis, three hanging sideways, fascist-style. A giant one suspended from a thick metal pole in front of the bank. And the two hanging from either side of the police car just ahead. I stop counting. Quickly switch lanes. Keep pedaling, Laek. Just keep pedaling.
I continue north on Fourth Avenue. There’s no need to check my screen or project a holo map. I know where I am. I know what time it is. My body can feel these things. So I sense that I’m not going exactly north, but more northeast. The convention is to say north, though, because of how the grid runs in this corner of Brooklyn.
My bike is moving fast. Slicing through the heat. Sweat streams down my shirtless back and under my arms. I don’t mind the sweat, the heat, and besides, it’s only 91 degrees. Not too bad for 6:58 a.m. on a late March morning. A heavy truck rattles by. I feel a whoosh of hot air as it whizzes past me, inches from my left elbow. I hold my ground. A car comes up on me from behind. Sounds its horn. Does it think I don’t know it’s there? That I can’t feel its heat on my bare neck? My eyes dart between the traffic on my left and the double- parked cars on my right, alert for opening doors. I’ve only been doored once, the slight asymmetry of my handlebars a constant reminder.
The sour stench of garbage combines with the delicious aroma of fresh muffins. Owners of local diners and bodegas are neutralizing alarms, unlocking gates and resetting their holo-boards. Homeless people still asleep are pushed away. Some with kicks and shouts. Some with phaser rods. A rod is raised. I slow, body taut, ready to intervene. It’s lowered. I move on.
I fill my lungs with the early morning air. Reach my arms above my head. The wheels of my bicycle vibrate on the warm pavement and, like a tuning fork, I respond with a sure, steady hum deep inside me. I stretch my gaze west, towards the piece of sky that’s visible beyond the urban landscape. There’s a greenish-brown stain around the edges, but it’s still beautiful, still fills my heart with the hope I always feel looking at the morning sky. Like the City’s beginning again. Like something good could happen.
At Ninth Street, I turn left towards the Gowanus. Once in Red Hook, cut off by the expressway, the walls of the neighborhood close in around me. I coast to a stop in front of my school. Dismount. We’ve started a new unit in ninth grade history: Citizenship, Patriotism, and the Social Contract. Should I mention the new anti-immigrant laws? Should I mention flags?
I slip on my shirt. Bound up the broad concrete stairs with my bike. Inside, I notice a new security guard. I hesitate. Then give her my best smile. She doesn’t ask for my wrist to scan my Uni. Relieved, I dig my hands deep into my pockets. Disappear into the distortion field of the elliptical security booth. I hold my breath as currents of metallic, tangerine air surround me.
Once I’m through security, I exhale slowly. Walk down the hallway towards the teachers’ lounge. I roll my bike beside me, the sweat drying under my shirt.
In the classroom, I get to work activating new holographic images. A security gate appears across the door. Stern-faced officers blink into existence. I add teeth-baring dogs. They snap at the air, barely restrained by their uniformed handlers. Nearby, I place other holos. Unified National Identity data being imbedded in wrist chips. Oaths being sworn. People marching. At the back corners of the room, adults and children of various races and nationalities, their possessions on their backs, wait patiently. The line of refugees disappears into the horizon. At the last minute, I add American flags of all types and sizes, waving disjointedly.
My ninth graders begin to file in. Some seem excited, their heads whipping around. Others are looking down and clutching their school screens tightly. I begin class, hoping I haven’t overdone it. Even after turning the lesson into a game, with the apples I’ve brought for prizes, a few of my students still sit in their seats, fidgety and tight-lipped.
A few minutes before the end of the period, when I’ve given out apples to most of the kids in my class, I smile at Sasha and ask, “Who’s hungry?”
“I am,” Sasha answers timidly.
“But he hasn’t even answered one question!” Marcus complains.
“He’s hungry,” Inez says. “You already had an apple on top of your big-assed breakfast.”
Before Marcus has a chance to retaliate, I put my hand on his shoulder and squeeze.
“It’s a good question the two of you raise. What’s more important in deciding who gets an apple—whether you’re hungry or whether you answered the question right?”
Hands dart into the air and I watch the fight resolve into an intellectual debate.
After a few minutes of discussion, I say: “OK, a good start. I want you all to think more about it while you’re doing the homework assignment I’ve beamed to your screens.”
I toss an apple to each student who hasn’t received one yet, starting with Sasha.
“You have enough for everyone?” Marcus asks, surprised.
“Of course I do. I love you guys too much to short you on apples.”
At lunchtime, I head over to the teachers’ lounge.
“There’s coffee,” Erin says, pushing dark bangs from her eyes as she studies her screen.
“Think I’ll pass.” I look around the teachers’ lounge. “You seen Philip?” “I saw him earlier, why?”
“He’s meeting with his ex tonight. Still trying to convince her to take him back.”
“Dana will never take him back.”
“Yeah. That’s why I want to talk to him.”
“He’ll only get mad at you, Laek.”
“I don’t want to see him hurt again.”
“You can’t keep him from getting hurt.”
She takes a gulp of coffee. Grimaces. Returns to studying her screen.
“Is that sour look from the coffee or what you’re reading?” I ask.
“They’ve changed the English Comp exams again. Do they want these kids to fail?”
I bend over her chair. “Talk about a moving target. Want to raise it at the union meeting?”
“Maybe. You’re lucky you teach history. At least the past isn’t subject to change.”
“Guess you never heard of revisionism.” “OK, you have a point.”
“Seriously, Erin, you know how to teach English. You don’t have to jump every time the current admin wants to try out the latest regressive educational theory.”
“And you need to be more careful, teaching a subject that’s so politically sensitive. We’re scrutinized enough as it is.”
“I’m teaching the required curriculum,” I tell her.
“I heard that for the citizenship unit, you were talking about civil disobedience.”
“They asked me about it. Wanted me to take them to a demo. The parents of a student apparently saw me at one. I had to explain it was too dangerous.”
“They also said you told them that borders aren’t real.”
“Where are you getting this?” I ask her.
“Don’t worry about it. The students think you’re hyper, as they put it.”
“Well, it’s not what I meant, exactly. You know there are kids in my class who are undocumented. I wanted them to know they’re safe in our school. And that having papers and having human rights are two different things.”
“But borders exist,” she insists.
“Ever think about borders when you were a kid? I did—a lot. Maybe because of how much my mom and I had to move around. When we crossed into a new state, I’d stare at the road. Try to find the thick black line I saw on the map.”
Erin smiles but doesn’t say anything.
“Yeah, someone eventually explained that the lines on the map weren’t there in real life. Not between states and not between countries, either. It got me wondering. If borders are imaginary lines, why can’t people just step over them?”
“But you know the answer to that, Laek. You’re an adult now.” She says this like my transformation into adulthood happened just yesterday. As though I wasn’t a man of thirty-two, only one year younger than her.
“It’s not about being grown-up. I still wonder about this. And about what kind of world we’d have if that were allowed.”
“But in the meantime, we need to teach about the world as it really is,” Erin says.
“A bitter duty, sometimes.”