Bicycles, Hitchhiking, & Anarchy: Sophie Yanow & The Contradictions Of Life

The author of the award-winning “The Contradictions” talks about autofiction, leftist politics, charismatic anarchists, and bicycles.

Sophie Yanow has been drawing and making comics since she was a child. When she discovered her first “alternative comics” in high school, Yanow was immediately drawn to them. So much so, in fact, that she chose to devote her education (and life, basically) to the literary art form of graphic novels.

“I wanted to make things like the books I read and loved,” Yanow tells GO. “I really enjoy drawing and creating worlds and stories with drawings, and I’ve focused on that craft since I was in college — so it just flowed from there.”

Since finding her passion, Yanow has drawn comics on monumental events like Standing Rock and the 2016 Republican National Convention, as well as broader topics like climate issues and Quebec’s student movement. Her translation of Dominique Goblet’s “Pretending Is Lying” became the first graphic novel to receive the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation from French. And in 2019, her series “The Contradictions,” a piece of autofiction about her time studying abroad, won the Will Eisner Comic Book Award for Best Webcomic.

In 2019, that award-winning webcomic was published in print and debuted for the first time at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. “The Contradictions” follows a young queer girl named Sophie learning about radical politics while studying abroad in Paris. She meets Lena, both the first to introduce her to radical thinking and her hitchhiking companion on a trip to Amsterdam. It’s a story of growing up and facing the moments when you don’t know who you are yet but desperately wanting to be seen as beyond your years — even though you ultimately learn you’ve just been swept away by someone (read: a girl) with effortless charisma. GO recently caught up with Yanow to chat about autofiction, leftist politics, charismatic anarchists, and bicycles.

GO Magazine: Talk to me a bit about where you were, personally, when writing “Contradictions.” What made you want to reflect on this time in your life?

Sophie Yanow: I wanted to write about this time in my life even as it was happening because I thought hitchhiking was the type of adventure that people write books about. Over the years, I kept my hitchhiking trips in mind, but my relationship to them really changed. I think at first I [was] just about wanting to show a young woman having the kind of adventure that we mostly see men having, even now. But as I got older, what was interesting about this period of my life changed for me.

GO: How did it feel to essentially step outside yourself to create these stories? To look back at yourself as almost another person?

SY: I really did look at my younger self as a character, for more than one reason. The book is not straight autobiography; it’s autofiction, so there is a lot in it that’s invented or taken from one part of my life and placed into the context of a story arc. But there are lots of moments in the story where the real experience it is based on is one where I really felt embarrassed — or something — at the time it took place. Looking back on these moments, I see some absurdity or charming sincerity [and] feel a lot of compassion.

GO: I really love this idea of us getting to see Sophie not just learn something new, but really sit with and reflect on a topic, its place in the world, and its place in her world. What do you think the future looks like for Sophie in terms of her grappling with these new ideas? Or, I suppose, what did your future look like after you became really introduced to them?

SY: I grappled with whether to show some kind of epilogue where we see what happens next. I didn’t want to leave on a nihilistic ending, or I hope that the reader doesn’t assume that Sophie just goes back to her life without engaging with these questions anymore. In truth, I ended up enrolling in an Intro to Marxism course my senior year of college because my junior year (and during my time abroad) I was introduced to a lot of ideas that I really wanted to explore with more depth. And I tried on a variety of ideological hats. My first book was about the Montreal student strike of 2012, and by that point, I had a firmer grasp of what I felt was a good use of my time and energy.

GO: Zena is this person who preaches being better to the world, but she goes about it with this sort of self-righteousness. She’s far from the perfect anarchist or perfect person — why was that important to get across?

SY: I’ve encountered a fair amount of folks over the years who really seemed to know what they stood for and have sort of unwavering morals, and it was through some of these people that I was introduced to some leftist politics. At first, they were really compelling to me. I tend to struggle with taking a stand or making up my mind, so there’s a lot of allure around someone who has created a set of standards to live by. And yet, having rigid rules based on how you think the world should be can conflict with how the world actually is. I experienced what I think is an interesting dissonance between the philosophies that some of these folks introduced me to and the ways they attempted to implement them in their own lives. So with Zena, I was trying to get some of that across.

GO: There’s this connection you draw between bicycles and being queer, and I’m wondering where that came from.

SY: I think, in my personal life, bikes have had a lot of connection to a queer world. When I was in my early teens, I read “Godspeed” by Lynn Breedlove, which is about a queer bike messenger in San Francisco. I grew up about 40 minutes outside of San Francisco, and when I would go to the city, I would walk up Market Street and watch the messengers hanging out or riding around. I saved up money to buy a messenger bag like I saw them wearing. My first summer after college, I built a fixed gear at a bike co-op in Santa Cruz and definitely had a crush on one of the women who volunteered there. I don’t think I intentionally made that connection in the book, but it’s certainly been true in my life!

GO: The way travel is discussed seems like such a “contradiction” to the way it plays out for the character. Was that juxtaposition intentional?

SY: I grew up with a lot of travel stories from my parents, and at the beginning of the book, you see the character is reading these very pseudo-philosophical books where travel plays a big role. I feel like in my personal mythology, these sort of epic adventures seemed really important for growth. And yet, the reality of the minutiae of them — things like getting hungry or needing to find bathrooms — contrasted with their place in my mind.

I don’t think I consider the escapism a contradiction; I kind of think that’s why travel can have an effect on people. You get out of your normal routine and have time to think about things and process new information or to see how you are in a different context. Maybe the things you thought were true about yourself don’t hold true in a different situation. And usually, travel is so fleeting. Maybe you only get a day to decide what you’re going to do in a place. If you’re somebody who usually lets other people take the reins in life, you’re going to miss certain things you might want to experience. So it’s helpful to know who you are, and if you don’t, I think it presents certain challenges that you can work to overcome. Or at least, that’s how I experience it!

GO: What do you see as that titular contradiction, then?

SY: I think part of growing up, for me, was learning to hold two seemingly contradictory notions at once and also to be able to see things on a spectrum instead of as black and white. And I tried to address this in the story to some degree!

GO: What do you want readers to take away from this story?

SY: Growth is messy and perfection is impossible. Don’t beat yourself up too much.

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