Sonja Larsen pens memoir about being a teenage revolutionary
Rebellion with a red streak.
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From James Dean to Justin Bieber, rebellion has always been part of the teenage experience. Usually, it’s no more dramatic than cutting the occasional math class or stealing a bottle from the liquor cabinet. But for Sonja Larsen, rebellion meant joining a radical left-wing political party and becoming the youngest member of its militia, an astonishing experience she chronicles in her new memoir, Red Star Tattoo: My Life as a Girl Revolutionary, published by Random House Canada.
Mind you, Larsen did not come from the most conventional family. She spent many of her formative years living in communes with her hippie parents, where sex and drugs were far from taboo, and Larsen was encouraged to make all her own decisions. Now 50 years old, Larsen acknowledges that some readers will think her parents were neglectful, but in hindsight, she views the situation differently.
“In the moment it was pretty empowering to be able to chose what I wanted to do, and to express myself,” she says. “In the long run, my relationship with my parents was a sustaining force in that respect they had for me. They let me speak my mind and pursue the things I wanted to.”
One thing that 16-year-old Larsen wanted to pursue on her own was moving to New York to join the National Labor Organization, a secret group preparing for the second American Revolution, led by the charismatic Gino Perente, known as the “Old Man.” Larsen would soon become a mistress to Perente (later discovered to be a lifelong con man), which isn’t even the most shocking situation that she would find herself in.
For years, Larsen, who is now a youth worker on Vancouver’s tough downtown Eastside, didn’t share her past with friends, joking that “those stories are a bit hard to just drop into cocktail conversation. Let’s talk about the year I didn’t go outside.”
She always knew that she wanted to write, but her own story felt like a giant obstacle. It wasn’t until she turned 40 that it felt like a “now or never” situation. “It really felt like if I started writing, I was going to write that story, and I wasn’t sure, up until then, that I was ready,” she says. “It would mean revealing a lot of other people’s secrets and just being quite exposed and disloyal.”
When she finally realized she needed to write to be happy, the biggest challenge Larsen faced was how to tell her story. In the end, she decided to keep it simple, a chronology of her early life told through personal memories.
“I didn’t want to tell it backwards with the insight I have now,” she says. “I wanted to tell it forward as the kid and the person that I was then, trying to figure everything out.”
Sue Carter is the editor at Quill & Quire magazine.