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UW welcomes Québec artist Sophie Labelle

Sophie Labelle and Associate Professor Louisa Mackenzie

October 31, 2018

Canadian artist, author and trans rights activist Sophie Labelle visited the University of Washington on Wednesday, October 24 as part of a two-month long promotional tour for her bilingual web comic, Assigned Male, and her many comic books. She has recently published the first in what will be a series of young adult novels.

Hosted at the Simpson Center for the Humanities by Associate Professor Louisa Mackenzie from the Department of French & Italian Studies, Sophie Labelle brought her trademark humor and insight to a conversation that was packed to overflowing with students, faculty and community members. She chronicled her path from elementary school teacher and trans rights activist to cartoonist, joking that she “wasn’t born in a cartoonist’s body … teaching was a job assigned at birth.”

Labelle uses her comic as a way to highlight pressing trans issues (see these cartoons published in response to recent U.S. government news), but stressed over and over again that it is primarily a space for her to make bad puns and draw characters that feel representative of her life. “People get upset when my comics are just jokes. Why are you wasting your platform?” Labelle said that the comic is made for trans people, and that she wants to counter the documentary-like perspective that is often used to talk about the lives of trans people.

Canada and the U.S.

 “Montréal is closer to New York than Toronto,” Labelle reminded the audience. “The United States is our closest and noisiest neighbor.” As a result, politics and policies in the United States carry over the border quickly. While the setting of her comic is very clearly Montréal, her art is affected by happenings in the United States. Most of her audience is American as well. Labelle is better known in Québec for her activism; she was the first out trans person to run for public office in the province.

The language problem

Although trans rights issues travel easily across the border, it’s not so easy for them to translate linguistically. Labelle explained that one of the most challenging parts of her work is writing bilingually. A native French speaker, she enlists the help of proofreaders around the world to check that her English translations are accurate. The result is an accessible, international English sound. Words used to talk about trans people are easily created and adopted in English, and are recognizable across the English-speaking world. French, however, is where the difficulty lies.

Labelle explained that, being from Montréal, much of her trans language derives from the United States — only one hour away. This gives her comics an “exotic” flavor to many Europeans. Words to talk about trans people simply don’t exist in French. The language is not as compatible with gender-neutrality, and the creation and adoption of new words is a fraught and contentious process. This has put her in the position of having to invent words for her comic, and using gender-neutral language for her characters is especially difficult. She shared that after she published one of her coloring books, the Académie française declared that inclusive language was “killing the French language.”

Despite these challenges, Labelle was enthusiastic and positive about her work. She chuckled that she and her mother, a national Scrabble champion, discuss the new “official” words added to the French language every year. It’s worth watching to see how it continues to evolve as people move more towards inclusive language both in Canada and the rest of the francophone world.