‘The larger animating mission behind my work is to act as a bridge between trans writers and the eco lit and nature writing community’
A Natural History of Transition is Callum Angus’s debut collection of short stories. A trans writer who’s spent a lot of his life just below the 49th parallel aka the belt of Turtle Island aka upstate New York and Oregon, he writes gorgeously of oceans, forests, and mountains, and also of the minutiae found within them: single rotten tomato plants, graffiti on roadside boulders, and bacteria under a microscope. These stories’ fleshed-out settings are inextricable from the other themes running through them—of expansive and expanding transformation, of rot and decay, of restrained longing and colonial devastation and impossibly finding friendship. Cal’s collection is officially released today, April 27, 2021, and to celebrate we’re publishing this interview about the book, his writing process, and himself.
Watch Cal read from and discuss his book as part of a recent panel organized by the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I love to hike and visit galleries and go to the library or a used bookstore, and I love traveling to visit friends and family, but overall since Covid began I’m doing almost none of this. I still enjoy taking long walks around the city, 2-3 hours at a time, just walking and looking and listening. I also edit a small lit mag called smoke and mold that publishes nature writing, broadly defined, by trans and Two-Spirit writers. I got into quilting in 2019, and I’m looking forward to spending more time at my sewing machine exploring how this medium relates to my work as a writer and the material world of textile art in general.
What drew you to this form of creative outlet, and how long have you been writing?
Writing has always been in my background. My father is a writer, and his parents, my grandparents, were as well. This was probably why I pursued the science track as a form of (mild) rebellion throughout high school and college until taking a short story class in college with the wonderful Valerie Martin. I abandoned science almost immediately upon graduating and started out working for a newspaper in Idaho, but I knew I was more interested in writing as a way of both using imagination to untangle the relationships and puzzles around me, sort of like a scientist might use the scientific method to understand the world, and much like Gertrude Stein’s character does in “The Moon Snail.”
So I went for an MFA. Short stories were heavily emphasized there, and it took me many tries and false starts to figure out how to write one myself, and to decide if I even wanted to be writing them in the first place. I’d never read a short story about a trans person until about 2-3 years ago. Now we have many people writing short stories and novellas about trans people—Emrys Donaldson, Julian Jarboe, Blake Planty, Emily Alison Zhou, and many others I’m still just learning about who are creating powerful work that doesn’t sound or look like the short stories in most anthologies. That’s thrilling to me.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered as an emerging author?
I tried unsuccessfully for several years to sell a finished novel about two trans men engaged in a project of decolonization and natural history along the Rio Grande. That was a demoralizing experience at first, but it taught me to look at writing with much more strategy than I initially did coming out of a creative writing program. No one wanted that novel? Alright, I’ll start a journal to create the audience for this kind of work. Editors and agents didn’t know how to approach a trans character? I’ll write a book of stories about (mostly) trans characters to put more of that in the world. In many ways I’m very grateful not to have published that book because I probably wouldn’t have written this one if I had, and I feel much closer to making the sort of work I really want to be making now.
Who do you hope to reach with your book?
This book is for trans people who have ever felt out of place, especially trans people living in rural places, who know they have more possibility in their lives to look forward to. Especially now, with many anti-trans laws cropping up in the US, it’s important to make clear that trans people will persist and persevere everywhere.
The larger animating mission behind my work in general is to act as a bridge between the trans writers and the eco lit and nature writing community; in this sense, I also hope it reaches readers who may not automatically think about trans writing as something that can be intimately engaged with nature-cultures and the way the environment is changing.
Why should people want to read your book?
No two stories in here are the same, either in voice or in structure. In this I was inspired by some of my favorite story collections: Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, John Keene’s Counternarratives, of course Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. I’m not the ultimate judge of my own work so I can’t say for sure, but I hope that this collection is similarly mobile across time and space as these books, without sacrificing a sense of purpose, voice, and responsibility as a writer to history and to my community of readers.
Can you tell us the story behind the story? In other words, what did your process look like for writing this book?
Most of these stories were written slowly over the course of about three years, and only toward the very end did I start to think that they might make sense appearing in a book together. The two longest stories, “Winter of Men” and the title story “A Natural History of Transition,” were written last, but they represent the two different modes I took up with this book: the archive-based, and the very personal.
“Winter of Men” was born out of a desire to tell a story set in the northeast border region between the US and Canada where I grew up; it was also informed by 10 years of living in small-town Western Massachusetts where settler narratives have been heavily romanticized and historicized as innocent communities besieged by the Indigenous peoples they were displacing and killing. I consulted a number of primary and secondary sources purporting to recount the stories of captives, including Lydia Longley. Her trajectory from Groton to Montreal is based on these accounts, and the life she might have encountered in the Congregation of Notre Dame is also based on historical documents and in-person visits to the present-day chapel, the Marguerite Bourgeoys museum, and the farm on Pointe-Saint-Charles, now also a museum valorizing the early years of the congregation as it helped colonize Kanien’kehá:ka land. In my nonfiction I write often about museums as places where preservation and display are in tension, and where the founding of nations is mythologized via the silences in these institutions, so there’s a good deal of that here, too.
All this (pre-Covid) traveling back and forth to my home while researching “Winter of Men” coincidentally played a role in “A Natural History of Transition.” It was only after I moved to Portland that I was able to start writing about the place where I grew up. In many ways my childhood was an idyllic one, surrounded by lots of space and woods and wildlife, and much of this book is a reflection of the rural places that shaped my personality. But there’s a darker side, in history and today. Most rural counties in New York state voted for Trump in 2016 and again in 2020; each time I’ve gone back there have been more Trump murals, more blue line flags the size of swimming pools flying over car dealerships, more vocally white supremacist members of congress being voted in. The same thing has been happening in Oregon, but New York is where I know best, and it’s where many people wouldn’t expect to find it. I wanted to write about that, in my own creepy way, and how this legacy has stayed with me and continues to be something that troubles me deeply.
What was the inspiration for your book?
A Natural History of Transition started out as an idea for a nonfiction book, but I quickly became disillusioned with the act of trying to “naturalize” trans, feeling like it forced a linearity onto both transitioning and natural history that didn’t feel true. That’s why I moved to fiction and kept the title, although I experimented for a while with different variations: A Natural History with Transition, Natural History in Transition etc. But ultimately I stuck with the original title for its ability to call up centuries of reductive colonial natural history tomes, a resonance that quickly encounters resistance from the stories within beginning on the first page. I enjoy thinking about how what someone expects to get from this book based on the title is possibly different from what they end up with.
What appeals to you about publishing with Metonymy Press?
I watched Metonymy publish writers like jia qing wilson-yang and Kai Cheng Thom, and I saw how their books were handled with care, and how Metonymy was able to connect their work with readers who were hungry for it. Some publishers want to publish trans authors for woke credits, and they aren’t willing to do the publicity and work of building relationships with trans readers to make those books a success. I could see Metonymy was different, and I felt that this book would be able to find those who needed it through Metonymy.
What’s next for you, as an artist and in general?
The book I’m working on now is a collection of essays and meditations on the large and small scale changes taking place in a single body and on the planet as a whole. Many of the pieces are centered around works of art. I’ve been slowly publishing small pieces of it through my newsletter. I’m also looking forward to growing the community around smoke and mold and continuing to publish new-to-me writers in that space.
Order your copy of A Natural History of Transition here or from any good bookstore.
Cal is among the line-up at the Violet Hour reading series tonight!
The Montreal launch of A Natural History of Transition is on April 30, at the Blue Metropolis festival, where the author will be in conversation with local writer Helen Chau Bradley.
Find out more about upcoming events here.