Mapping Relationships with the Physical World: A Conversation with Callum Angus
Even the title of Callum Angus’s debut short story collection, A Natural History of Transition (Metonymy, 2021), is incredibly evocative. It sounds like a guidebook and a theory text and a poetry collection at once. In fact it has elements of all of these things. The stories here have kids with caterpillars, magic ships in quarries, a chrysalis or two, seasonal gender, Gertrude Stein, and a person who becomes a mountain who becomes a moon. Among other things. Reading this slim yet expansive collection is a joyride for the brain, even when it reckons with deep-rooted pain and grief.
Angus has both a science and literary background, and it shows in these stories. They are not academic, but rather have a feeling of bedrock made from the sediment of both science and art, just as science and art intertwine in life. Angus holds both a BA in geography and an MFA in fiction, and has worked as a bookseller, writing teacher, barista, publicist, fishmonger, and reporter. His work has appeared The Offing, Orion, and even right here on The Seventh Wave, among other places. In addition, he founded the literary magazine smoke + mold, which chronicles trans voices writing about nature, in the broadest possible definition. “Climate change and trans people: both are realities difficult for the cis population to understand,” read the editorial statement. “Both involve patterns of change and regeneration not easily observable using the templates provided by cisgender and capitalist lives.” The journal, which just released issues 4.1 and 4.2, also has an expiration date; it will publish two issues per year for 12 years, the amount of time the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change has allotted for the world to curb emissions enough to avoid the worst case climate change scenarios.
I spoke to Cal over Zoom about genre labels for writing and people, the overlaps of scientific and poetic mindsets, starting a literary journal, being very online, and rocks. — Sarah Neilson, Interviews Ed.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Neilson: I read that A Natural History of Transition was originally going to be a work of nonfiction. What about fiction felt more right for this project for you?
Callum Angus: It was more that nonfiction just felt like the wrong direction to tackle some of these themes that I’m interested in. Originally, I was thinking about writing essays that were about instances of transition, plants and animals changing, that kind of thing. But I started and stopped that a couple times and then decided eventually that wasn’t the direction I was interested in going with this, because it already presupposed a divide between humans and nature. It’s like saying, “Being trans isn’t unnatural. It actually happens in nature all the time,” which wasn’t something that I was really interested in doing. I think there are ways to write about that, but for me personally it wasn’t feeling like the right choice. Around the same time, I had been shopping around a novel about two trans men and about borders and their relationship. That wasn’t really going anywhere. I was getting frustrated with the fact that the stories I wanted to tell, and the way I wanted to write them, were about trans people, but they were also about something else in nature and tying those two things together. People didn’t really understand how to read that or, if they were an editor or an agent, how to sell that. So I kind of knew I was going to have to create an audience for this work. I was writing and pitching more about it and started this journal, smoke + mold, and eventually looked back and was like, “Oh, I’ve been writing these stories all the while in the background. Maybe they can come together into a more kind of cohesive collection that might be able to say something about these topics.”
SN: I wanted to ask you about language, because beyond the genres of fiction and nonfiction, the stories here could be called “magical realism” or “horror,” but those words feel flattening to me. Which is a problem with words in general, especially labels. Even the words “natural” and “unnatural,” like you said, create a troubling binary. What are your thoughts on the use of labels for genre, identity, etc., and more generally, what are your thoughts on the limitations and the possibilities of language? As a writer, where does it feel constraining and where does it allow for a kind of freedom?
CA: For me, the first thing that comes to mind where language feels expansive is in the choice in what we get to call ourselves. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, like if I still identify in the same way as a trans man as I did before I started writing and before I started doing all of this, and I don’t really know that I do anymore. A long time ago, I was sort of like, “Oh, this is easy. I’m transitioning, moving from female to male.” And those labels were very clear and straightforward and something that I felt like I fit. And now that I’m about nine years into my own transition, I’ve found that there are some of those words that either don’t fit as well anymore or maybe they don’t feel as necessary. Or maybe it’s even that I feel like I’m putting into action some of these things in my own work much more than I ever have been able to before. And because of that, some of these labels or titles don’t matter as much to my idea of myself. For a long time, before I had done a lot of work on this or put a lot of work out into the world, I was always identifying myself in bios as like, “Cal Angus is a trans and queer writer,” or something like that. But these days it feels so redundant to put that in there. And now sometimes I will take it out and just say, “is the author of this and this, this and that.” But sometimes that also feels like a covering up or something. So I’ve been thinking about language in those terms a lot recently. It can be constraining in some sense with having to juggle that.
But when I’m writing fiction and essays, language is important to me. Even though I do care on a craft level how my sentences come about, and that’s really how a lot of my own writing moves forward, like constantly polishing the sentences, I wouldn’t say that my central project is really focused on language in that way. Although in the past it has been, when I’m thinking about scientific names and how that slots certain organisms into particular categories and also ties them to the people who named them. I was just reading the other day, there’s a group called Birdability. They want to make bird names more descriptive so that it’s more accessible. At the same time it removes names of birds named after 19th century naturalists who often also played a large role in Indigenous genocide and things like that. That is an interesting realm to me too, where language plays a large role in our relationship to the world around us. Maybe that’s where I’m most interested, less in the page and what my language is doing on the page, and more in how it maps out our relationships to the physical and material world.
Maybe that’s where I’m most interested, less in the page and what my language is doing on the page, and more in how it maps out our relationships to the physical and material world.
SN: One of my favorite stories in the book is Rock Jenny, which was first published at TSW. I think part of the reason I’m so drawn to it is because my brother is a geologist and every time I ask him something about rock or tectonics or sediments or rivers or something, he always has so much to say in response to questions I naively think are simple. It’s actually really poetic; geology has this vast vocabulary and this material of rock that I think many people think of as sort of dead or immovable is actually so nuanced and alive. Rock Jenny really gave me those vibes of conversations I’ve had with my brother, even though the story isn’t heavy on geological vocabulary. And this material of rock, that I think a lot of people think of as dead or immovable in some way, is actually really nuanced and alive. So long story long, could you talk about that story and how it came about, and maybe your thoughts on rock?
CA: Totally. I’m fascinated by it. I do take a lot of inspiration from scientific language. In college I was a geography major. Not geology but close kin to that in many ways. Since then I have turned away from the scientist path, but I sometimes feel like the ways in which I try to tell stories is like a different kind of close looking and experimentation in certain ways. Like trying to kind of do my own science both without the very rigid categories and hierarchies that sometimes come with a lot of Western science and at the same time trying to turn that around and look at the history of colonialism in Western science as well. Rock is kind of the first thing that comes to mind when I think of something that is non-human but that still has such a presence about it. Humans build stone monuments, and they are some of the earliest evidence of human creation and that sort of thing. So, I think there is a real presence about rock in that way.
This is just kind of a side note, but I’ve often thought I really want to write an essay about fictional geology like different representations of it. And not necessarily from books — I’m more interested in film and theater, like when you watch the old Star Trek and you look at the renderings of like paper maché Martian landscapes, that kind of thing. I’m really interested in those sorts of displays of geology. But I think when I’m writing a story like Rock Jenny and thinking about geologists — her mother is a geologist in that piece. So there’s that relationship too, with how Jenny ends up becoming a rock for a certain period of time and is maybe briefly legible to her mother, but then becomes the Moon and her mother’s kind of trying to sift through the air and still capture any kind of particles of her daughter that might be accessible to her. I think when I’m writing stories like that, I try to take all the science and sources of inspiration and almost hold them back a little bit. They kind of build the dam, and it’s all trying to speak through these characters. But I don’t want the weight of it and the language of it to overwhelm the poetry of the sentences, because that’s very easy for me to do.
I have turned away from the scientist path, but I sometimes feel like the ways in which I try to tell stories is like a different kind of close looking and experimentation
SN: I’m interested in the exploration of time in these stories. Like geological time, transness is ancient, and although these stories are contemporary, they really hold that idea of ancient knowledge in them. There’s also this interesting and sometimes playful thing about museums, and even the title of the book sounds like a guidebook; both museums and guidebooks have to do with time and cataloguing histories, but sometimes that cataloguing erases the present life of those histories, too. Can you talk about your use of time in the book, how you conceive of time and how you approach it?
CA: That’s an exciting question to me. Long before I started writing any of these stories, when I was in grad school, I was thinking a lot about, what does a trans short story look like? Does it follow the same kind of narrative rules that were taught about short fiction in MFA programs, like rising action and climaxes and complications, etc?
I don’t want to make any broad sweeping generalizations; I sort of think of it as a thought experiment just to see what other templates are out there for telling these stories, and how they move through time. I do think there is something different, at least to how more realist stories are told about trans life. There’s different ways in which trans people move through time too, I think. People will talk about second puberties and returning to that sort of rush of youth that you maybe didn’t get as the gender you sort of felt more aligned with growing up. Even that is changing now though. So much of this is changing these days, with how we see young people thinking about gender, which is very exciting to me because I think it again changes the sort of stories that we allow ourselves to tell about us.
But in terms of the collection itself, I’m glad you picked up on the museum thread there too. I’m really fascinated by tearing apart the concept of the museum. Typically, you think about a natural history museum, and you think, “This is where I go to learn about nature and about natural processes.” And yet when you go to a museum like that and you’re surrounded by all these different exhibits, you’re kind of in this place where there is the least of that [nature]. Because everything has been flattened by the way it’s all catalogued right next to each other. You’re not out in the environment, you’re in this institution that has kind of ironically posited itself as the antithesis of everything that it intends to display. In that kind of array, that setting of a museum like that, time gets totally flat. It just becomes tiny little notations on a label card. That’s so boring to me.
I try to take all the science and sources of inspiration and almost hold them back a little bit. They kind of build the dam.
There’s the one story in the collection that goes back to the moment of contact between European colonists and the indigenous peoples of North America. There’s also the story that’s more or less from the point of view of Gertrude Stein [called Moon Snail]. I think most of the other stories are contemporary, but I try kind of hard not to place them too squarely in a certain time. There’s been a lot of “internet novels” that have come out recently or people writing about that, and that’s not really something that I try to put in my work, in part because I don’t believe it’s going to last that long. I don’t think it’s going to become this great interesting cultural moment that we think it is. I think it’s going to do something much different. I know it’s kind of a strange claim to make. But I really do think that as we think more about ourselves and how we’re situated in time, and especially in a time of climate crisis and increasing fascism and far-right movements all across the globe, I think we’re quickly approaching a moment of people becoming very discontented with the models of online connectivity and large corporations controlling a lot of the journalism and conversation that’s happening around this. I think you’re already seeing it with some Gen Zers not being on Twitter and not wanting to participate in those networks in the same way that a lot of us millennial creatives or writers have really embraced, because it was new and it was writing based in connectivity. I think we’re going to change our minds about that in a big way. That’s my current theory anyway.
It’s been great in a lot of ways; I’ve met a lot of people and in some ways [under Covid it feels] necessary to stay sane and happy. But I do think that being online so much has done something to our idea of history and how we engage with history, too. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of wonderful historians on Twitter and all over the place doing incredible work. But I think on a broader level… I think about myself and how I learn about and think about and read about history now. I find that I just haven’t been reaching outside of myself as much as I feel like I used to.
SN: You brought up the Moon Snail story, and I wanted to ask about that, because in that story in particular it seemed to me that the prose itself mirrored the spirally snail shell pattern. Can you talk about the different ways you approach the mechanics of prose writing in different contexts, or to mirror different paradigms or scientific or earthly frameworks? Is that something you do deliberately?
CA: In a general sense, I tried to make every story I write feel very different on the level of language. Which is kind of contrasting what I said earlier about like, “I don’t pay that much attention to language.” But it is important to me, especially in a collection. Those are the collections I get the most excited about, when each story feels so new and different. And I can’t necessarily say that I’ve achieved it here or not, but with Moon Snail in particular that was a very conscious choice of wanting the language to feel different. I wanted my punctuation and syntax to be working differently here. in part because it’s about Stein and her origins as a marine biologist before she came into poetry. That is all true. She spent a year at Woods Hole Oceanographic marine institute in like 1893 or something. History happened, and she moved to France. But I don’t feel like her way of looking at the world changed that much. I sense the real scientist’s attention to detail and relationships and interaction with a lot of her poetry. I’m not an expert on Stein, but I have always been intrigued by the way that her poems and work sound so different from so much else that I’ve read and encountered.
I see a lot of even the molecular biologist’s attention to detail. She was studying embryos, developmental biology. She was studying fish embryos there, which is still something that’s used today to study developmental biology. That’s because as embryos, often we start with a very similar body pattern no matter the animal. It’s the changes that happen from there that sort of split us off into different directions. So it’s fascinating to me that that’s where she started her kind of intellectual investigations in life, looking so closely at these tiny little things that go on to change in such drastic ways. Then she ends up turning to poetry, but I don’t think that means that she left that all behind.
So in that story, because of Stein, I really wanted to walk that knife’s edge of like, “Okay. I don’t want to be trying to imitate her because I’ll never be her, and that’s impossible.” But I did want to preserve some of that oddness of the language, the sense of combining unexpecting things together to create a rhythm and a syntax that feels outside of certain bounds of scientific inquiry. I think probably she was feeling somewhat frustrated with the kinds of categorization and modes of thinking that she was asked to stay within those bounds of in that program. Maybe that’s a bit of a projection. But that’s kind of what that story is about. It’s projecting what that journey could potentially be for someone who was so inclined to think about these questions of language and description and development, and then ultimately decided they had to go and pursue that somewhere else. Not to claim a similar lineage, but that’s a very similar pattern to how I feel I have proceeded for a long time. I was a science major in college. I thought that’s what I wanted to be. One of my summer jobs in college was as a naturalist in a natural history museum. And then I realized that I wasn’t able to study the things that I wanted to study in the way I wanted to do it. I was sort of wishing, can’t a poet go to grad school for science and just absorb all of this material but then put out in whatever form they want, not academic papers or laboratory experiments? I feel like that would be great. That’s what’s missing. So, in a sense, that’s kind of how I work and accumulate material and sort of put it through my mind and then kind of see what comes out in that way. It is kind of an experiment as well, that kind of way of looking.
I do think that being online so much has done something to our idea of history and how we engage with history.
SN: I wanted to ask you also about Smoke and Mold, because you just released issues 4.1 and 4.2. How is it going with that project?
CA: I’m really, really excited about what’s happening. We just brought on three new assistant editors. I started the journal on my own, just wanting to do what I could with the resources that I had available to me at the time. I was sort of tired of waiting around for stuff to happen. So I just started it with the plan that I would always bring on more people. And finally, we’ve been able to. I’m especially excited about that. I’m excited about how all the new people and the new voices that we will publish will change the journal a lot, I hope, over the next 10 or 11 years until it stops. That’s the goal, is that it eventually will end. I’m excited by how much we can do in this period of time, and how much energy that ending date will give us. I’m excited for the ways that especially a lot of writers of color and editors of color will change the journal. We’re trying to bring on more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color right now as editors. Nature writing has for a long time been defined by white men, and I am a white man also. I’m a trans man, but I’m also a white man. So, I’m very cognizant of the limitations that a journal started by a white trans man faces. I can’t possibly even conceive of all the different ways that the journal could change and grow over the years. And I’m excited that we often will publish a lot of writers’ first publications. So I’m just thrilled and privileged to be able to get to be a part of this thing.
SN: The theme of this issue of TSW is Rebellious Joy. So I just wanted to ask a two-pronged question. What was the most joyful part of writing these stories or putting together and publishing this collection, and/or where are you gathering joy from right now?
CA: Writing these stories over the last three or four years, to keep me going, I would tell myself, Okay, me sitting at my desk writing this story right now about people turning it into rocks or whatever might not be the most important contribution to the larger conversations happening in this country or this world right now. But at some point they’re going to become important, and it will have been important that someone was thinking about this stuff.
I think that goes for everybody, for anyone that has a particular thread that they’re chasing with their writing or theme or idea that’s very important to them. It’s important that we follow that kind of inspiration and the thing that makes us feel the most excited in our writing, because it will be important that someone has been doing that work all along. So I think for me, thinking about joy, it’s exciting and joyful to be at that moment now when I’ve done all that work, and now this collection is coming out and people are reading it. And especially at a time when trans identity is again back in the spotlight, not for great reasons, but it’s there. So I’m kind of feeling that joy of like, “Oh, this is the time.” It’s very exciting and joyful to finally be read in that way. But also writing; when I sometimes get a little overwhelmed by online life and social media, I’ve been finding a lot of joy in going back to the work. I’m working on a collection of essays right now, and it’s just so much fun and joyful to do that.
Callum Angus is a trans writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. His first collection of stories, A Natural History of Transition, will be published by Metonymy Press in April 2021. He has received fellowships from Lambda Literary and Signal Fire Foundation for the Arts, has presented research at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, and was a 2018 Writer-in-Residence at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. A former bookseller at Powell’s and the independent Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA, he holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a BA in geography from Mount Holyoke College, and has taught writing at Smith College, UMass Amherst, and Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. He’s also worked in publicity for Catapult Books, Counterpoint Press, and Soft Skull Press, and edits the literary journal smoke and mold.
Cal has worked as a fishmonger, a barista, a reporter in Idaho, and an advocate with the Trans Youth Equality Foundation, where he helped transgender youth and their families navigate the world. These days, you’re likely to find him learning to row on the Willamette River.