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  • NYS Writers Institute

Q&A with writer/editor Callum Angus

Callum Angus is the author of the story collection A Natural History of Transition, which was a 2021 finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, a Lambda Literary Award, and an Oregon Book Award. He lives in Portland, Oregon where he edits the journal smoke and mold, teaches trans writing workshops, and is at work on a novel and a new collection of stories.


Interviewed by Moriah Hampton, PhD, an instructor in the University at Albany's Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry (WCI)


Callum Angus photo by Ebenezer Galluzzo

You’ve published several works over the last few years, including the short story collection A Natural History of Transition (2021) and fiction and non-fiction that have appeared in literary journals since. What would you like to tell readers who are perhaps picking up your writing for the first time?

I’m still writing because I still feel as though I haven’t said what I want to be saying. Each attempt at a new story, a new essay, is an attempt to say something more accurately that I’ve already said, in a new way or with new words. So whether someone is picking up my work for the first time, or they enjoyed the stories in A Natural History of Transition and are eager for more of the same, I’d say the same thing: it won’t be what you expect.

 

To me it’s extremely important that I’m aware of others’ expectations of what a trans writer is supposed to write about, care about and sound like, and that I’m constantly asking myself if that is actually the kind of writer I want to be. I think every writer does this to a certain extent as they find their style and the topics and ideas they want to return to over and over. Settling into what is expected of you creatively isn’t the way we get new stories.


It’s also not a very marketable way of existing and of publishing work. Mainstream publishers and readers want more of what they like — they tend to be very resistant to someone trying out new genres and directions. But the writers and artists I admire most sound different from project to project as they explore new ideas or new ways of writing about old ideas, and that has become my goal as well.

 

Many of your stories detail the relation between trans experience and metamorphosis more broadly. What interests you about this relation?

Metamorphosis as a process of transformation in nature remains fascinating to me; there’s still so much we don’t know about what happens in the ‘goo stage’ of a caterpillar in its chrysalis, for example. There are so many exciting possibilities for metaphor and writing inside of this poorly understood process that’s considered a clichéd example of transformation.


In many of the stories in A Natural History of Transition, I was more interested in remixing metamorphosis as a metaphor for transition and seeing what new combinations felt like, if any of them felt more true than the simple changing from one body type to another. The story “In Kind” is an example of that, in which a trans man gives birth to a cocoon which never breaks open. That feels closest to how I experience transition as an unending and unknown possibility.

 

It’s not just metamorphosis that I’m interested in breaking down its disparate parts for new meaning. I have my students perform a writing experiment in which they take an object or image of personal significance and run it through a series of exaggerations: grow it as tall as a building, eat it, make it invisible, break it and patch it back together etc. I ask them to notice what new possibilities emerge from these different actions. It’s fashionable to say everything interesting has already been said, but few actually test that hypothesis by digesting the received ideas and clichés of our culture and seeing if there’s something there that hasn’t been said yet. There usually is.

 

Your story “Moon Snail” begins with an epigraph from Gertrude Stein. Which other writers and artists have influenced your exploration of trans experiences that are at times connected to queer desire and why?

I tend to be most inspired by writers and artists who are caught in between in some way. Stein’s early suspension between poetry and science is very relatable to me, having been similarly pulled in both directions in my early twenties. The exiled gay Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas who had to secretly ferry his manuscripts out of the country and twice rewrote his masterpiece Farewell to the Sea after it was confiscated by authorities has been another major influence for his uncompromising anger and hallucinatory stories in the face of so much authoritarian cruelty.


I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself to these writers, but I do take courage from their examples of writing outside of what was considered the mainstream at the time, and loudly criticizing the ways in which literary powerbrokers bowed to political maneuvering.


Domestically, John Keene and Jordy Rosenberg remain lodestars for me in their far-ranging explorations of queer desire, race, and ongoing histories of colonization of land and mind in this country and beyond. It is impossible, undesirable, and irresponsible to explore trans experience outside of history even in fiction, and so most of my queer literary heroes have done the work of contextualizing queer life and desire in a world rife with greed and suffering. The fact that there is still joy to shine through it all is a testament to their rigorous work.

 

We’ve seen hundreds of bills targeting LGBTQ+ rights introduced and some enacted over the last few years nationwide, in addition to numerous federal bills proposed. How are you doing in this current political climate? Have your goals, preoccupations, and/or subjects changed at all as a writer while faced with this reality?

The bills targeting trans women and trans youth are new, but the strategy is old: whip up reactionary fervor and violence to silence the most vulnerable members of society whose existence pokes holes in the heteropatriarchy, and thereby bolster the power of the white christian nationalist movement. Trans and queer writers and artists my age and older have been continually facing this same battle over and over. It’s a war of stamina. If I try to course correct each time and address the newest op-ed or law or pundit, I lose my coherence.


My subject and mission as a writer have not changed because they were forged in this very same environment: to uplift trans voices in my work as an editor, and to portray the loves and lives of queer and trans characters living now.

  

In addition to your writing, you also founded smoke and mold, a literary journal focusing on “trans nature writing.” Will you tell us more about this journal and what you hope it accomplishes?

smoke and mold has been my main preoccupation over the last several years. I started it in 2019, and we focus on publishing nature writing, broadly defined, by trans and Two-Spirit writers, with a particular mission to expand the very category of what is considered nature writing. It’s our position that trans writers have a vital contribution to make in the field of ‘nature writing’ in that our lives and art revolve around change, bodies, gender, biology, and connection; I don’t think you can purport to represent nature writing without us.


Maybe that sounds essentialist, but I hope not. My hopes are twofold: to see emerging trans and Two-Spirit writers embrace their talents and lean into telling these stories, to see them as worthy of spending time on; and second, to see editors, anthologies, and publishers include many more trans and Two-Spirit voices when publishing work about the environment and climate change.

 

The journal is also unique in that it has an expiration date: it will publish two issues per year until 2031, at which point it will cease publication. This date was chosen based on an estimate from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as to how long we had to make major changes as a global community to decrease emissions and avert widespread catastrophe. Of course, it’s turned out in the years since that this was an overly optimistic timeline, and many of the changes we’re seeing now to weather patterns, frequency of natural disasters, large scale human migration in response to natural and manmade crises, are already happening.

 

What direction(s) would you like to see fiction and perhaps non-fiction engaging with queer and/or trans experiences go in the future?

No matter what I think I’d like to see, the writers at work now and in the future would exceed that vision and push into territory I had been unable to imagine before. I crave stories and voices I cannot imagine, for which I am not the target audience. That’s the beauty of belonging to this community — I could never imagine it on my own. But I can say who is working now that I’m excited to follow into the future.


I’m eagerly awaiting Emily Zhou’s first story collection Girlfriends from little puss press, itself a publisher run by trans writers Casey Plett and Kat Fitzpatrick. And each time Matilda Bernstein Sycamore comes out with a new book (her memoir Touching the Art is out this fall from Soft Skull) it launches another salvo at the supposedly all-important Family at the center of American life and literature.

 

Having recently published an issue of trans writers in translation through smoke and mold, I’m excited about the voices and perspectives we haven’t even imagined yet in this country, like Marianna Salzmann’s Beside Myself, translated from the German, or Stefani J Alvarez’s The Autobiography of the Other Lady Gaga, which won a Philippine National Book Award in 2015 and as of this writing still doesn’t have an English-language publisher, or her in-progress Transfinity Diary.


If you only read trans writers who write in English as their first language, it’s easy to think we’re the center of the universe; but once you start reading beyond our language and national borders, it’s startlingly obvious how slow we’ve been when compared to the experimentation in narrative and voice going on elsewhere. And to me, that is very exciting.

Read more about Callum Angus at www.calangus.com  


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