Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Callum Angus InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Melissa Broder’s Superdoom, which brings together the best of Broder’s three cult out-of-print poetry collections, When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother, Meat Heart, and Scarecrone, as well as the best of her fourth collection, Last Sext. Featuring a new introduction from the author, Superdoom is by turns essayistic and surreal, bouncing between the grotesque and the transcendent as Broder gazes into the abyss and at the human body with humor and heartbreak, lust and terror. Says Daniel Lopatin, “Broder has a virtuosic sense of herself and is able to convey, through poetry, the form of her whole mind process. In turn, we see our deepest selves reflected back.” Superdoom is out on August 10th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I’m excited to share today’s conversation with Callum Angus. Long time listeners of Between The Covers know of my long-standing interest and how both storytelling, and poetics could possibly engage with questions of climate change or evoke and enact alternate ways to imagine the human, and the human habitat within the larger environment. My own interest in this, as a person and as a writer, has been part of how I ended up having conversations with Richard Powers, C. A. Conrad, Natalie Diaz, Ursula K. Le Guin, Forrest Gander, Arthur Sze, Ross Gay, Thalia Field, and Jorie Graham, just to name a few, to learn from them so we could learn from them in real time together. Which makes me particularly thrilled to have Callum Angus on the show whose writing both in fiction and non-fiction, explores the intersection of trans writing and nature writing. As I mentioned during today’s conversation, the writer Torrey Peters talks about how Angus’ writing feels like whether or not it is explicitly about transness. That it is written through a trans lens, which raises all sorts of interesting questions. What can writing through a trans lens reveal to us about the climate crisis? For writers, what can writing through a trans lens show us about storytelling and story form? In this conversation, we talk about a lot of writers and one writer who is particularly influential for Cal and this story collection was a past Between The Covers guest, John Keene and his book Counternarratives. For the bonus audio archive, Cal reads Keene’s short story, Mannahatta. This joins bonus audio from John Keene himself, reading his poetry from his out-of-print collection, Playland, and Garth Greenwell reading and talking about Frank Beddard, C. A. Conrad reading their writing on Ursula K. Le Guin, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore reading from The Freezer Door, long before it came out, and many other bonus audio editions. Currently, a little over 3% of listeners support the show. In 2021, I’m hoping to bring this up to 5%. One out of 20 listeners, transforming themselves into listener-supporters. Have these conversations been something that have been useful to you with your own art making or your own writing? Have they helped you get through the pandemic or have they just been great food for thought? What better time to make the transition to supporting the show than during a long form conversation about transition and transformation? There are many potential benefits. The bonus audio is only one of those benefits. Many past guests have contributed everything from broadsides to rare collectibles to entice you to consider becoming a Between The Covers supporter. Head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers to check it all out and enjoy today’s program with Callum Angus.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest writer, Callum Angus, earned a bachelor’s degree in geography at Mount Holyoke College and an MFA in Fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has taught writing at Amherst, Smith College, and Clark College among other places. He’s the founder and managing editor of the online literary magazine, smoke and mold, a journal that foregrounds the narrative possibilities that the lives of trans people and the writing of trans writers can bring to the fore regarding both nature, culture, capitalism, and climate change. As they say in their editorial statement, “Smoke and mold are signs of what’s coming, and of what’s been; of wildfires and floods gone by and still to come. Smoke and mold are pervasive; they linger and change the smell of things, insinuate themselves into the tiniest of cracks and cause trouble. They will soon be more abundant in our air and more prevalent in our imaginations.” Smoke and mold is also interestingly a journal with a limited lifespan with the aim to publish for 12 years the amount of time allotted to us by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Callum Angus’ writing has appeared in Orion, the LA Review of Books, The Common, West Branch, and Catapult among many other places. In the anthology Kink, alongside such writers is Carmen Maria Machado and Roxane Gay, and co-edited by past Between The Covers guests, R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell. He has received fellowships from Lambda Literary and the Signal Fire Foundation for the Arts, has been named Bainbridge Island’s Writer-in-Residence and was Writer-in-Residence at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. A former bookseller, fishmonger, barista, reporter, and advocate for the Trans Youth Equality Foundation. Angus has also worked in publicity for Catapult, Soft Skull, and Counterpoint. Callum Angus is here today to discuss his debut story collection, A Natural History of Transition, out from Metonymy Press. Madeleine Moss for the Chicago Review of Book says, “Progressing through the collection, the sediment of every trans character builds in richness; layers of queer history pile up, jagged and dense. The accumulated layers reveal an intimate cross section—each story a marvelous sample, filled with the glittering gradation of transition.” Garth Greenwell adds, “Callum Angus is one of the younger writers I’m most excited by, with a mind full of marvels and an ear to match. Every story surprises; every sentence strives gorgeously toward music. This is writing as transition, as entrancement, as transcendence.” Finally, Jordy Rosenberg says, “How did we do without A Natural History of Transition for so long? Down with the medicalized so-called histories of ourselves! Cal Angus has written our history as something much lusher, more fantastical, and for that reason, more true.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Callum Angus.
Callum Angus: Thank you so much for having me. Oh my.
DN: I know this book began, at least notionally, as a nonfiction project where you were going to respond to accusations that trans identity was unnatural and that it defied the natural order of things by showing examples of transness in nature. Pardon my pun but that seems like a natural response to the accusation. Just this week, C. A. Conrad posted about one of Britain’s oldest trees, an ancient Welsh Yew tree, that after 3000 years as a male tree is now a female tree. There are many examples, particularly among sea creatures of male to female or female to male transformations. If we’re to look not at trans behavior specifically but more broadly from a human perspective at non-normative behavior, monogamy is certainly not a role in nature. Homosexuality is quite common in our closest cousins. It’s been exhibited in all of the great apes and definitely in bonobos, which share more DNA with us than any other primate tied with chimpanzees who’ve also been documented with same-sex sexual encounters. But you ultimately decided that going this route was both problematic and not compelling to you. I was hoping we could start here and maybe dilate that moment of transition, of you abandoning one frame for this project for another. But tell us also about what originally compelled you in looking for transness in nature, then unpack a little bit some of the reasons why this didn’t really ultimately feel like the right choice, either philosophically or artistically?
CA: That’s an exciting question. If I’m thinking about why I wanted the original impulse toward looking to nature for these things, I grew up in a very rural area. I was always outside spending a lot of time in the Adirondack, which is very close to my home. Most of my life, I have lived in rural places that are soon going to be crossing over the threshold of most of my life will have been lived in cities. I hope to get back to a space like that. But at first, the impulse was like, “Oh.” When I realized I’m trans and I realized that this can apply to me, it took a little while to situate myself in that. There was never really any frame of reference for how to be trans in a rural area. I began transitioning in a small city on the East Coast. That was very separate from the earlier part of my experience and of my life. Then I think when I started wanting to bring those two spheres closer together, my trans self and also this part of myself that feels most at home in rural areas, natural spaces, that was that initial impulse but it felt strange to be setting up that encounter when already both of those things exist within me, kind of by saying, “Oh, I’m a trans person. I’m going out.” I’m seeking these instances in nature where I can be represented by whether it’s animals that can change their gender. Chickens that can develop. Become roosters, develop male characteristics if they’re in exclusively female groups for a long time. I loved the example from C. A. Conrad. I hadn’t heard that one before. That’s great. I think on the scale of a tree, 3000 years as one gender, that’s a very different equation than when we go looking for ourselves in the animal world. I’m not saying that these are bad places to look at but for me, personally, that already felt like a separation of who I was, just to find it somewhere else. I guess I wanted to introduce some entropy and some fictional options into that, and keep the title A Natural History of Transition, which is also the title of one of the stories in that collection, the one that deals most with where I come from. It’s a fictionalized version of my hometown. So keep that title so that it can keep those connotations like, okay, if you first hear the title, A Natural History of Transition, you think that’s what you’re going to get, whereas, I think both natural history and transition have very non-linear narratives that make them up. Hopefully, when you start the first page, that becomes apparent because things are fantastical. There are people giving birth to strange monstrosities and such. I like the idea of thinking about moving from non-fiction to fiction as well and relocating where is the truth in this because I think as trans people, I won’t generalize, but as a trans person myself, there is an aspect of when you decide to transition, you’re rejecting this non-fiction story that you’ve been given about how gender plays out your place in that, then you have to start making up your own story. It’s really much more intentional, and for me at least, a choice of pursuing that identity and pursuing that story for yourself as opposed to like, “I was born this way,” that kind of narrative, which has been important and leveraged by trans people, and queer people for a long time. But now that it has been around for a while, it maybe hasn’t gotten all of the results in terms of being treated as human by the medical and political establishments, I think we’re starting to see more artists play with that a little bit more—play isn’t really a serious enough term—try to interrogate that more and say, “Well yes, there is a biology aspect but also what is biology?” Is that even really taking a step back from that equation in saying we’re actually outside of this and you are too? These are constructs. That’s a little bit of my thinking I guess.
DN: I want to talk more about this non-fiction/fiction relationship but before we do, just to stay a bit longer with this question of looking to nature, then not looking to nature necessarily, on the level of language, you’ve said that at first, looking for correspondences in nature felt like it would really open up possibilities of metaphor. But ultimately, you feel like it robs us of the power of metaphor by looking at nature this way. I was hoping maybe you could talk about that. Because yes, obviously, we think, “Oh, these are natural metaphors,” these transitioning creatures. Tell us why that might actually be something that closes down the opportunity for metaphor.
CA: If we’re thinking about looking at this animal, say a butterfly, caterpillar metamorphosis is the one that is most readily there for the metaphor of transition I think. It’s one that I mess around with a bit in my stories. But I think in saying here’s this metaphor for transition in this creature, this animal, it takes away the possibility of the broader connotations of what transition can even mean. Transition can be moving from one form of being to another but it can also be moving across space and moving between places. Recently, I’ve been thinking about it a lot more in terms of that and just had a conversation with several different trans writers. Kama La Mackerel is a Mauritian and Canadian poet, and performer. They use the term gender travels in moving across space and time, which I guess isn’t to say that a caterpillar isn’t moving across space and time when it metamorphoses. But we’re more focused on how their body changes and how it dissolves into goop in a chrysalis, then reforms, which is fascinating. But again, it’s so tied to the physical, that I think grounding notions of transition in just the physical and the biological takes away some of its philosophical and more exciting components to me. Not everybody who is trans is going through this drastic medical transition. I have but many people that I know I love and think write really interesting things on the topic of transition, that’s not even their main focus at all. I think in saying that it robs us of metaphor, it’s more that there’s a richer arena of metaphor available to us, not just in biology but in art and philosophy, in different realms of science, and physics. For example, phase changes between matter and changes between different kinds of ecosystems that are like transition ecosystems. I get a lot of energy from thinking about the ways that transition can shape thought and matter as a whole outside of just this biological resonance.
DN: Is that somehow related to the way you’ve described your writing? I think both your non-fiction and your fiction writing as exploring how nature is itself, in essence, trans. A distinction between looking for transness in nature and nature, essentially being trans, maybe you can unpack that distinction for us a little if that rings true to you.
CA: Yeah. I know I’ve written about that in the past. I don’t know if I still feel exactly that way because I think that for starters, trans, in the way that I think I have interacted with it for the last three or four years in my writing and thinking, is a very western concept and idea of what trans means in terms of setting it up. Moving from one binary gender to another binary gender, from female to male or vice versa, inside of these relatively rigid categories is something that is not universal throughout the world and is pretty specific to this Western American concept. Then as I read more people who write from other cultures and other frames of identity and belonging, different two-spirit and indigenous writers who write about gender and nature, that is being more complicated for me. I think it’s still true in the sense that nature is always changing. It’s all about change, whether it’s climate change or one thing changing from something into another but at the same time, to say nature is trans, I don’t know if I still believe in that in the same way that I made that statement. A lot of my thinking about this is constantly evolving, which is great. I like that.
DN: It’s like a lot of your characters actually, who are constantly evolving. I want to talk about that but I want to return to this statement you made around fiction and non-fiction, and the non-fiction story that trans people receive, then the creation of a new story. The most recent time that Rikki Ducornet came on the show, a couple months ago, as part of my preparation for that, I stumbled across a book called Surrealist Women’s Writing: A Critical Exploration. It ended with a chapter by a writer named Kristoffer Noheden called Magic Language, Esoteric Nature: Rikki Ducornet’s Surrealist Ecology where he argues that there’s a little talked about but very important strain within the surrealist movement that is ecological in nature in which Ducornet is a great example of. This is what he was saying about her and the surrealists that she most would be akin to. “Throughout these works, surrealists elaborate an ecological approach that rests on the subversion of anthropocentrism, recognition of the intrinsic value of other life forms, speculation about non-human minds, and the construction of new models for conceiving of the world’s interrelatedness often through a dialectical relationship between occultism’s worldview of correspondences an ecological sciences study of the interconnectedness across beings and their environments.” But then more specific to Ducornet, he says, “Many of her resulting writings, as well as her drawings and paintings of flowers, roots, and seeds metamorphosing and breaking out of botanical categorization call up a surrealist ecology, equally attentive to the material world and to the ways in which dream and imagination may uncover new dimensions of the mineral vegetable and animal kingdoms.” Then he says that our writing reveals the ways the interrelatedness of things is kept apart by the “logic of identity.” This makes me think of you and your writing too but also makes me wonder if not only a surreal, non-realist approach to humans and nature is a particularly well-equipped one but whether, like what you were saying, perhaps having abandoned about nature being trans, I wonder if the real, in and of itself, if we truly looked, is actually surreal.
CA: Clearly, I need to read Ducornet, who I have not read. Thank you for bringing them into the conversation. That’s really exciting. You said something in that quote about how there was this bringing together of occultism’s world view of correspondences. I like the idea of occultism’s correspondence with the surreal ecology because I can’t really think of any better example of my relationship with my husband than those two. My husband is an artist, a musician, and genderqueer. We feed off of each other a lot but they are also far more into, I don’t know if they would frame it as occultism per se but the more spooky side of life’s correspondences, they’re much more spiritual person than I am. We’ve been together for almost a decade now. When we first got together, I was very raised an atheist. Like not everything that was spiritual and religious was looked down upon. Since I’ve been with my partner, there has been introduced to me, through them, this register of rituals and things in the world that we might not understand but that can give much more richness to our lives. That has become part of my worldview as well. Then to pair that with surrealism and ecology is exciting. I think that’s just how we function. But as far as how this feeds into the logic of identity and breaking those things down, I think when I was thinking that nature might not be trans in my head anymore, that’s kind of thinking about trans as the static category and how it’s come to be understood in the mainstream. That has become louder in my brain and in my reading day-to-day. I’ve felt less compelled by that comparison, perhaps because it feels too grounded in the real material. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the surreal and the material are separate, if that makes sense. This is something that I’m still working out. It’s not like I can see it ahead. What I want to be writing about is a lot more about materials, specifically making things and crafting things because I think that is also aligned with a trans subjectivity, this desire to craft and make things in your body but also art and specific things. I’m a quilter, so I make quilts and blankets. Working with textiles is really exciting to me. I haven’t quite found the way in which that other part of my brain, the part that wants to experiment with narrative, metaphor, and story, fits into the part with the material. I think those are still trying to find ways to come together but as far as surrealism is closer to the real than realism, is that how you were saying it? I think that’s true. I think for trans people, the way that we live our lives is so sometimes, you need magic and surrealism to make the feeling recognizable to people who aren’t trans because there is so much difference in the patterns of our lives. Many of us, myself included, we don’t have our life experiences in the same order as cis people tend to do or at least most cis people in terms of having a second puberty or not having kids or having kids in a very different roundabout way than others would. I think messing with these patterns and with the ways in which we live our lives outside of a heteronormative capitalist framework, sometimes, you need some magic to explain that. I use magic, not because that is something that I don’t necessarily feel like I write about but for me, it’s another way of explaining surrealism.
DN: Or maybe the fantastical?
CA: Sometimes, I feel like the fantastical reaches a bit further for epic than I tend to go because a lot of my stories and ideas are grounded in the mundane, and things you can touch, which isn’t to say probably someone out there is writing a very mundane fantasy that would be amazing to read. I just don’t know of it yet. Magic to me feels a little bit more accessible in some ways. I mean there’s like role-playing games that are centered around fantasy. But magic is such a key part of those. It’s a little bit more malleable to me in terms of you can just make up whatever magic you want, whereas, fantasy feels a bit more hemmed in by what has come before.
DN: Before we talk about these stories more directly, I wanted to ask you about something you say in your Lit Hub essay entitled How Lou Sullivan’s Journals Enrich the History of Trans Literature. In that essay, you say that writing constructs the self. Also, that when you were 21 and newly out as a gay transgender man, you started a project of not only transcribing but also annotating all of your journal entries written since you were 13. Not only engaging with yourself as a girl, you were in a sense rewriting it or layering the writing of it with a new overlay of yourself as a 21 year old man. I was hoping you could talk about that experience for you, of writing in conversation with yourself at two different ages from two different genders and how particularly the additive aspect, the annotating, if it does, how it relates to the construction of self through writing?
CA: I know that project of annotating those early journal entries was really necessary because on the one hand, it let me talk back to this previous version of myself that was often confused about different ways I was feeling and different sexual encounters. It was really vital that I go back and talk to that person, and answer some of those questions and be like, “Oh yeah, here’s this instance here where this makes a lot more sense now,” that you understand yourself a little bit better. At that point, it was a correction. It was like, “Oh, I need to go back. I need to correct these instances of wrong conceptions of myself in the past.” As I’ve gotten older, I think now, I’m more capable of seeing it as a layering.
DN: But what is the difference between the correcting of your past narrative versus seeing it as a different layering of self?
CA: Because I’m a gay, trans man, a lot of it for me was around the confusion of sexuality and gender identity. When you’re 13, 14 years old as a girl and you’re attracted to men but it feels wrong in some way because you’re in this other body, it’s very heterosexual experience, I think that’s what a lot of the corrections were about. Then as I got into my later teens, then was in college at a women’s college and was suddenly thinking a lot more about these feelings I was having in terms of not feeling quite right in this women’s space, maybe it was because I was a lesbian. Even though that didn’t feel right, that was what was making sense in terms of gender identity and being more butch at the time. It was correcting corrections that I had tried using the tools that I had at the time to explain myself to myself. Then once I realized, “Oh, I can be a trans man who likes men,” then I was able to go back because so much of my early 20s was spent wondering why I was such a bad lesbian, why I was so terrible at it, and why it just never felt that right for me in retrospect. That’s because I wasn’t one and because this same-sex desire was coming from a very different place and not being embodied in that place yet. I just wasn’t able to access it. There’s a lot of things and stories about people who come out as trans, then change. As they are uncommon, they change their sexuality. It alters a lot about you and the way you feel about yourself, especially in relationship to others and sexually. But I think some of that has been miscategorized as maybe this person said they liked women before but they weren’t quite in the right body yet. They just didn’t know yet.
DN: Yeah. This is a perfect lead-in to the question I wanted to ask you about this, thinking about corrections versus now seeing things as layering of identity. When I think of the notion of writing, constructing the self, and you say in several places that through the process of writing this book, your own sense of self and of what trans means has changed, I’ve constructed my own narrative around how it has changed through my experience of reading the book. I’m just going to put it forth to have it rejected or embraced or modified. Because the book opens with a protagonist who is in the middle of transitioning but he puts his hormone treatments on pause when he decides he’d like to have a child and give birth to that child first. Ultimately, he gives birth not to a human infant but to a cocoon, to the literal physical embodiment of both indeterminacy, since we can’t see inside, and also of metamorphosis in action. In a sense, this man has given birth to a transition itself. Last weekend, there was a New York Times op-ed by a trans man, Thomas Page McBee called My Decade of American Manhood where he said he’s learning to tell stories that didn’t begin with the idea of being born in the wrong body. He said, “When I left my doctor’s office that June day in 2011, trans visibility was still a nascent strategy in the struggle for our civil rights. The prevailing advice to trans men on hormone replacement therapy was to focus on ‘passing’ as cisgender men — even if that meant leaving your past behind. According to this myopic logic, being trans was not its own identity so much as a swift journey between two gender poles.” It’s this last part, Mcbee’s push back against the narrative of transness being a journey between two poles rather than an identity in its own terms, that made me wonder if this was how you had changed through the writing from seeing yourself as moving from female to male to now seeing yourself differently because in your non-fiction, I think of you when you describe adjusting your hormones, then suddenly finding yourself, to your alarm, menstruating when you had stopped a long time ago and your first reaction is alarm but then you question that. You questioned the imposition of a forward linearity rather than a moving around differently within time and within identity. In this collection, characters sometimes have three or four different transitions. Others move cyclically or seasonally between genders and others move into one, then later move back into the previous one.
CA: Yeah, I read that piece by McBee as well, which was surreal because it followed very closely my own time-line. My dad sent me that article in an email. I think that is a good way to describe how my idea of my own transition, and trans as a larger concept, changed while writing that book. Probably, before writing that book, I did identify more as female to male, that motion. Now, that’s definitely not a marker that I use but it’s also not a marker that’s used as much in the culture at large. You don’t hear that language as often anymore, FtM or MtF. I think the reason that I don’t use it anymore is because I have been thinking of it much more as a layering. By layering, I mean that once I came out to myself and started taking hormones, and was able to pass as a cis man, I was much more comfortable accessing my own femininity, which as an effeminate gay man was something that felt very powerful to me. That is the layering that I mean rather than the piece you’re talking about, the climate of gender in which I go and talk about how I started menstruating again after a change in hormones. That was really traumatic. That still feels very true. There is like a line. For me personally, it’s not that I feel like I can just move to two different categories at the same time and still maintain the essential core of who I am. It’s more that it’s all of these things at once. That there is meaning in having been a woman, then having been a man or being a man now and having that history, and that understanding. However, I’ll also say that as I get older, that experience of having been a woman is much farther away. It’s much less present now than it used to be, which is something that worries me. I don’t know if I want to go back and think about those past experiences rather than move forward and try to find other ways of engaging with womanhood in those ways with femininity. It’s more where I’m coming from because for a while, I was thinking that, “Oh, I have some claim to talking about these things as well because I’ve been a woman.” I could talk about the certain feelings of being discriminated against for being a woman or in a man’s face and that kind of thing. I went, again, to Mount Holyoke, so there’s a lot of trying to make young women feel empowered to take up space in a man’s world is really the history there. However, I think for me and for many trans men, there’s still some reckoning left that we have to do and that I have to do. I really am not a woman in my lived experience. Now it is so different. There’s maybe still like a chip on our shoulders of having had this past. I’m thinking a lot now too of the conversations that are happening more prevalently in the UK where trans women have been mercilessly attacked in the press and in the broader conversation about, “Oh, they’re men. They don’t really know what it’s like to be a woman.” To have to face all these obstacles because of their “maleness”. It’s really ugly. I think there’s a connection between that. Those ways in which trans men have been taught to uphold their own femininity as an important aspect of masculinity, almost to wield it in the service of patriarchy and like, “Oh, we are these men, however, we used to be women, therefore, were were able to occupy these two locations at the same time,” I don’t really think that’s true in a way. It can lead to some really bizarrely twisted up trans misogyny, these different positionings we have a hold of our own pasts. I see it play out online a lot. People get hurt and it’s not good. It’s something that I’m still thinking about in terms of myself and where I can value, prioritize, and feel comfortable in femininity. I don’t want to give it up but it’s something I also hold on to, loosely, if that makes sense.
DN: Yeah. Maybe this is a good time to hear a little bit from the book. Could we hear the opening of the opening story?
CA: This is the beginning of In Kind.
[Callum Angus reads from his debut story collection, A Natural History of Transition]
DN: We’ve been listening to Callum Angus read from his debut story collection, A Natural History of Transition from Metonymy Press. One of the coolest things about preparing for today, for me, was going on your book tour as a Cal Angus groupie essentially. I got to see you in conversation with really dynamic iconic trans writers and thinkers including Andrea Lawlor, Torrey Peter’s, and Karen Moning among others. Both Andrea and Torrey commented on not seeing a trans work of literature quite like yours before. Andrea’s saying that it seemed you were both writing for trans people but somehow also keeping the work welcoming and accessible, and Torrey mentioning not ever seen nature-based trans writing like this, that you were revolutionizing nature, writing the way Sebald transformed travel writing. That instead of writing about transness, you were writing through a trans lens. Torrey also brought up Joanna Russ and Russ’ thoughts on the stages of minority literature going through how they evolve. In stage one of a minority literature in Torrey’s formulation of Joanna Russ’ theory, the writer says, “We are just like you.” In stage two, “F*ck you, we’re nothing like you.” In stage three, “Actually, we have nothing to do with you. We can exist without you.” But Torrey adds a fourth where the minority literature eventually comes back to deeply influence the mainstream. That ultimately, the center of the culture eventually, can only see themselves through terms that have been defined on the margins. The way, for instance, whiteness is defined by terms developed through black scholarship or how straight people understand themselves through the language of queer theory. She wonders, in relation to your book I think, but also more generally, what is going to happen when trans thought becomes inseparable from a mainstream’s understanding of itself. As part of this question that isn’t yet a question to you, I wanted to add my experience as a cis reader because I notice, like the mother in the story, you just read an excerpt of a mother who is navigating her daughter’s transition to becoming a man where that transition is being stopped for a pregnancy and a pregnancy that results in a grandchild that isn’t human. It feels like in several stories, you’re modeling a form of love for your trans characters by your secondary cis characters, what love could look like. I believe it is this story where the mother says, “I don’t have to understand you to love you.” But I also think of the story, Rock Jenny, where Jenny as a young teen begins to live as a boy and later on lives as a girl again but then begins to transform into a rock, then a mountainside, and eventually the moon. The mother, who’s a geologist, finds her daughter’s stage as a mountain, particularly legible and opens up a gift shop, and a cafe at the foot of her child’s mountainside. But even that comfort of familiarity is ultimately disrupted with each of these stages of change for Jenny, their lover or parents or friends and Jenny herself experienced fear and confusion, now that the terms of their relationship have been interrupted in a way. But it feels like your cis characters, while they’re not changing externally, are often going through transformations and metamorphoses internally, expanding their capacities for love beyond what they thought love could look like. When I’m thinking of all this, the comments of your trans writer conversationalists who say your book doesn’t seem written to bring a cis audience up to speed and this cis reader who nevertheless feels brought along in some way, I wonder if you think of audience when you’re writing and if you’re writing toward a certain audience, who?
CA: Yeah. I was thinking about Dot, the mother from the first story. Every time I go back and read from that story, I’m reminded that I’m always writing right on the edge for trans people or for cis people. It goes back and forth because while I agree with you that many of the cis characters in this book are experiencing expansions of what it means to understand themselves or this person they love and how to love them without understanding them, I think also, the trans characters are learning something from the cis characters as well in terms of like Dot is not your stereotypical mother. She’s not a very feminine person. She has some hard edges around her. She’s quite aggressive. She takes charge of this doctor’s appointment with her son later on in the story and is perhaps modeled somewhat on my own mother who I’ve written about before as being very aggressive in a fond way. [laughs] She’s an aggressive person. Her presence is often taking charge of a situation. Sometimes, using femininity to soften those edges, that’s how she’s navigated in the world. That’s how I understand that. I think I see Nathan, seeing that in this story and coming to understand a little bit more the gender travels that his own mother has gone through as a cis person. I am writing for trans people in the sense that maybe I’m trying to expand for them the places they can look to find themselves. I don’t think it’s just trans people who have a claim on what it means to navigate gender in these ways. My life is full of many cis women who have lived lives very untraditionally in terms of how they present their gender to the world and cis men who also live outside of the norm of what it means to be a man. I think in that story in particular, that’s who I’m writing for, are two trans people as they look at their cis family members. I think when you first come out as trans—and certainly when I first came out as trans—there was a real tendency to want to push back, like you were saying, in the “F*ck you, we’re nothing like you” formulation of minority literatures. Then as a writer, I’m always trying to challenge myself in finding more complicated registers in all of my characters, whether they’re cis or trans, and that experience generally leads me down this path of we can see ourselves in you too, so maybe saying to cis readers like, “You can be a model for us as well,” and maybe that’s what happens when trans cis becomes more mainstream or trans literature becomes more mainstream. That’s what Torrey Peters is doing in her book, Detransition, Baby, which she dedicates to divorced women and seeing divorced women and trans women as sharing something in common of having their idea of self and what it means to be a woman exploded by a large narrative rupturing event, transition on the one hand and divorce on the other hand. I think we are seeing that more in this story in particular. I wouldn’t say I’m writing for one or the other person. But I do think about my own audience and who I’m writing to as I try to navigate nature writing and writing for trans readers, especially in my role as an editor, that’s something I’m always thinking about with the journal, smoke and mold.
DN: Let me ask you about that because the narrative that I’ve seen you put forth is that you’re trying to publish a novel for a while and we’re not succeeding, and that part of the impetus of starting your journal was to demonstrate that there is an audience for the type of writing you do. I’m curious if you could talk about stepping away from the submission process around the novel, obviously you’ve then also pivoted to doing the short story collection, but you also demonstrated a community of readers that are hungry for a certain type of writing. Can you talk about smoke and mold in relationship to your writing trajectory in that way?
CA: Yeah. I’ve been thinking that it’s probably likely that many small literary journals are started in this way from a frustration of a person or a group of people who have trouble getting published but believe quite strongly that there is an appetite for that out there. The novel that I was shopping around—which still exists but it’s in a drawer and will probably stay there for a long time now, I don’t see myself going back to it right now—but it was very much a novel that was about two trans men navigating their relationship to themselves, into nature on the border between the US and Mexico. It dealt with a lot of the same themes around nature and also Westward expansion and these themes of transition as well. As an aside, I do a lot of aside so I’m sorry, but as an aside, the more distance I get from that novel, the more I see that I’m glad it didn’t come out first because it does feed into this narrative of trans literature as road trip expanding into the West narrative, which there is quite a deep catalogue of and I’m glad that wasn’t my first entry, because again, we’re talking about space and exploring unexplored territory and so there’s been some iffy, it’s easy to reach for that, as a white trans writer, narrative. But I digress, when I put that novel away, I was very much wanting to find the people who were interested in writing about nature from a trans perspective and also to find the people in the eco-lit community who weren’t aware of trans writing as something that they should be interested in because I think, not only yes, there are trans people who are interested in writing this stuff but it is essential to eco-lit to include trans voices because of the ways—for many, many reasons—because of the ways that we engage with this question of biology, category, identity, and names. Those are all such trans things and they’re also such concerns of the nature writing world for a very long time. I think those two worlds should be coming together more. Yes, my writing exists in the nexus of that but I think that by creating a journal and publishing people who are relatively new writers, also some who are more established, but we publish a lot of younger trans writers who are just starting out, it’s exciting to be able to build out a community that has nothing to do with my work that it just exists out there, it’s all moving toward trying to build an audience for this stuff to be legible to a publishing marketplace that will eventually, I hope, see that this is important stuff beyond that trans memoir linear narrative that has been very popular and I think legible for people like agents and editors to sell to the public, that has been very clear. But I’m hopeful that this other kind of writing will also become much more, I don’t want to say mainstream, but much more, even within it, there are many different literatures as well, different genres and styles.
DN: I had two different questions about troubling the linear trans narrative: one is a writerly question and one is more like where does your writing fit in your mind, at least, within the trans discourse. The writer question is I think of the short story genre as perhaps having the most normative pressures and expectations on it that people are more tolerant of novels that have digressions or exist in any number of shapes, lengths, and formats. But I think that the short story in our imaginations, even as there are countless exceptions to this, the way people imagine the short story is the Freytag’s Pyramid of rising action, climax, and denouement. But each of these stories in your collection not only seems to have a different shape but it seems to have a different internal architecture. If we think of your assertion that maybe trans isn’t a linear narrative between two static gender identities, that you’re perhaps writing against the logic of identity, I wondered how that affects story, shape, and structure for you because, either by happenstance or by design, you seem to be troubling the way I think most people imagine short stories.
CA: I don’t see short stories as the more normative narrative category I guess. I don’t know that I agree that a lot of people do because I think the novel has been made much more popular and consumable. Certainly from a marketplace standpoint, the idea is that novels are much easier to sell than short story collections.
DN: And the commercial ones all seem to be 240 pages long.
CA: [laughs] Yeah. I think there’s an understanding of how a novel moves and yes, there will be digressions. There’s an acceptance of that, that it will happen but for the most part, I think the mainstream reading public knows what they’re going to get when they open a novel, whereas with a collection of short stories, the collections that are most exciting to me are the ones that are– every story is different and every story is doing something completely different, Counternarratives by John Keene is one of my favorite books and is a model for this book in many ways.
DN: One of my favorite books too.
CA: His novella in there, it’s like a letter on the trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon, that novella in particular is really influential for me. I think within collections as a whole but also within individual stories, there has been as much of a tradition that many people I think recognize of breaking what story can mean, where it goes, and how it gets there, especially if you have 10, 12 different beginnings in the story collection, so there are so many different iterations that you can do, at least to me, that seems much more non-linear or rife with possibility than a novel. That’s not to say that I’m not going to go back to the novel because I do have plans to, but within each story in terms of the structure of each story and how I see that fitting into the idea of non-linear trans narratives, I think that was very intentional, certainly in In Kind, the story that I read from, that in particular, is split up across, we’re jumping back and forth in time. There are chunks where we’re seeing the conception of this child after the child’s already been born and so there’s a lot of ways in which that is being literally played out in the structure of that story as well. I think in that way, the content is reflected in that form rather than me feeling like, “Here’s the story, write it down,” and then I have to move things around. That’s not really how I write. I don’t plan how a story shapes out but the form that it takes on the page as I’m writing it is generally the form that stays in the end and so I think it’s just native to that piece. It’s more influenced by what I’m writing about as opposed to being just oh, these are trans stories, therefore they have to have this kind of–
DN: Am I remembering correctly that you choose the length of your stories in advance?
DN: I love that. It’s so counter-intuitive.
CA: It’s fun and because it provides that one, I don’t write with a lot of restrictions or strengths, I don’t plan in advance, I never draft outlines or anything like that, but I do think it’s important in writing to have some kind of restraint to fight against and so for me, that’s length. It’s like “Is the story about the Moonsnail going to be… what’s it going to look like if it’s 50 pages long? What’s it going to look like if it’s four pages long?” That type of thing. Often, I’ll see if I can do it if it goes a little bit over or under, but usually it ends up right at that spot because I’m thinking about pacing and the tension and how that will go.
DN: That’s amazing. I wanted to ask you about the linear narratives within trans discourse because you’ve talked about how commercially successful they are or how dominant they are, which could speak more to the cis imagination than potentially the trans imagination, but I don’t know. But I wanted to start first with my conversation with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, much of her writing engages with radical queerness as opposed to gay assimilation and normativity. In other words, some gay people want equal rights but otherwise aspire for assimilation into normative culture into institutions such as marriage, the nuclear family, and participation in the military, and all those being signposts of progress, signposts of receiving full status in society. Mattilda on the other hand argues that queerness, in contrast to being gay, is by its very nature an opposition to this, that queerness demands—I’m paraphrasing here so my apologies, Mattilda, if this is not good—but that queerness demands radical transformation of society, not acceptance into problematic notions of love or family or the imperial military excursions of the United States. That queerness is or should be a threat to these institutions themselves. I guess I wondered if there was a similar split thinking about linear narratives and about gender pulls in the trans world because I’m imagining there are surely people who simply want to be the gender that they’ve always known they are and to be accepted as such, but in every other way to participate in a normative fashion perhaps. But then when I think of the people who you’re on book tour with, of course, who you’ve chosen to be on book tour with, there’s a self-selecting aspect to this but I don’t know where you all fit within the discourse, like Torrey Peters in her book Detransition, Baby is both trying to reclaim detransitioning from those who use it as a political weapon against trans people but is also looking at non-normative family structures and cis trans parenting alliances. I was listening to Andrea Lawlor, whose main protagonist in their novel is a shape shifter named Paul whose special talent is that they can be attracted to anyone. Andrea has said that they’ve wanted to destabilize Paul’s pronouns in the book which are consistently “he/him” so that by the end, though he is still he, you’re thinking about Paul’s vagina. I was wondering about that. I was also listening to, for instance, Paul Preciado who talks about the abolition entirely of the male and female categories and was a student of Derrida and his talks about the necropolitic of the sovereign and connected to the dispensation of death for the male and the bio political reproductive factory of the uterus and the sperm producer, and around the female and why should we identify as either of these. I guess this is a long way to ask, do you feel like these framings are central or marginal within trans discourse? I don’t mean marginal in terms of not significant but are they more on the margins, or on the vanguard even, of trans discourse or reflective more of, I don’t want to use mainstream but I think you might know where I’m getting at.
CA: I don’t know that I can speak for trans discourse as a whole. I think one of the exciting things is that it has splintered and we’re past the point of even saying that there’s such a thing as translit because there are trans writers writing incredible work in every genre and form imaginable now, which is a good thing. But I’m glad you brought up Mattilda’s work because Mattilda’s work has been formative for me from the very beginning of my transition, in the very beginning of my life as a writer. I think she continues to be one of the more exciting and challenging writers out there pushing us to think, especially from the queer and trans community, like what we really want out of not just our literature but our life and our culture. That said, I think about what has happened with queer as a label in a way of approaching life. It feels like that battle has largely been lost, it has been assimilated to the point of no return, which has negative and positive aspects to it. We lost something in losing that model of life and it can still be remembered and it can still be idealized but we also gave something at the same time to the culture at large. I also like that you brought up the fact that there are trans people who just want to transition and live their lives, that’s true. I don’t fall under that category, obviously, but when I was first coming out, it was very much like that McBee piece you were pointing to, being stealth was the option that was much more prevalent than it is now. Now the conversation is all about visibility and being visible, which we are learning is not always a good thing, especially for trans people who don’t pass or who don’t fit a particular mold, trans people of color, it’s very dangerous to be visible in many situations. I try not to subscribe to any exact picture of what revolution looks like in terms of literature, culture, or politics because there are always going to be people who want to just live their lives and that’s just a reality. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to not want to be engaged in that. I’ll never quite side, would decide that it’s a terrible thing that this has become something from the queer community, or the trans community has become mainstream or has lost some of its edge of being not as radical as it once used to be or it’s been co-opted by cis people because I think, there’s still a very important cognitive dissonance in that fight for being accepted and also wanting to stay separate. I think about this a lot in terms of preservation and display because I write a lot about museums and think a lot about natural history museums, but museums at large. Normally, I’m writing about them in terms of their interactions with indigenous cultures or with propping up categories like gender and race as well around the globe. But I think there’s something very universal and deep about this dichotomy of preservation versus display. You can think of it as self-preservation if you want, but wanting to hold on to something that is so dear whether it’s to protect yourself against violence or to hide yourself or just to keep something good for yourself versus wanting to be seen and known in the world for what you really are, wanting to find others who are like you in that different kind of way. Those two things are intention, it’s irrevocable, they’re going to be intention. I think I see that as the main challenge to navigate.
DN: Let’s stay with this question of museums, classification, and categories. It’s a way into the way you engage with science at large too, I think but again, I’m thinking of an overlap between you and Rikki Ducornet with regards to the fascination around naming, the power of naming and the dangers of naming. I’m thinking in Rikki’s work, there’s a lot of engagement with Adam and the garden naming the creatures of the world but also the cabinets of curiosity and the way colonial scientists would collect specimens and display them, and sometimes those specimens were even human beings. In A Natural History of Transition, we have the title story which involves a museum and the act of collecting things for the museum. It’s probably the story that goes most in the direction of horror. We have Archipelagos where the boy in the forest with his pet caterpillar named Cocksucker, creates little dioramas of things he collects with perhaps a more innocent relationship to the impulse of collecting. But even here, the human desire is—which I think we all probably recognize—to lift things out of their place and place them again in a representation of where they’re from, to see them but abstracted as looked at by the person. Even though you didn’t pursue this as a nonfiction book, you still use the title, as you referenced earlier in the conversation, that evokes something of the nonfiction world, as if we’re going to read a scientific guide or a scientific anthropological guide but it’s very clear, at least to me, that you’re also critiquing this guide and critiquing perhaps the legacy of a certain type of scientific classification. Maybe we could start there with you spending a little more time with your engagement with the human impulse to collect, name, and categorize under supposedly or purportedly the gathering of scientific knowledge and how the title is working, and if it is partially critiqued, how so?
CA: It is intended as a critique of that kind of document or text that’s produced out of these very often voyages or explorations into unknown territory by naturalists of anywhere from the 17th to 20th century really, and writing down what they’ve collected or stolen from other places around the world, bringing them back, categorizing them, putting them into some kind of lexicon of like what “the new world” is going to mean later on down the line for Western ideas of what nature and what that can contain. But I think that with the title A Natural History of Transition, the irony is you can’t really have a natural history of transition because, at least, in transition, in the way that I think of it, it’s unpindownable as we’ve been talking about, it’s both a movement in space and time and it’s also not static. It can retread some of the same ground it’s been over before. Whereas natural history is really obsessed with taxonomy, classification, and pinning things down in a dichotomous key or in a cabinet of display. Those two things again are in tension, they’re pulling at each other within that title. I think that is important to this collection, which does have several stories involving these different types of collection. In that story, Archipelagos, the boy whose name is Monty, has the predisposition to collect things and he wants to make his own small museum of natural curiosities that he’s found on his walks. I think it’s tempting to read that as a positive representation of that collecting but there are hints in that story of the fact that even though it’s a child doing it, it perhaps still contains some darker side of the wish to put the world in order and make it make sense at the expense of closing off other options I guess as opposed to the final story, which is again more straightforward horror, but also features a natural history museum, again by individual, created by an individual who’s not a professional curator or anything. That particular collection becomes the setting of this otherworldly transformation, not even able to be classified as something not seen before. I think in that story, transition is actually a bit of a red herring because in my mind, this narrator travels back to his hometown and sees this museum of very strange, otherworldly objects and then all around him, the people who he’s grown up with, and perhaps including family members and close friends, begin to grow eyes all over their bodies as the final progression of this. That story taking place in a facsimile of my hometown in a very rural part of Upstate New York, even though it’s a trans narrator, it’s really about race and this idol watching that takes place in a very rural white town. There are hints throughout the story of moments when you see a family who is not white stopped at the Canadian border and they’re having their van taken apart and being explored and they just drive by and that’s not mentioned really ever again in the story. While the narrator, perhaps doesn’t realize it exactly, this watching-ness and this tendency to watch atrocity unfold at a distance is really the plague that I think is being visited upon those people in that town. They’re becoming overtaken by seeing, they become seeing. I think that is very aligned with what can happen when collecting and identifying, but staying removed from the ways in which these objects have other resonances in the world can also become a deadly watching.
DN: I love that, and I love the way you’re bringing a sinister quality to Archipelagos, I mean, there are sinister aspects to what happens to Monty by others but this impulse that might seem innocent and simple and what it’s closing off. Because you also write about this a non-fiction so you mentioned the dichotomous key and you have the piece, Dichotomous, about Linnaeus, who systematizes the way we identify different species, which was not systematized before, it was much more observational, and perhaps allowed for quite a few other elements to exist because this key is basically a branching system of binaries. You can only go on one branch or the other until you end up with a positive category. But you also have this other piece, not related to this but also about categories, the order of identity where you look at what the difference is between calling yourself a trans white man or a white trans man and why you choose one formulation or framing over the other. I was wondering if we could talk about that a little bit, what that means for you before we go into some of the other ways other than the last story that you engage with whiteness in the collection.
CA: Yeah. That is an older essay and so I have changed a little bit in the ways that I think about that identity. At the time, this was written around 2015 or 2014, something like that, which feels like such a long time ago now. I think if you’re thinking about whiteness has a take since then, then you maybe have some reevaluation to do. But at the time, I was very often treated with a lot of respect and awe by cis colleagues and friends when they found out I was a trans man, as if this accorded me some really special experience in the world, hardship in the world, some minority status deserving of special treatment. Often in a more important sense than say some of my other writer friends and colleagues who were not trans but who were black or people of color, other identities that often had it much more difficult in the world than I did as a cis passing white trans man. I think with that piece, I was trying to parse out the privileges that being a white man affords me at the same time as being trans. This is just a personal hierarchy in terms of my identifiers because I come from a middle class background and white and so my life has been pretty easy in terms of I haven’t had to face a lot of discrimination or hardship as a result of being trans. However, while I do think a lot about whiteness, and I am a white person, these days I’m a little bit more hesitant to claim the white as capital W affirming identity like I am white as an identity marker because I think, as we have seen in the last several years, there is a loud vocal component of alt-right and fascist groups that want to reclaim white as an identity and as this reaction to identity politics while saying like, “Okay, you guys are black and reverse racism,” and all that stuff. That is something that I think you have to understand as a white person, that you are white but you can’t love it in the same way because whiteness is a construct that has changed over time and it’s made up, but it is not made up in the ways in which it functions in the world and the consequences that come from it. I do still think a lot about these things, my identity and the way I move in the world as a trans man and as a white man. But in that piece in particular where I was thinking more about “Am I a trans white man or a white trans man?” I think it was useful at the time but I don’t know that that doesn’t matter as much anymore because the playing field has changed a little bit.
DN: Yeah. I have to say I love that I keep bringing up these writings of yours and you’ve changed since them. I think that’s very much, as I mentioned earlier, it’s also the sense in the stories too of constant adaptation and reevaluation.
CA: I think that’s true of a lot of trans writers. I think for me, it’s one of the reasons I was a little nervous or hesitant to do an interview like this because I am always re-looking, re-inspecting at my own opinions and ideas about writing, politics, and the world and so I am hesitant sometimes to set them down either on paper or in audio form for how they will change later on. I think that’s something that a lot of trans writers confront sooner than many other writers just as a result of how we’ve already seen ourselves change, and for me personally, writing was such a part of coming to understand myself as a person and as a trans person going back and annotating those journals like you said earlier. It’s just these boroughs of change.
DN: You’ve created work for yourself in five years when you’re going to have to say on tour, “When I was talking on Between the Covers, I used to believe…”
CA: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. But at the same time, being able to change one’s mind is one of the qualities I admire most in people or thinkers because it’s not easy to do, and when I find a friend or a writer who is changing over time and constantly reevaluating themselves, that’s someone that I want to keep reading for a long time.
DN: Yeah. Let’s stay with this question of whiteness in particular, as not around taxonomy, but you engaged I think most head-on with it in one of the longer stories Winter of Men. This story, for me, had resonances with Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness with your characters transforming from one gender to another in the fall and from that gender to the one before in the spring. But also the short story of hers, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, which is a moral cautionary tale about society built on the hidden away suffering of someone who’s completely otherized. But this story, even with all of its fantastical elements, is not only the most deeply researched but also the one most deeply tied to real colonial history and real colonial figures, Lydia Longley and others. I was hoping you could talk to us about a lot of things about this story actually, why you chose this setting in time period and these real people and how you braided the real history with a fantastical story, and what considerations that involved. Also, it’s a story that would be resonant I think being read at any time in North American history since settlers have arrived. But also I’m thinking about the graves of the residential schools in Canada just in the last month and here we’re seeing in your story, the Marguerite’s Indian school as well. Talk to us about the Winter of Men. It seems like that, I don’t want to say it’s the most ambitious, but to me, I’m imagining it required the most amount of moving elements to synthesize somehow. It seems quite a very successful but also quite a feat.
CA: I don’t know if it’s very successful and I will come back to that, but this is the story in the collection that I was latest to understanding after it was finished, which I felt very strange about for a long time and then recently, I was going back and reading some criticism about NourbeSe Philip’s first or very early book, She Tries Her Tongue, and how her understanding of that book changed vastly over time. I feel a little less bad that I have come late to understanding this story. But choosing the setting and the time period was a result that came from my novel, the novel that I was trying to get published several years ago which took place on a border. I find borders really fascinating for obvious reasons because they’re these made up lines that are also transition points between two different places, different communities. In that book, I was writing about a border that I had hardly ever visited but that looms very large in American contemporary psyche. I knew that with this story, and unintentionally the collection as a whole, I wanted to tread much closer to a border that I was much more familiar with, the US-Canadian border. I grew up 20 minutes from it, but it’s often portrayed as a very benign border in comparison to our Southern border. I knew, “Well, I’m very familiar with this border so let’s go there and let’s see what is here.” I grew up with a very limited, extremely limited understanding of the different indigenous communities and populations that still inhabit that border and whose territory has straddled that border and been divided by it despite the fact that I grew up very close to there. In a lot of ways, there are very two different worlds, at least two, I mean many more, that are lived in the same exact place over top one another without those realities ever coming in contact. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about China Miéville’s novel, The City & the City.
DN: Yeah, I love that novel.
CA: Yeah, also Renee Gladman’s work, Houses of Ravicka, and so this idea that two places can overlap at the same time and be lived at the same time and yet those realities are completely separate, to me, there was no more clear example of that as opposed to these early moments of contact between European colonial settlers and the indigenous people, in this case, the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka or Mohawk people who lived at that period of time around the St. Lawrence River that makes up the border between that part of what is now Upstate New York and Canada. While it’s still arguably the case today that those realities are overlapped, I think back then, it was very, very evident and it seemed to me from reading the history that there was a lot of constant battle over how these stories were going to be told later on and that extends to today. I went to Montreal into the museum of Marguerite-Bourgeoys where the story of this nun—and then establishing her convent in old Montreal, then called Ville-Marie—is really valorized and upheld as this narrative of how French-Canadian history is like a pillar of Canadian history as a whole, how this country came to be, and all of that. It was interesting to me to also access that story through the narrative of an early American young woman who was kidnapped by the Abenaki and brought up their, not necessarily of her own will, but as she’s conceived of in this story, it is an exciting departure from her drudgery of Puritan life in Massachusetts. But these stories of kidnappings and raids “by indigenous peoples” are still very resonant in Massachusetts, especially rural Massachusetts, Western Massachusetts where I’ve spent a lot of my life as well, places like Historic Deerfield and you’ll often see monuments to raids on colonial communities that shaped a lot of how these towns think about themselves today as bastions against the outside world. It’s a strange place. I wanted to use the eyes of someone from that space thrust into this totally new place to her. At first, she thinks she’s in Europe, she doesn’t have any conception of the wider world, as a lot of people didn’t at that time, Lydia, that is. So when she’s brought to Ville-Marie, I don’t know that I would say my intent was to make an allegory because we have early American women, you have Marguerite Bourgeoys and Jeanne Le Ber who is a recluse, who are French settlers and then you have Barbier, who is one of the early indigenous nuns. But very often in writing stories, I will put characters together and see what comes from that. Then in the research phase as well, one of the things that stayed with me the longest from that research were the stone towers that Marguerite Bourgeoys used as a school for Kanienʼkehá꞉ka women, trying to educate them in morality and catholicism and teaching them French at the time and trying to make them forget their language because those towers don’t show up at all in the museum, they’re never mentioned or brought up. It’s a real trip of a museum. They have a whole room devoted to dioramas, each about nine inches by nine inches of shelves of these dioramas that you’re walking through that depict with Barbier’s essentially, like early contact and the history of this convent. It’s really far out. There’s no lack of interpretive skill in this museum, it’s quite impressive. However, they never mention these towers and then when you look up the towers online, it says in the Canadian Register of Historic Places that it was used as a school by Marguerite Bourgeoys. I went to those towers, they’re part of a school, now a catholic school. It’s quite hard to imagine them being a school of any kind because they are very imposing, no windows, and incredibly haunted structures in the middle of that city, which has a lot of haunted structures in it. That silence became a central one for that story. But I think, and I’ve said before, that I think a fiction writer should try to write into these silences of history, but I don’t know that I always believe that our duty is to make sense of them. I don’t think the goal is to make sense of them. That story is at times intention with itself, I think, in ways that I feel it’s trying to resist telling a good story of gripping narrative content about this time in history because I think when we read stories in that mode, especially about a time like this, like that, we’re reading very differently than if we’re being challenged by different narrative structures or so on. I don’t see that story as a huge success but it is one that I had to write because again, it was going back to these places that I’m very familiar with and it was asking questions of me as a writer, saying “why are you writing this story?” that I couldn’t turn away from.
DN: When you say it’s not a huge success, you mean in terms of storytelling?
CA: I mean in the sense that when I set out to write a story like that, in which I’m really wanting to be thinking a lot about whiteness and colonialism and the role of gender in that, the role of religion in that, I’m always failing because so far I’ve only been able to still tell it with this dominant cultural lens of whiteness and it’s still told from Lydia Longley’s point of view. There’s always this tension of wanting to tell a story without aestheticizing it and without stepping outside of my own subject position in the world as a white person and as a white writer and yet still wanting to portray some of this world and some of the ways in which that is a shortcoming. I talked about this a lot with one of the readers of that story who is an indigenous writer that I admire very deeply. One of the things that they were saying was that they could see both sides, they could see wanting to hear more interiority from Barbier, who is the indigenous nun, getting more of her story while at the same time appreciating that it wasn’t there, that it wasn’t accessed in the way that sometimes, characters of color or indigenous characters have been imagined by white writers.
DN: Yeah. That’s really fascinating that tension within you that’s reflected in the story itself. In your newsletter, you talk about resisting story. You say, “I don’t believe in the power of story, or rather, I believe in the power of story to do ill. Some might call that propaganda, but I’d respond that it’s a much thinner line than most people think between literature and propaganda.” “Fascism is very, very good at telling stories; fascism may be integral to the history of story telling, in fact.” “And so, I rarely set out to ‘tell a good story’, though I often try to use the trappings of story to distract or get at something else,” which maybe is a little bit of what we’re talking about here. I want to hear about this in its own right but I also want to take this discussion of colonialism and whiteness and bring it into science and environmentalism. Because there’s a strong strain of white supremacy and eco-fascism in the environmental movement, not just the Nazis themselves who definitely saw themselves as not only cleansing the culture of impurities but also saw themselves as removing the people who didn’t belong to the land or the soil of Germany, whether Jews or Roma or disabled, or trans or otherwise. But there was definitely an environmental vocabulary and rhetoric to their rhetoric. But come to America and Audubon was a slaveholder and Edward Abbey was worried about how the white birth rate was being outpaced by that of other races and explicitly said, “Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.” Then the Sierra Club last year, quite belatedly during the Black Lives Matter protest finally begun a racial reckoning that isn’t entirely welcomed by its members, they described themselves as a mountaineering club for middle and upper class white people that up until the 60s had exclusive membership where applicants of color were screened out. But many of the early board members at the time of John Muir’s leadership were eugenicists, who were not only anti-immigrant but wanted to figure out ways to control the population through sterilizing people of color, disabled, or simply poor people, so much so that population scientists today who mostly believe the carrying capacity of the Earth of humans is somewhere between one and three billion never mention population when they’re doing their work because it automatically goes to, or very quickly attracts and goes towards a eugenicist argument even though the entire continent of Africa is something like three or four percent of the carbon footprint for the globe. This is not what you’re writing about specifically but if we were to connect the power of story to do ill, to be fascistic, and tie that to eco-fascism, one of the stories that all of these groups told was that nature was a sanctuary where humans didn’t live, but where humans, mainly white men, went to commune a story that was developed fresh after removing indigenous people from those very same lands. I know you’ve engaged this, for instance with Wojnarowicz’s art, I think the piece was called Water, that I think is a counterexample to this notion of humanless nature and preserved the purity of nature, the impurity of humans. But talk to us more about story and fascism and also, if you have any thoughts about nature’s sanctuary versus troubling the logic of the identity between nature and human.
CA: The idea of resisting story and my thinking around that as it relates to fascism and the history of storytelling, that’s all very new stuff that I’ve been thinking about very recently. Whereas the connection, the eco-fascist connection to how natural history has been done in service of nation building and the conception of whiteness is something I’ve been thinking about much longer. So I’m going to start there and then work my way toward the resisting story part, so reverse it a bit. I think one of the examples that I think about a lot in this, and it helps me get at some of these things, is the novel All the Light We Cannot See.
DN: Anthony Doerr?
CA: Yeah, Anthony Doerr, which is an incredibly readable novel, hugely popular best-selling novel. I was a bookseller when that book was out in hardcover and they just kept it in hardcover for like ever because they’re making so much money. It was like why print paperback? People kept coming in and asking for paperback. That story is a World War II story, which typically follows a relatively predictable formulation of the villains as the Nazis and the good guys as the allies, the European powers, to an extent, the US as well. But that story is told with a heavy emphasis on the Natural History Museum in Paris. My French isn’t very good so I’m not going to try to do the French pronunciation of it but one of the protagonists, the young girl holds up in, part of the museum I think with her uncle, it’s been a little while since I wrote it, but I wrote a piece about it because I think it’s very important to thinking about how racism, natural history, and fiction all interact. Because we’re given the story of the Nazis occupying Paris and hiding in the alcoves of natural history. While they’re hunkered down and hiding from the Nazis who are trying to find them, they are telling all these stories from the museum about the different objects that are there as a way to pass the time and also as a means of, she’s a young child, and so as a means of retaining some wonder in the world. But never in that book has it touched on the role that museum played in really giving to the world the tools and stories for looking at bodies of others who are identified and very much othered from a white positioning as specimens. The Venus Hottentot, Sarah Baartman I think is her full name, was studied at that museum. It was a woman kidnapped from Africa who was basically treated as a specimen by these natural historians who are trying to establish different species categories for different races of humans towards a very eugenicist goal. In fact, it’s been proved many times that much of the thinking of Hitler and the Nazis and that strain of fascism was lifted directly from European and specifically American natural history museums where eugenicist conferences were very common and taking place in the 1920s. [2:01:02] was an especially prominent naturalist who collected indigenous skulls from graves of children to bring back to these museums, the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History as these specimens and as evidence of these differences. I found it unacceptable that this natural history museum, and really which stood in for its one of the most famous natural history museums in the world and so it stands in a sense for nature in that book, it’s nature versus this fascistic tendency to destroy and violence, those were the two poles of that book, I just found it unacceptable that was the dichotomy that was being set up there because it was just using the trappings of a natural history museum as window dressing basically. When we start to think about nature in that way, that it’s just this pretty thing that we can put into our stories as a fun, imaginary or imaginative exercise without looking into the darker recesses of how it’s been constructed in our Western imagination in service of that very violent tendency to want to destroy the other and want to level things and make things the same that I think is particularly a part of fascism, then we have failed in understanding what that connection is and also our place within it. To connect that to resisting story, because I think that one of the reasons—and for a while, I wanted to write an academic monograph about natural history museums in fiction, in novels, and how they are portrayed and how they are written. I do not have a PhD and I don’t know that I have the rigor to complete a project like that so I’m not sure it will ever be realized in that sense, though there are other ways that I’m trying to incorporate it into my work—but as far as resisting story, a natural history museum relies so much on story that it makes really good reading material and also you’ll see in thrillers that take place in natural history museums. Silence of the Lambs doesn’t take place there but there is a moment when Clarice goes to an entomologist at, forget if it’s the Smithsonian or the American museum, but to solve that mystery, she has this moth pupa, I think it is, that was found in one of the victims. She goes to this museum asking these people about the people and it ends up that this is a moth, very specifically found in one region of the world and it would never be found here and that’s a clue that helps her solve that murder mystery. It’s so often treated as this bastion of rationality that’s where we go to put everything in order. It’s where the unknown and the frightening are made rational, like the nature/natural history museums that’s, in story, their role. I wouldn’t actually say it’s my project because as a writer, I don’t think I am experimental enough or out there enough. I’m still trying to talk to the mainstream in some way and so I still am trying to get published. Usually to get published, you have to tell a compelling story to be sellable. But it is something that I’m interested in and I think that the writers that I admire most throughout history are those who are trying to write against that grain of story, whether it’s from an environmental or natural history perspective or not, they are trying to not tell a good story, though they may use the trappings of story so they can speak to others who are outside of it, outside of those stories. This is going to sound weird because he fled from a communist dictatorship, not a fascist one, but Reinaldo Arenas is one of my huge influences and heroes. When you read his work, story is the last thing that he’s thinking about, but there are many examples of writers who are doing that.
DN: It’s interesting to think about how science, in its own self-regard, doesn’t think of itself as influenced by story or influenced by culture even. For instance, I’m thinking it’s the inverse of what you describe in Anthony Doerr’s book where it sounds like the natural history museum and nature is the repository of goodness and the human has the impulse for destruction. But for instance, the primatologist Frans de Waal, who has pretty convincingly proved that our cousin, primates, have empathy, things like they’ll sacrifice their own personal self-benefit in solidarity with another peer who’s been denied the thing that they’ve been offered, for instance, that was met with such immense resistance in the scientific community as dismissed as romanticization or anthropomorphizing, or that you couldn’t look at a breastfeeding gorilla and say that it’s looking tenderly at its child. But you can say that you can use as the neutral default, the so-called neutral default, that all creatures are competitive and that their only motivation in the world is to compete in order to pass on their genes, and that the only way we could describe anything that’s happening is through a different mode of trying to pass on one’s genes, which of course, is not neutral to start from that positioning, it very much comes from a Christian overlay on the human dominion over nature among others that he’s had to fight against, that how threatening is it to us as humans to have a quality that we call humane to be shared with another creature, which science wants to fight against that story. They don’t even realize that the story is embedded until it gets threatened I think.
CA: I’m reminded of a book I was reading by a well-known contemporary ornithologist. He writes very beautifully about these birds, he’s studied songbirds for his entire life and often he’s studying how do birds learn song. It turns out there are some birds that actually do listen to their parents and learn song, rhythms and notes of the song and how to do it and then there are others in whom it is instinct and they are born knowing how to sing that song. He was instrumental in discovering this and yet one of the ways that he did it was he stole baby songbirds from a nest, brought them home with him, and once they hatched, he made them deaf so he could experiment to see were they going to say anything or not, and it just made me so emotional. To devote your life to this creature, unraveling how they see the world, how they learn about the world around them, and then you decide to take that away from them in order to find a solution, something is drastically wrong with that. While it may have yielded some insight, I think it lost so much more in doing it. These days, there are many writers, yes, but also indigenous thinkers who are showing us very clearly that there are other ways of knowing the world and coming to understand it that science has suppressed for so long and yet clearly, the place that we’re in the world right now with climate change and in our relationship to the environment, science has not necessarily helped us and in fact, has probably produced just as many technologies and things that have contributed to the plight we find ourselves in now and so perhaps, looking to science is not the solution but rather, finding other ways.
DN: I think we could stay here for another like three hours because I have so much I want to say about, obviously, we’re really fascinated by the 16 year old kid at the science fair who’s figured out how to develop a bacteria that will eat the plastic in the ocean that shows human ingenuity rather than just not make any more plastic, or let some other creature, say a tree, live on its own terms and use its own incredible intelligence to improve the atmosphere. But I’m scared to go down this rabbit hole with you more right now. But I do, before we end, I want to bring up Gabrielle Bates who’s the reason why we’re talking today. She’s an amazing poet, also the co-host of one of my favorite poetry podcasts, The Poet Salon. This is what she wrote to me about you. She’s speaking to me here, “When I think about your general interest in sentence-driven prose and your specific interest in speculative imaginative fiction that dives into complicated intersections of the human, non-human, the environment, as well as your ambition to read work by writers from traditionally marginalized populations, it’s hard for me to imagine you not finding this work rewarding. Also, Cal’s ear, when it comes to prose, is just exquisite. I’ve gotten to hear him read a few times, and both times my brain felt lit up all over by the rhythms. As a poet, it’s rare for me to hear prose out loud that sings as dynamically as Cal’s does, while also casting a really vivid visual narrative spell, while also making me radically rethink my relationship to gender sex the ‘natural world’ and so many other things.” This reminds me of the blurb by Garth Greenwell who also is noticing the music of your syntax. Unsurprisingly, you’ve been asked about your relationship to poetry if you write it or have studied it. From what I remember, despite your language being noticed by poets, you don’t have a big background in poetry, and that isn’t part of the explanation of you writing today, but I thought we could take this aspect of your work and have you read the first section of your most syntactically vibrant story, Moonsnail, which also engages with a little known interest of the poet Gertrude Stein. But before you do, could you just introduce us to Moonsnail in relationship to Stein and why it captivated you, then we can hear that first part of it?
CA: Yeah, and also hi, Gabby and thank you. Wonderful. Moonsnail, in particular, it starts with an epigraph from Stein and at the end, it’s revealed that this is about Gertrude Stein. For most of it, you could be excused for not knowing it’s about her and an imagining of her experience because she spent the year before she left for Europe at Woods Hole, Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. I had never heard that, I mean she was writing, and this was from the book Sister Brother by Brenda Wineapple, which is a great biography of Stein in conjunction with her brother with whom she broke very radically toward the end as they grew older and they ended up with a lot of animosity between them. However, as they were growing up, they were very, very close and they also went to Woods Hole together and did marine biology, and were studying to become marine biologists. Gertrude Stein was out there collecting things from the ocean, bringing them back to look under microscopes, writing very detailed scientific reports about these things. That captivated me because it seemed like there was a relationship between that and the way in which Stein would later use language to describe things, not fish embryos as she was doing at what’s whole, but other things just the way that her prose unwound over the course of her stories and poems. I was interested in describing and looking at that time in her life with an homage to the language that she uses, the ways in which she uses language later on. I will not pretend to understand everything about Gertrude Stein’s writing, I’m not a Stein scholar by any means, so sometimes I feel a little guilty parachuting into these moments in life of writers or authors that I don’t know everything about, but Stein was at this place where she was studying these things and also she was one of very few women at Woods Hole at the time and so this was a meeting of gender, science, and language that I found very resonant. I think I’ll go into reading it. Does that sound okay?
DN: Yeah, that sounds great. Do you extrapolate anything about her interests specifically in embryology versus just studying fish?
CA: From what I understand at that time and still today, embryology is really a starting point for a lot of people who are interested in marine biology and many other different avenues of biology. I don’t know that it was her choice to study that. I think it was a bit more like this is where you start, is learning organisms. A lot of us start looking the same in embryos, and then diverge from there, it’s a good learning point. But it was interesting to me, that that is the case at all and that was where she was coming from. This is from Moonsnail and there’s an Epigraph from Gertrude Stein.
[Callum Angus reads from the opening part of Moonsnail from his collection A Natural History of Transition]
DN: We’ve been listening to Callum Angus read from the opening part of Moonsnail from his collection A Natural History of Transition. What can we expect from you next? If you know.
CA: Well, I know, I don’t know what order they will appear is what I’ve learned. But I have a book, a nonfiction manuscript called The Water Years that is meditations on large and small scale changes to the climate without and the climate within myself. It’s treading some of the same ground and looking at transition and climate change in the same breath because those are the two dominant forces of change in my life and so it makes sense to me to look at them the same. I can talk about that one because that one’s finished for the most part but beyond that, I will be returning to fiction at some point, and maybe even poetry in the future. There has been some stirrings of that in me in the last few months, perhaps in response to people asking me so often.
DN: Maybe you are.
CA: Maybe it’s true.
DN: Yeah, or maybe you will be.
DN: It was great having you on the show, Cal.
CA: It was a huge pleasure. Thank you so much, David.
DN: We’re talking today to Callum Angus about his book A Natural History of Transition from Metonymy Press. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Callum Angus’ work can be found at calangus.com. And his journal smoke and mold can be found at smokeandmold.net. For the bonus audio archive, Cal adds a reading of John Keene’s story, Mannahatta. This joins bonus audio from Jorie Graham, Forrest Gander, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Ted Chiang, Layli Long Soldier, Richard Powers, and many others. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener/supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team who help make this show run as smoothly as it does: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.