How Do You Become a Political Radical? One Author’s Path to Lifelong Activism

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Culture & Conversation LGBTQ

How Do You Become a Political Radical? One Author’s Path to Lifelong Activism

Sarah Neilson

In The Contradictions, Sophie Yanow imagines a fictional world illustrated inspired by her own life experiences.

In her new graphic novel, Bay Area artist and author Sophie Yanow renders a young woman at a crossroads. In stark, atmospheric linework, Yanow asks: Where is the friction between reality and ideals, and how does a young queer student navigate it?

In The Contradictions, which is being released today, the fictionalized Sophie is a broke college student studying abroad in Paris, where she meets Zena, a broody girl with a fixie bike. Zena claims to be an anarchist who won’t engage with capitalism, and Sophie is both shaky about and enamored with her.

The book follows the two on a hitchhiking trip across Europe, depicting the specific headiness and uncertainty of youth in a world where living one’s ideals isn’t as easy as one might like.

Rewire.News spoke with Yanow about capitalism, queerness, and existing in the messy spaces of revolution. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rewire.News: Can you talk about the intersections of youth, queerness, and radical politics in the book?

Sophie Yanow: The book is autofiction; it does stem from my own experiences. And I think that my queerness has pointed me towards radical politics. My parents are lefties, or at one point maybe thought of themselves that way. So, that’s not incredibly foreign to me.

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But I do think that my queerness, my experience of the world, and of feeling different than a lot of the people around me, definitely led me in the direction of radical politics, to at least explore. I think [now] there’s queer media that’s much more readily accessible and available. But when I was young, it was zines and books. And in those objects, there was some overlap with a sort of class consciousness.

In the book itself, the characters are trying to figure out who they are in a lot of ways. Queerness is kind of an interesting thing because I feel it defies this idea of having a crystallized identity. It allows for space where you can hold contradictory ideas, or ideas that are not binary.

Rewire.News: At one point in the book, Sophie muses to Zena, “If individual acts of rebellion are the path to revolution then we suck at revolution.” This is emblematic of a kind of youthful thinking; it’s almost binary in its characterization of “the path to revolution” as a singular thing. How do you conceive of revolution at this point in your life, and how does it differ from your youth?

SY: I do tend to have a fixation with finding the most efficient and effective thing, and how I can participate in that thing. Once I figure it out, then I’m going to put everything I have into the correct way to be a revolutionary, or to be radical, or to make change. I think that it’s just a fraught quest because there are so many different ways to be a revolutionary. I do think the notion of a diversity of tactics is important. A lot of what the character of Sophie is grappling with in this book is trying to perform these individual acts. While I think that those can be useful, it’s not where I’m at these days.

Rewire.News: What feels revolutionary to you right now? Where is your own revolutionary energy focused?

SY: I’ve been getting involved in tenants’ rights activism, and I’ve been doing quite a bit of research around unionism, and more radical unionism, like syndicalism. There’s definitely a spectrum of union stuff.

So yeah, I think my energy in general is more towards collective action. And part of that has been a slow process of trying to figure out: Where do I think is a place where marginalized and working-class people can actually develop their power? And where are their wins? I was present in Montreal during the student strike in 2012. That was when I started to see real material wins, see the striking tradition that they had there, and see how that had ended up with them having the lowest tuition in all of North America.

It seems like tenant organizing right now, with COVID, is really big—it’s a place where there’s a lot of conflict going on right now, and particularly in the Bay Area, where I live, where rents are out of control.

Rewire.News: You’ve also done more journalistic comics, covering stories about HIV, Standing Rock, and resistance to Trump. How do you approach your journalistic work versus your fiction or autobiographical work?

SY: Yeah, it’s definitely a spectrum. This work is fiction. With memoir, I try to tell the truth of what happened as I experienced it. And then I also tend to weave in some, let’s say, academic ideas sometimes. My first book was memoir, but it had a note section at the back that had a bibliography of references. For my journalism work, I don’t try to do an objective viewpoint, but I try to do some variety of perspective. And I really try to diligently fact-check things.

I’ve struggled with journalism, I think for the same reasons that I wrote this book—because, in general, I have this really binary thinking. There’s traditional media, [which says], “You can’t be biased.” Since I came to journalism without formal training, I did a lot of reading on my own. Without the formal training, I have felt some amount of imposter syndrome, and a sense of discomfort in my bias. And feeling, if I’m doing journalism, then does that mean I can’t be doing activism or organizing? So my relationship with journalism is, I don’t know, a bit confused.

Rewire.News: While tripping on mushrooms, Sophie wonders to herself, “Is anyone ever really happy again once they realize how messed up the world is?… How do you forget about all the bad stuff?” Can you talk about this theme of happiness and grief in your work, and how they are intertwined?

SY: I had a pretty easy childhood, I would say. I think coming out, and being pretty gender nonconforming, was probably the most difficult thing, but my parents were very supportive, and it wasn’t a big deal. As I realized about the complexities of the world, I guess I’m pretty sensitive so I’m fairly affected by that. I think I take things really, really seriously, but I have learned to deal with things with as much humor as possible.

I feel compelled to try to make things to try to ease suffering in the world. But I think if you’re going to look into the void, you just have to figure out ways to balance that, you know?

Rewire.News: You work really deftly with this troubled line between revolutionary ideals and the snarls of capitalism. Can you talk about navigating that contradiction in your work and in life? How do you practice reckoning radical politics with living in such a messy capitalist world?

SY: The emotional arc of The Contradictions is really a condensation of maybe three or four years of my life where I was trying to be a pure radical being in whatever way I could. I’m not saying I was even getting close to succeeding. I’m actually pretty bad at being an ascetic, and denying myself things. But I would really beat myself up about it. It was just such a waste of time.

I think it’s similar to white guilt. You’ve got to just figure out ways of doing something that is positive in the world. You can’t sit around and stew. Being faced with the problem of living under capitalism for a while, I really tried to … I didn’t give up all of my worldly possessions, and go live on a commune, or even go join some radical cooperative in the woods or something. I spent a lot of time beating myself up about it. But eventually, fixating on purity was just not useful to me. It just wasn’t functional to me.

I try to have some amount of an ethic when it comes to the work that I accept, and that I engage in for money. But I also recognize that that’s a bit of a fraught thing, as well. And I think that’s why I’ve been looking to unionism as a way of changing how things are, because if the people who work at companies can get some democratic control over what goes on there, then maybe things can be better there.