As a nature writer first and foremost, Callum Angus is preoccupied with narratives of change. Looming over Angus’s writing, of course, are the two most central change narratives in his life: transition and a world spinning ever faster into climate change. Writing transition alongside nature is an enticing prospect, but it presents immediate problems and pitfalls as well—nature, ecology, and the animal world offer beauty and possibility, but concepts of nature can themselves become limiting constructs, weapons, or cages. In his debut story collection, A Natural History of Transition, out April 27 from Metonymy Press, Angus insists on the necessity of new visions for the future, and new understandings of what transition can mean.
Angus’s work is full of old forms re-envisioned, from historical fiction to horror to pregnancy narratives, where transformation is an open and repeated phenomenon, without conceptual boundaries. In the worlds Angus builds, trans characters shift with the seasons, become the moon, give birth to cocoons, and retell familiar histories into something unfamiliar and urgent, underlaid with a strong sense of magic. Yet his words also don’t shy away from the darkness beneath and crises coming.
Cal and I sat down for this interview in the same city of Portland, a mile apart but speaking through Zoom screens. It was hard to miss how we should have been able to celebrate this release in person with a reading at a local book shop. We talked about writing toward the future in uncertain times, the resiliency and hope of trans youth, and what nature writing means in a world on fire.
Rumpus: Let’s start with the title. You seem to be setting up several key tensions and conversations there, interrogating the concept of natural history. I’m wondering what your approach was in staking out that space.
Callum Angus: Originally when I was thinking about this title it belonged to a nonfiction project. I thought I was going to write about transition and gender in nature, maybe instances of animals and plants that would change gender, and then I pretty quickly decided that was something I wasn’t actually interested in doing. That encourages a narrative of naturalization, of this happens in nature so it’s normal to happen to people, too, and I wasn’t interested in making that comparison. Even saying a seemingly innocent statement like “it’s natural to be trans” is already setting up a false divide between things considered natural and unnatural. In turning to fiction, I became more interested in what trans narratives and lives could provide to that kind of feedback loop, how they might mess with this sense of a chronological natural history of who inherits what from different kinds of relationships with plants and animals and things like that.
I also toyed with this notion of whether this is going to be a natural history of transition, with transition, or in transition. It’s intentionally sounding like an old genre, like A Natural History of North American Butterflies, a field guide or something like that. I finally chose the of because I wanted to keep those connections, and I think once you get into the book it’s clear from the first story to the end that this is not doing anything like that, that it’s trying to mess with those conventions.
Rumpus: I loved the way this collection “messed with” a variety of familiar genres as well. Like in “Winter of Men,” where you chose a historical fiction, North American colonial setting, but with strong magical realism. You center a gender-shifting convent that subverts the traditional colonist narrative, but then the story doesn’t shy away from the underbelly there, their complicity in colonialism. I’d love to hear more on your intentions in bringing these perspectives to trans stories.
Angus: For me, that story is still somewhat of a mystery, and I’m excited to hear what others take from it. With this story, one of the first pieces of that story of Jeanne and Lydia’s relationship, the intense friendship they forge, then Jeanne sequestering herself in the alter, was what I started with as a narrative pillar. And there is something there about transition, your relationship with yourself and others and how it changes in drastic ways, especially with yourself. For me personally, it can feel like there’s this other person at times I’ve had to shut out and wall away, but is still looking out on things? Like with the same set of eyes, experiences and background, and I played with that with both characters. It was significant to set it in this convent with these nuns in the early days of Catholicism, its role in colonizing, in genocide and settling this continent. I wanted to interrogate that culture, and put Catholic ideas of martyrdom, sainthood, and relics in relation to transition, too. As I’ve grown older, I’m drawn to the language and rituals surrounding the body and transformations of the body that are found in traditions like that, and how these traditions have things of value but also a darker side to them as well.
Rumpus: In that story but also throughout the book really, you center trans youth, trans adolescents with such affection. Many of these stories are about young people, in ways that are really distinct, that defy trans cliches. What do these stories of trans youth mean for you?
Angus: When I first came out as trans, I learned a lot from trans youth; they taught me so much. I was twenty-one, just out of college, and I started volunteering with a nonprofit that worked with trans kids. They taught me how to inject hormones, like a fourteen-year-old did. They were just so instrumental in shaping my view of what it meant to be trans, and sort of the limitless possibility of it. And I still haven’t really seen that reflected in a lot of literature either for or about the experience of growing up trans. Very often it’s yoked to dark times, depression and suicide and stuff—that’s very real…
Rumpus: And it’s such a politicized issue at this point.
Angus: Right. And it keeps coming back, right? Like it’s been so weird watching it in the last six months, the last year, with more anti-trans bills coming around. Just seeing the terms of the conversation set by people who don’t believe in trans people’s right to exist enrages me so much, because it just limits how we can talk about these other things, the stuff we’re even allowed to bring up in the public sphere. And I haven’t seen much movement; it still feels like the same conversation we’ve been having for twenty years. More and more it’s a goal of mine to not let people who deny my existence set the terms for my thoughts and artistic process. I hope to write beyond that.
Rumpus: Relatedly, there’s a tradition with reading transness of leaning into horror themes, of monstrous transformations, of appropriating hateful external vision into an embrace of monstrousness. You work with subtle, naturalistic horror themes in a really striking way. Like in the first story, you have a trans man who gets pregnant and gives birth to a cocoon. I’d like to hear more about your specific approach to this naturalistic horror, and the blurred lines between the natural world and trans experience.
Angus: You’re definitely right that body horror has a deep tradition in trans stories and literature, for kind of obvious reasons, like when you are medically transitioning it can often feel like you are a specimen under a microscope, of being dissected and looked at and examined in ways that are kind of an easy metaphor for the experience of feeling on display in that way. Preservation and display, in terms of how I’m seen and how I want to perceive myself in the world, are things I tend to think about a lot, so that’s where some of that comes from. The cocoon, you know, is symbolic and kind of has that aspect of body horror, of birthing these things, but I wanted to play a little bit, too, with the relationship that I think is so easily read in terms of cocoons and metamorphosis and changing and being trans, and even coming out to an extent. I was interested in what would happen if we were given another transformation, like a rebirth of a transformation, and when it starts being many kinds of changeovers, what does that mean for a character.
But another horror tradition I wanted to touch on with this book is in the title story, “A Natural History of Transition,” which is probably the closest one to true horror. I have been inspired a lot by Stephen Graham Jones, as well as many Black horror writers or writers of speculative fiction, with how they approach this. I’m thinking of Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and Victor LaValle is a big inspiration, too. But I think, in that title story, it’s people turning into these balls of eyes, and there’s something about not just preservation but also as a white person, too, watching and not doing anything, and having this inaction tied to seeing was something that I wanted to get in that story. I don’t know that I’ve always successfully done it, but in several of my stories I’m interested in writing about this twin thing of whiteness and witnessing and failure to act that is also a thread in horror, that is something I’m trying to accomplish anyway.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned exploration of different kinds of transition narratives, and this book seems to very intentionally break out of the traditional A to B mode, and what the possibilities are. You get so many characters in these stories where it’s never fixed, often going well beyond gender to transformation into a mountain, even the moon, things like that. I just wanted to hear more about your approach to refiguring these narratives.
Angus: I mean, the big impulse behind writing these stories and these narratives was trying to show trans people can have multiple transformations beyond that one that we’re given in popular culture. And that even while there are these anti-trans bills on the block, it’s becoming more, not mainstream, but more common that people understand what it means now to be trans, or at least they think they do, based on what they’ve seen in the media. And so I think I’m interested in what happens to trans narratives once we move past that notion of “okay, this is transition.” It’s even changed since I or even you came out as trans, like, the idea back then was very much “oh, you’re going to transition from female to male” and that was like, your identity. Some people still identify like that, sometimes I even identify that way, but I just felt it changing so much even in the last couple of years, of how younger generations are thinking about gender, and how that’s changing the conversation. I think I really wanted to put out a collection of stories that reflected this moment of, like, feeling so many possibilities, but also so many precipices that you can kind of fall into in thinking about gender and how you relate to others.
Rumpus: I know you’ve described yourself as predominantly a nature writer, and that’s the mode that you have worked in. This book obviously reads deeply into transness, and I’m interested in hearing just where you see the center of your project in terms of trans writing and nature writing. Particularly with nature writing, writing into that space, there’s a certain canon that is very white, individualist, cis men out in the woods kinds of stories. Then, we have reassertions of space by other voices, Indigenous writers particularly. Where do you see yourself fitting, and what does it mean to you to be a nature writer.
Angus: That’s a really good question. I don’t know how much power or resonance there is these days in the term “nature writing” or “nature writer.” It really feels like it had so much of it kind of beaten to death by that generation of cis white men, kind of writing about the wilderness in isolation, and how humans were destroying pristine forests and that kind of thing. And I hope I don’t align myself with traditions like that, but I think for me, I see myself as kind of a bridge between the world of nature writing and trans lit, trying to be both.
This is in part my role as editor of a literary journal, smoke and mold, trying to bring more trans writing to people in the eco-lit, nature writing, climate change reporting world. I’m trying to to show that world that there is so much of value, and perspectives that they should be considering when writing about these things, and at the same time also going to trans writers and just elevating and valuing the material in there that, even in ways that aren’t so obvious on the surface, is concerned with breaking down those barriers between what it means to be “natural” or “human.” Even if it’s not grounded in natural history or anything like that, I still think there are ways to read a lot of trans fiction from an eco-critical lens, and that is really exciting to me.
Photograph of Callum Angus by Ebenezer Galluzzo.