“I don’t want to disappear,” Cooper Lee Bombardier tells an imagined interlocutor at the end of an early essay in Pass With Care: Memoirs, his luminous first book, which collects previously published and original works into a single stirring volume. In context, Bombardier, a visual artist and writer now living in Nova Scotia, is asking to be seen in a society that expects transgender men like him to blend into the background. But that plea is all the more powerful because publishers and outlets alike tend to privilege the more eye-catching experiences of transitioning and newly transitioned transgender people, ignoring much of what comes afterward.
From that perspective, Pass With Care is a gorgeously rendered response to what one might call the “Now what?” question: After an experience as metamorphic and all-consuming as a gender transition, what happens next? Who do we become after that becoming? Where do we locate meaning? In the pages of Pass With Care, Bombardier wrestles with those questions through kaleidoscopically layered essays, ruminating on the loneliness, the longing for community, and the gritty lessons that have accompanied his particular experience of transmasculine middle age.
I talked to Bombardier about the state of transgender memoir, sculpting, and the Blade Runner replicant Roy Batty, who also did not want to disappear.
The Rumpus: By exploring life after transition in Pass With Care, do you feel as though you are writing against a grain that expects trans authors like you (and me) to be forever frozen in place, post-transition but not too post-transition?
Cooper Lee Bombardier: Yes, I think that there’s perhaps an imagined limit on what constitutes a trans story, and maybe “after” transition, that should be all we have to say, or to contribute. But what does it mean to age in a trans body? What does it mean to be a neighbor, wrapped up in an N95 mask, shopping for your neighbors? Is that a trans story? The first memoir I started writing, which is still in progress, had nothing to directly do with trans identity, because it was from a time before I had that language or that knowledge. So, in terms of writing it, and workshopping parts of it, I have had the sense from non-trans readers that its exploration of loss is less interesting than the fact that the narrator might later become someone who identifies as trans.
What comes up for me these days around “gender” is so much more subtle and entrenched. For example, I have noticed some male friends react to the fact that I don’t have what, in their eyes, reads as “a real job.” I mean, currently I am not as surrounded by artists and writers as I have normally been in my adult life, but I’ve noticed that the idea that I write for a living, and this means that I teach and write and edit and freelance, carries an instability to it that, as trans, queer, and an artist, feels quite normal for me. And yet, for someone of my age and male, it goes against the grain of what might constitute “normal” in late-stage capitalist masculinity.
Rumpus: It’s telling, then, that Pass With Care handles some of those “traditional” or expected beats of a trans story more circumspectly: We get scars instead of a vignette on surgery. We go along with you on a childhood bike ride instead of, say, standing next to you before the mirror for an early moment of self-hatred. When writing, do you find yourself anticipating what non-trans readers might be looking for and consciously delivering something different instead?
Bombardier: That’s such a great question. I think there is a lot of curiosity about our bodies, both welcome and unwelcome, and we all get to decide how much of our bodies and our relationship to them we wish to share. For me, the images of the operating room or the mirror moment you describe—that quintessential Crying Game scene, right?—might capture less about how I inhabit this body than a lovingly cobbled-together bicycle. I think I understand that thirst to “see” our bodies on the page, but my whole life I’ve had to navigate the spots where I am invisible versus the ones where I’ve been hyper-visible, like running through a moonlit forest, and the page is a place where I get to absolutely control the aperture.
Rumpus: That brings to mind how rich with metaphor Pass With Care feels. Whether it’s a splinter or an abused dog or a wounded pigeon in the rafters of a metal shop, you’re often constructing a bountiful metaphorical tableau for masculinity, at least as you make sense of it. Metaphor is generative for writers more broadly, of course, but I wonder if it serves a special function when it comes to making sense of something as complex as gender?
Bombardier: Through this book, I am intertwining the “becoming” of a writer as the primary transition. And yes, metaphor has a significant role in how I have come to understand myself, not only in terms of male identity but also in terms of how it was I came to be the adult I was at the doorstep of medical transition at the age of thirty-three. My first creative love was visual art: drawing and painting primarily, though I have worked with film, sculpture, printmaking, and blacksmithing, too. I’ve always been a visual learner and drawn to image. Metaphor is functioning for me as visual, intuitive, resonant, perhaps even parasympathetic.
I hope that the utility of metaphor, at least in my book, is to mirror to a reader that their lives are an ongoing freight train of transitions, up until the final one of death, just like mine.
Rumpus: How would you say that history with visual art has informed your writing? In what ways is sculpting a piece of writing different from, or the same as, sculpting proper?
Bombardier: I haven’t been making much visual work in the past few years because I have been so focused on my writing. There’s a way in which the tangible manipulation of materials in visual art is a great thing for me to remember when I am writing, and how the process of visual work manifests, as well. For example, I’ll show my creative writing students videos of a painter working, often sped up, like folks who make a small painting every day and post their process videos to YouTube or whatever. When a painter makes a mark that they aren’t satisfied with, they often just paint over it and keep going. They don’t chuck the whole canvas or panel. They redirect and move on. This is super useful. It is really easy to get caught up in weird projections about the finished work with writing while forgetting to just be in the process, and the way out is often through. I learn by doing it. And the failures are more instructive perhaps than the successes.
I have, however, been really longing to make some visual work again. The flow state for me of visual art is really different and transports me in a completely different way than writing. It’s more of a trance state when I’m really dug into a visual work.
Rumpus: In college, briefly, I worked as a personal assistant for a portrait painter. I remember watching his canvas in awe as these seemingly disparate brushstrokes began adding up to something. I get the same feeling from many of the essays in Pass With Care. I’ll think, “Okay, how is he going to tie together a nuclear reactor, a security guard gig, and irradiated alligators?” And then you do, brilliantly! On the craft side, though, does that ever feel like a high-wire act?
Bombardier: The alligator piece [“Half As Sensitive”] was such a weirdo obsession piece that nobody seemed to like or get from the very first draft. At first, I thought it would become the basis for a more journalistic long-form piece on the animal experiments at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. I even tracked down the lead scientist for the Experimental Animal Farm and talked with him on the phone. I’d started the piece while in my final MFA workshop. But instead of coalescing around this more research and report approach, the more I worked on the piece the more it wanted to spiral outward into fragments perhaps only tangentially connected by a slight magnetic pull.
Nobody liked the piece, except perhaps my friend and cohort member Sophia Shalmiyev, who totally gets the draw toward fragmentary work, as evidenced in her brilliant memoir Mother Winter. Instead of going further away from myself into the research and the Hanford archives—I had even signed up to take a tour of the Reservation, which is limited in number of visitors and available dates and had a long waitlist—I moved closer to myself, and the more of my own story and self that I wove into the piece, the more it made sense, to me, at least. It’s definitely not a head-on narrative piece at all, and it’s not for everyone, I suppose, but it might be the piece in the book I am most proud of.
The piece had (and probably still has) the potential to go off the rails at any point, and for me that was the part that was most exciting about writing it. There was no pathway in doing it.
Rumpus: Part of what I love about it, and about so many of the other essays in Pass With Care, is how fecund it feels, how dense with meaning. In another piece, “Manhood Is Boring,” you visit the famous “tears in rain” monologue from Blade Runner, in which the dying replicant Roy Batty waxes poetic about all the things he’s seen, most famously, “C-beams glitter[ing] in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.” It’s a monologue about feeling overwhelmed by sheer experience and so it has understandably resonated with a lot of trans folks. As you’ve aged and grown as a creator, do you feel “overwhelmed” by experiences, or do you feel more capable of curating them in your writing, like, say, a gardener?
Bombardier: Roy Batty and the other replicants are so trans, right? In that moment on the roof in the deluge, Deckard has this epiphany that his nemesis, this person he hunted and so feared, has had an experience of consciousness that, like his own, will disappear. There’s this beautiful slowness of empathy. Deckard sees that Batty is not just one thing, and in turn, realizes that he is not just one thing either; he’s not solely the idea of a man he’s bought into. And all of these dust motes of experience are ephemeral, meant to be lost, and the ones that matter most are perhaps the ones we would expect if we were to imagine in advance our own moment on the roof in the rain. To me, Batty’s final soliloquy is about owning what has been most important to you, even if it has little to do with what the culture that made you says should be most meaningful to you. This feels extra poignant to think about in this present moment.
Right now, I am aching with being divided from my blood family by international borders that cannot be crossed, and yearning to gather my friends who are scattered all across North America. I think what’s become most important to me in the last few years is to go deep and really see the people I’m closest to, and to push past my own terror of truly being seen.
I like what you say about the garden of these experiences: The events of one’s life can seem so random, and the progression of events seem as if by chance, but the older I get, it reminds me of something Joseph Campbell said in his interviews with Bill Moyers about—and I paraphrase—how one can look back and suddenly it all seems as if it was by design. I might not be quite to the age and wisdom of Campbell when he made that remark, but I am much more in a place where I can see the cause and effect that puts me exactly here, in this moment. Perhaps more importantly I can see the major themes that have stayed constant and connected over the various incarnations and points of my life even if I was not able to see them in the moment.
Rumpus: “The Conversation” ends with that moving declaration, which seems apropos here: “I don’t want to disappear.” The COVID-19 pandemic, on one hand, is terrifying because it reminds us that we will all go the way of Roy Batty. But for many of us, it has brought out a desire to see and be seen—in short, a desire to live. Why might it be hard for writers who ostensibly share our lives as a profession, to claim that space of wanting to be visible, of not wanting to, as you put it, disappear?
Bombardier: Perhaps the difficulty in wanting to be visible lies in the inability to control the gaze. It might have to do with growing up without seeing yourself reflected by anyone around you, or the culture telling you you’re an aberration, something that does not deserve to live. That to survive you need to hide. I’ve had the real experience of meeting the fists of total strangers for being visible. I had many experiences of physical harm and bullying growing up, and I understood on some intrinsic level that to push against the silence that accompanied those moments would be to put myself at further risk. We all want to be able to live, at least for a moment, as free. We want to be able to tell our version. Like Eileen Myles says in Chelsea Girls, “It’s lonely to be alive and never know the whole story… I would like to tell everything once, just my part, because this is my life, not yours.” The flip side is that when you are visible, people can project their shit on to you. That can be a lot to bear.
Rumpus: Several of the essays in Pass With Care do seem to be about managing or surviving that projection. Not just as authors but just as trans people moving through the world, our bodies are often canvases that people project onto. (I have had some confusing conversations with strangers who see me as an openly transgender woman doing something as banal as eating a sandwich and all of a sudden they’re unlocking something about themselves.) And yet, writing from a place of immediate reaction to that projection can be tough, because the output feels angsty and defensive. Are you writing more in the moment or do you allow a lag time?
Bombardier: Wow, the sandwich thing: Holy shit! It’s like this person could never imagine being truly themselves while doing something as perfunctory as eating a sandwich! What this simple moment of your day symbolized for that person!
I tend to write and sit with things for a long time before they make it onto a published page. That other memoir I mentioned? I’m writing about shit that happened when I was twenty-one years old and it is still hard. When I first started to really write, even though it is something I have always done, I was writing for the stage, for spoken word. To annihilate that silence I was talking about with the propulsion of words from my mouth on a stage. It was the ’90s, right?
I still will respond to things with immediacy in writing, but that writing is rarely shared. I’m not an author who will be responding to everything with the perfect snippet of sass or wisdom on Twitter because I need to sit with things and get quiet with them to figure out what I think and feel outside of the noise of the crowd. I do so much thinking through the writing process and for me that process now entails a whole lot of volume, and then a whole lot of revising and rewriting and editing and repurposing. When I think about a lot of the work that I performed as spoken word or published in my zines, it is a little bit cringe-y because it was so fucking raw. That need to be heard. That need to say. I put out stuff now that I’ve processed through the work, and in my life, and with my inner circle, and that tends to give me the distance I need to see both myself as implicated in the moments I am writing about but also the bigger themes or music of a subject.
Photograph of Cooper Lee Bombardier courtesy of Cooper Lee Bomardier.