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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors to add to your summer reading list.

Callum Angus' Characters Magically Transform In 'A Natural History Of Transition'

In "A Natural History of Transition," author Callum Angus writes a collection of short stories about transgender experiences through a magical realism lens.

Here's a scene from the short story "Rock Jenny":

When Jenny reached the size of the courthouse she became very slow. She moved like you would expect a giantess to move in a world where everything is very far away and tiny: carefully, every gesture performed at the speed of a grocery conveyor belt. She napped on the lawn because she could no longer fit through the door. As her naps became longer, small colonies of lichen grew on her back, her thighs, showing up on a zephyr and taking Jenny over until she was covered in scales of blue and gray, like a stone from the old rock walls that ran across the property.

Angus wants cisgender readers to understand the different lives that trans people lead through magical twists he threads in each of his stories. For our summer fiction series, Callum Angus talked about the main character, Jenny, and her mother, who is trying to understand her transitions.

Callum Angus, author: In "Rock Jenny," her mother is a geologist. And so there's kind of some parallels there in how maybe she has a more difficult time understanding some of the changes Jenny wants to do. But when [Jenny] decides to turn into a mountain, then [her mother] kind of clicks in and understands and has this whole other language with which to understand her daughter.

Nirvani Williams, NEPM: Each story is written with growing pains that come with experiencing transitions and not just physically for your transgender characters, but also the heavy emotional process that they endure. What was the process of writing such dynamic characters like for you? And did you feel any personal connections to your characters while writing?

Yeah, absolutely. When I'm writing fiction, so much of it is drawn from my own thoughts and feelings and experiences — not necessarily in the sense of I'm not turning into a mountain or anything like that. But there's a feeling, I think, that I can relate to there, of making a decision to change in such a radical way that you may as well be becoming a mountain to somebody who maybe ... isn't able to relate to that feeling of feeling so different that you just have to completely step outside of yourself and become something new.

I found this very interesting: apparently, the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts is regarded as a "cradle of social progress" for transgender literature, according to The New York Times. You spent almost a decade in western Massachusetts. What was it like for you to live here, and did any of your experience from living here inspire any of the stories that you wrote in this collection?

Oh, yeah, for sure. It's true, being in western Mass. and returning there for my MFA in creative writing gave me access to a lot of amazing trans writers. Andrea Lawlor, Jordy Rosenberg are two people who were really important to me while I was figuring out my own voice and writing.

"A Natural History of Transition" is a collection of short stories from writer Callum Angus.

I loved my time in the quote-unquote Pioneer Valley, which is in itself a kind of controversial name for the region, because it also has a deep history of colonialism, which is something that I tried to tap into a little bit in my story, Winter of Men, which takes place largely in old Montreal but begins in Massachusetts and was inspired very much by a lot of the colonial narratives of individuals being quote-unquote kidnapped or raided by indigenous tribes in those early days of contact in the mid-to-late 1600s.

And those stories are still such a deep-seated part of western Mass., like historic Deerfield and places like that that form a part of the identity of those places. And so I wanted to put a little pressure on that.

Western Massachusetts is so beautiful in this rural landscape. Did any of those scenes and the place in of itself kind of translate into some experiences in the book?

Oh, yeah, for sure. I'm a definitely a writer who grew up in a rural area in upstate New York and then got to spend so much time in western Mass. So rural landscapes are really important to me and the places and the histories they contain.

And they also don't shop that often in queer or trans fiction, for kind of obvious reasons. A lot of queer fiction takes place in cities — and I live in a city now, too, and it's just a lot easier to find people with whom you share certain identities or values, and it's often much more diverse in a city. But I do think that there are really important and valuable stories about queer and trans people in rural areas as well. And so it was important to me to kind of write — I think — almost every story in this in this book is coming from that position and features in some way a more rural landscape.

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
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