Thursday, 14 January 2021

Interview with Sabrina Symington

Monika: My today’s guest is Sabrina Symington, a Canadian illustrator, graphic novelist, and blogger who runs the popular LGBTQ+ webcomic Life of Bria. Sabrina is the author of two comic books: ‘First Year Out: A Transition Story’(2017) and ‘Coming Out, Again: Transition Stories’ to be published next year, and a columnist at TG Forum. Hello Sabrina! 
Sabrina: Hi Monika!
Monika: There are comic books about Batman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and other heroes of our childhood that have defined the way we look at comic books. Your ‘First Year Out: A Transition Story’ (2017) proves that a comic book can be a perfect form of expression for transition as well.
Sabrina: I have always cared most about “narrative” in my art. This is a common thread I see with trans people; we often seem very interested in coming up with a “story” to our lives so we can make sense of the feelings we’ve had throughout them. These stories come to define us, they anchor us to our sense of self, and having this story be understood by others is one of the most affirming things I can imagine.
To me, comics are the obvious art form to give me the creative control to portray all the little details and intricacies of the narratives that I tell myself about who I am. Perhaps I am just a very visual person, but I feel like I can better immerse myself (and hopefully my readers) in the moments I relate in my stories through illustrations than I could through text alone.
Monika: The comic covers all aspects of transition through the main character named Lily that talks about laser hair removal and coming out to her parents, dating, voice training, and gender reassignment surgery. Was it easy to combine it all in a graphic novel where in essence text is limited and a lot is expressed through illustration only?
Sabrina: In some ways, I think it is easier to show this in comics. By having an image juxtaposed with text, you can convey twice as much meaning in a single glance as text or images alone. I personally think comics have more in common with film than with literature, but really, they give you the best of both worlds.
"Comics are the obvious art form to
give me the creative control to
portray all the intricacies of the
narratives that I tell myself about
who I am."
Available via Amazon.
Monika: In ‘Coming Out, Again: Transition Stories’ (2021), Lily’s life will evolve as we will see her coming out as a lesbian after coming out as a trans woman. It seems that you regard coming out as a never-ending process.
Sabrina: I knew by the end of ‘First Year Out’ that if I wrote a ‘Second Year Out’, it would be a very different book, for even just writing that first book changed me as a person. Nothing ever really ends. We just stop exploring when we don’t feel the need to go any further - regardless of whether we have a “complete” understanding.
Some people go their whole lives never pulling at the threads of themselves, others are content to pull just enough to reach a state of comfort, while some can’t stop pulling - sometimes revealing truths about themselves they weren’t ready to learn.
Beyond that, there was a diversity of transness and queerness that wasn’t represented in the first book but that I wanted to be shown.
Between the idea that people change over time and there is no one fixed starting point that people come from, this book about evolving identities took shape. 
Monika: Did the transition change you as an artist too?
Sabrina: I don’t think I was capable of ever truly being an artist until I did transition. I was too mentally blocked by my repressed gender feelings to fully express myself. Art requires vulnerability, and as long as I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable in that keyway, I was going to be too guarded to really make art. You might as well try to do yoga while tensing every one of your muscles.
Monika: When did you start drawing?
Sabrina: My mother is an artist, and she always encouraged me, so I have been drawing for as long as I can remember. But a series of unsupportive art teachers in my youth kept me away from seriously attempting art until I graduated high school.
Part of me wanted to become a kung-fu action star, but instead, I decided to take a year to develop my skills and build up a portfolio to go to Art School. Because I am mostly self-taught, I realize that my art is rather… idiosyncratic. So I was actually pretty surprised that I got in!
Monika: In 2010 you published ‘Time Tourists’ - your first debut graphic novel, and it was not related to your transition.
Sabrina: Yes, that one was written pre-transition, and was mostly inspired by the year I took off from Art School in 2008 to travel in South Asia - primarily Nepal, which was still reeling from the civil war they had earlier that year. I saw countries that suffered immense poverty despite booming tourist industries, and I couldn't help but feel like we white tourists were taking advantage of them.
I had also grown up on a small island that primarily lived off tourism, and had heard this narrative my whole life of tourism giving people jobs, despite most people living very modest existences with few opportunities.
After I got back from Asia, my city of Vancouver was preparing to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, and I once again heard the narrative of tourism and hospitality "creating jobs". I was already seeing rental prices skyrocket in response to the announcement of this and read many accounts of cities being ruined by hosting the Olympics, so I attempted to envision an alternate Vancouver that more closely resembled Kathmandu or Delhi. An alternate history where time-traveling tourists from the technologically advanced future had subjugated all of history to cater to their amusement under the promise that those "more primitive" time periods would one day achieve the same level of prosperity.
It was only supposed to be a little 40-page term project, but 5 years and ~300 pages later, and the result was a rather quirky story that criticized capitalism and colonialism and the myth of "progress" before I had a lot of language to articulate such things.
Trans Liberation Sticker/Magnet
Monika: Your most recent series ‘Starfist Gemini’ is about martial arts in a sci-fi post-apocalyptic setting. Where does your fascination with martial arts come from?
Sabrina: When I was a teenager growing up in the closet, martial arts was my gender. I practiced martial arts religiously, I studied Chinese and Japanese history, culture, and philosophy, I wore martial arts clothing in my day-to-day life, and I almost exclusively watched Chinese and Japanese martial arts films. I think martial arts was a kind of "alternative masculinity" for me. I knew I didn't feel comfortable in "conventional" masculinity, but I wasn't ready to admit I wanted to be feminine.
So martial arts was this safe, socially acceptable way I could express myself. It was a life raft for me during a very difficult time, and Starfist was/is a love letter to it, and really, I think it will one day be my magnum opus. That's why I stopped drawing it - I realized that I wasn't ready to do it justice. One day I will return to it, when I'm ready.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Sabrina: I did lose a few people. Some of them dear to me. The hardest thing to lose, and the thing that kept me in the closet for years after I realized I was trans, was my relationship of 7 years - a very long time for a person in their 20's. Luckily, I didn't lose her from my life completely, but it was very painful all the same.
The other difficult thing to lose was my relationship with exercise and training, which I mentioned was the thing that kept me safe in the closet. In retrospect, I can see it wasn't a healthy relationship, but it was my guiding star. And if I am being honest, I am still somewhat adrift since losing it.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Sabrina: I typically hesitate to comment on this subject, as I am extremely privileged in that I, apparently, "pass" - I prefer the term "read as cis". Even before any of the surgeries I have had, I never got misgendered. But I will say this: because I could hide in "passing" in the earlier years of my transition, I didn't get forced to do a lot of work on myself that I think other trans people are forced to do. Similar to how cis people are not forced to think about their gender the way trans people are. Blending in with the Cis can also be quite hollow. Even if you never get misgendered, even if nobody present knows or cares that you're trans, you can't shake the sense that you are not one of them, and never will be.
I tried living mostly in stealth for my first year, and I stopped because I found myself craving genuine connection with others. I don't always feel safe outing myself in every single situation, but these days, my policy is if there is another out trans person present, then I am out, too.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow?
Sabrina: My dear friend and webcomic mentor - despite her being a year younger than me - Sophie Labelle of Assigned Male Comics is a must follow. Mallory Jessica Udishas of Sweet Bean comics is a treasure. Kai Cheng Thom is a wonderful author.
A local politician in the green party here, Nicola Spurling, has a great YouTube channel that I think more people should watch. Recently, I watched a biography about Miss Major and I was completely inspired. If I do anything with the rest of my life, I hope I can be more like Miss Major. 
"Nothing ever really ends. We just
stop exploring when we don’t feel
the need to go any further."
Available via Amazon.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Sabrina: Overall, we are very lucky in Canada. We have trans rights enshrined in our human rights laws. All our provinces and territories fund transition-related surgeries to varying degrees. I think overall people here are accepting, but most of my trans friends still have multiple stories of being harassed and assaulted. After all, this is the country that produced Jordan Peterson.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Sabrina: I do enjoy fashion, but I am also a bit of a starving artist, so I will admit that I don't get to shop much. I automatically go for anything leopard print or polka dot. For a long time I dressed in leather jackets and projected a tough, bad girl image, but these days I like wearing flowing skirts and dresses, and any clothes that put forward my softer side. I also love getting dressed up to the nines, going out in a big (faux) fur coat, and smoking my pipe, looking like Cruella Devil from Disney's 101 Dalmatians.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of the local LGBTQ community?
Sabrina: I have many local LGBTQ friends, but the community here is very fractured and dominated by people who do not play well with others. And with Covid-19, it's very difficult to make much happen in person. But I am cultivating an online space for supporting trans people that is primarily centered around the voice feminization live stream lessons I do every Thursday on at 6 PM PST. That has been tremendously rewarding.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Sabrina: I identify as being on the asexual spectrum - meaning I don't experience sexual attraction the way most people do, something that seems to be very common for trans people. But this doesn't mean I don't experience love or even enjoy sex - quite the contrary. I have a girlfriend with whom I have a deep, meaningful relationship with. Companionship, understanding, genuine human connection - these are things that I am learning mean a great deal to me as I grow older.
Many people, trans and otherwise, spend years of their lives chasing society's idea of what sex and relationships must be like as a way of getting personal validation. Letting go of that has freed me tremendously. It has allowed me to love far more freely and honestly than I ever could before, much the same way I couldn't be fully honest and present in my relationships until I transitioned.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Sabrina: Currently I am writing and releasing a horror graphic novel, The Urban Animal. That one I am considering to be a sort of "graphic exorcism" of my darkest thoughts and emotional baggage - things I need to get out in order to move on with my life. After that, I would like to work on improving my technical art skills, with hopes of one day maybe being a paleoartist drawing dinosaurs.
I have also been doing a lot of live streaming of my art. With Covid-19 putting the world into lockdown and permanently changing how we connect in a global society, I see video conferences and live streams as being a very big part of how people learn new skills and engage with one another in the near future, so I'm getting ready for that now. And, of course, I would like all this to bring me to a place in the next few years where I feel ready to return to Starfist Gemini.

Life of Bria

Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Sabrina: Just do it. Whatever you are afraid of losing isn't going to be as great as what you will feel you have sacrificed by not doing it. I transitioned at 27 - not all that old, but also not all that young - and I still mourn those years I didn't get to be myself. My one regret in life is that I didn't transition sooner.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Sabrina: Absolutely. Figuring out life after the transition is perhaps the greatest challenge of all: we spend our lives in the shadow of this seemingly impossible goal, and then when we finally achieve it, it's like, what now? But at the same time, we have to remember that just by existing, just by having transitioned, we have already achieved what we previously thought was impossible, and so, we can do anything.
Monika: Sabrina, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Sabrina: Thank you! This was wonderful!

Main photo credits: Kayla Isomura.
All the photos: courtesy of Sabrina Symington.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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