The Rumpus Interview With Sophia Raday

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soldier in loveSophia Raday’s new book, Love In Condition Yellow–A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage, is a beautifully rendered, often hilarious, account of how opposites can attract, and maybe even should. It’s also insightful meditation on America after 9/11 as it struggles with its Red State/Blue State animosities. Nevertheless, The Rumpus takes her to task for sleeping with the enemy.

The Rumpus: First of all, I am going to let Rumpus readers know that you and I have known each other for a long time. But that doesn’t mean this is going to be a softball interview. No sir. I am interviewing from the perspective of Miffed Liberal, not Friend. So here goes:

soldier3Together we blocked the president’s office at Stanford to protest investments in South Africa. We were arrested at the Nuclear Test Site in Mercury, Nevada. We climbed up a billboard at night to do, um, illegal things to a Navy ad. We had long impassioned discussions about peace, nuclear weapons, the patriarchy, class oppression, and imperialism and we agreed on all of them. Now you’ve written a memoir about your life with your husband Barrett, a police officer and a military man. Is it fair to ask if someone has perhaps replaced my good friend with an alien imposter?

Sophia Raday: It’s a damn fair question. When you and I were activists I thought peace would be best achieved if the people who disagreed with us and “our side” would be proven wrong. I once serenaded a police officer who was driving me to jail with a rendition of “Peace Officer” by Jimmy Cliff, because I really believed it might help him re-think his role in an oppressive society. I was sure that people who disagreed with me were duped or misguided, or not very smart, or even evil.

Rumpus: You’re saying they’re not?

Raday: I’m saying my life experience and therefore my point of view is limited. I don’t know everything there is to know about any subject and therefore (gasp) it’s possible that I am wrong. So I try to be curious about people who are different and to ask them about the experiences that led them to their view of the world.

Rumpus: But aren’t you becoming one of them when you do that? In your book, Love In Condition Yellow, you describe being thrown into military culture when you moved with Barrett to the Army War College, You had to chuck some of your feminist ideals and bake cookies and have tea with the other wives. I’m not judging, but WTF?

Raday: I’m not going to lie; moving to an Army base in a conservative part of the country during an election year wasn’t easy. I felt very much an outsider. At the War College, my husband was studying many of the same thinkers I’d studied fifteen years prior at Stanford. I was struggling with balancing my career aspirations with motherhood, and I felt like people at the War College assumed all I thought about was recipes and diaper-changing. Then finally, one night about two weeks before the election, I got invited to a Bunco game (a very popular dice game among military spouses), and someone asked me what I thought of the presidential debates. And what did I do? I panicked. I was so sure they would reject me for being different that I came out swinging. I told them I couldn’t bear Bush’s face. “Maybe he isn’t a liar,” I said, “maybe he’s just stupid.”

While I never got invited back to Bunco, I did learn something about how fear and one’s own insecurities can get channeled into political debate.

Rumpus: So what you’re saying is that you’ve simply gone undercover for the left.

Raday: Ha. Sort of. That’s how it started anyway. One of the things that allowed me to imagine a future with Barrett was that right before we got engaged, he offered to leave the military, once he’d finished twenty years. We got married and had our first child in short order. But just before he was due to resign, 9-11 hit and he felt he could no longer leave the Army.

I felt at times like the military was “the other woman” and she and I were in a catfight over Barrett. When I found out he was going to Iraq, I worried the military was going to win, either by pulling him back to their side, or claiming his life, or his spirit, and leaving me with nothing.

Rumpus: But how did Barrett get you to even consider dating him? Those Republicans must have some pretty slick lines.

Raday: Barrett is not slick at all, disarmingly frank is more like it. We got set up on a blind date, which I went on as a lark. I was looking forward to pouncing on him (politically). After pulling out my chair, he apologized for having had to reschedule due to a recent leg injury. When I asked him how he’d been hurt, he said, “Chasing some dope dealers.” That gave me my opening. I followed up with “Man, don’t you think drugs should be legalized?”

He said, “Look I know a lot of people smoke dope and I really don’t much care. But nothing destroys a neighborhood faster than a couple young bucks on the corner slinging dope. You want your kids walking by?”

It took me out of my world for a minute and made me stop and think.

Rumpus: I’m being tough on you. The truth is I loved your book. I thought the conflicts you wrestled with in your marriage were lessons for America. Do you see it that way?

Raday: Thank you. I am confident that the secret Barrett and I discovered – that curiosity is the magic bullet – will be useful to readers seeking greater connection with life partners, friends, neighbors, relatives, who are either a little or a lot different.

Could our lessons translate into a reconciliation mechanism for larger conflicts? And if so, what form would it take? I’d like to think so. It’s so much more complicated, but it’s the kind of thing I ponder on long swims and while doing the dishes.

Rumpus: You had to take care of two kids, manage a house, and handle the very real possibility that your husband could be killed in Iraq, all on your own. In liberal Berkeley. Oh, yes, and write a book. What was that like?

Raday: Well, it was tough. There were wonderful individuals who turned toward us, and became a sort of second family. But I was disappointed in the old friends who never offered to help, never asked what it was like to have my mate in a war zone. At social gatherings, upon hearing my husband was in Iraq, many people in the Bay Area would ask me my opinion of “the surge.” It was as if in my circles people didn’t know how to talk about a wartime experience except as a theoretical item of debate. I didn’t want to talk about the surge, I wanted to talk about how lonely I was, how anxious and overwhelmed and tired I felt, how often I yelled at my kids and then sat in the middle of a messy floor and cried.

Rumpus: What do you think your book is saying to the left about what they need to understand about the right, and visa versa?

Raday: That politics do not define character. There are caring, honorable people on both sides.

Rumpus: It’s true I found myself really liking Barrett throughout the book. He’s open-minded, fun, funny. It was almost uncomfortable, how much I could relate to him. Are you sure he’s not a closet liberal?

Raday: I know what you mean. And he grants that through our relationship, he has lost many of his knee-jerk reactions. He is critical of many aspects of the Iraq war, and of McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin. But on the other hand, there was a gun on the nightstand the first time we made out, and he is a red meat-eating, pro-death penalty, Reagan-loving, lifetime NRA member.

Rumpus: So no more defacing Navy ads with me. No more Jimmy Cliff serenades. Tell me what your “activism” looks like these days.

Raday: It may surprise you, but it’s been just as scary for me to “come out” in Love in Condition Yellow as it was to get arrested. I feel that same shaky fear. I think the message – that we can approach people who are different from us with curiosity, and that the connections forged by being heard and understood can dissolve the distance between us – is the most radical thing I’ve ever stood for.

A couple years back I had a piece appear in the NYT “Modern Love” column, and afterward I was approached to be on Hardball. I almost threw up before realizing I could turn it down. Because I’m not a hardball person. I’m not even a softball person. I’m more of a ballroom dancing person.

But frankly I’ve been overwhelmed by the eagerness of people to share ideas and stories about overcoming differences. At a reading, a conservative dad thanked me for dispelling stereotypes about soldiers. He told me his son is a Marine and is also vegan and meditates. A mom called in to a radio show to share that she and her husband are both pacifists and have struggled with their son’s decision to become a Highway Patrolman. There is such rich terrain behind our differences; exploring that terrain can expand our worlds and bring us closer.

Rumpus: I guess I’m just scrabbling for what’s left of your radical lefty background. Do you still describe yourself that way and if not, how do you?

Raday: I don’t mean to be cagey about my current politics. It’s just that it distresses me that we’ve created a climate in our country where people can’t express their true feelings (even if it is an unpopular view) and explore ideas without screaming at each other. So that said: I’m an Obamaniac. In foreign policy, I think we need to listen more in our diplomatic relations, be culturally and historically sensitive, and foster self-determination. Yet I also believe in the right to self-defense both personally and as a basis for foreign policy. I believe government should be careful about limiting the rights of its citizens. Therefore, I’m pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and to some extent, pro-gun. In my opinion, it is government’s job to protect community assets (air, water, fertile soil, wilderness, wildlife). I support a social safety net and universal health care, but I recognize the devil is in the details; it’s important and difficult to craft government systems that balance equity with efficiency.

But more than anything, my bipartisan marriage has shown me how important it is to treat each other with respect. I think underneath so many of our political disagreements there is a fundamental need to share our experiences and the meaning we have made out of our lives. As a society we spend an immense amount of time arguing about narrative. And what a silly thing if that’s what we are arguing about! Not silly as in not important, but silly in that it’s solvable. We don’t have to agree on a single narrative. Maybe we could just listen to each other’s ideas a little more.


Caroline Paul is the author of the memoir Fighting Fire and the historical novel East Wind, Rain, a Bay Area bestseller. Her next book is Lost Cat, a story of love, desperation and GPS technology, due out by Bloomsbury in early 2013. More from this author →