An Indies Introduce Q&A with Zoë Bossiere

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Zoë Bossiere is the author of Cactus Country, a Winter/Spring 2024 Indies Introduce adult selection, and June 2024 Indie Next List pick. 

Bossiere (they/she) is a writer from Tucson, Arizona. They are the managing editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, as well as the co-editor of two anthologies: The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020) and The Lyric Essay as Resistance: Truth from the Margins (Wayne State UP, 2023). 

Frances Metzger of Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, served on the panel that selected Cactus Country for Indies Introduce.

Cactus Country is all about landscape: of Arizona and the hot desert, of childhood and its constant developments, of gender and its fluidity," said Metzger. "Zoë Bossiere is sharing a much-needed story of a childhood outside of the gender binary in a world built to misunderstand. Bossiere astutely and tenderly dives into hard to talk about topics — masculinity, assault, mental health, poverty, transphobia, and so much more. You'll fall so easily into Bossiere’s writing and you won't turn away when things get hard — Zoë is there to gently guide you through the path forward.”

Here, Bossiere and Metzger discuss the making of Cactus Country.

Frances Metzger: It was very moving to read through the trials and tribulations of your growing up. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?

Zoë Bossiere: When I was still in the early stages of conceptualizing Cactus Country, I started opening up to some of my friends and colleagues about my early life in the desert of Tucson, Arizona. For the first time, I told them about the trailer park I’d grown up in, and about the boy I was. A question I often fielded during that time was whether I would still be a boy — that is, whether I would now be a man — if I’d known I was transgender during my childhood.

It was a question I never felt sure how to answer. For one, my life as I knew it would be unrecognizable. Would I have met my partner, given birth to our child? Would I have studied at these universities? Would I be writing this book? Maybe not. But the many other paths my life might have taken — if only, if only, if only — are impossible to count, let alone evaluate. How does a person weigh the tangible reality of what they have against the unknowable what could have been? As a child, I was always looking for evidence of other kids out there who felt like I did — whose assigned gender at birth didn’t match the person they knew themselves to be. But back then I couldn’t find their stories because they hadn’t yet been told.

To know I was trans during the time that I grew up would be to have grown up in another time, in another place, and as another person. I wouldn’t want to go back and change anything about my gender journey — where I’ve been, or where I’m going next. So if I could send a message to my younger self, I would just tell him, “You’re going to be okay.” I think that’s all he ever really needed to know.

FM: Throughout Cactus Country, you give us beautiful vignettes from your childhood. How did you choose what stories from your life to include?

ZB: Each chapter in Cactus Country started as a single moment: the dueling feelings of power and guilt I’d felt killing the palo verde beetles as a boy, or the unbridled exhilaration of screaming myself hoarse over the blare of an oncoming train. Moments like these became the emotional core of each chapter, and from there I worked backward to recount the events that led to them, and tell the greater story of what was going on in my life at that time.

I knew each chapter needed to capture the essence of something important I’d learned about myself and the world I’d inhabited as a boy. So I wrote about the questions I’d been avoiding for most of my adult life, like why I’ve always felt so conflicted about my gender and how where I grew up shaped me into the person I am. In the process of writing about the difficulties I faced, I also remembered the sheer joy I felt almost every day living as a boy among other boys. The entire desert was my playground and, in it, I had freedom to be who I really was.

But it’s hard to condense a life into 272 pages. For every story I tell in Cactus Country about me and the desert I knew, there are at least two others that didn’t make it into the book. I chose to focus on just a few because I wanted to ensure everyone portrayed in Cactus Country was rendered with as much dimensionality and generosity as possible. I wanted to avoid providing simple narrative explanations for what was in reality a complex set of circumstances, especially since characters like the boy I was — poor, rural, a little rough around the edges — are so rarely depicted with much nuance or grace, when they are depicted at all.

FM: You write from your younger self’s perspective so authentically and with so much care. How did you bridge the gap between who you were when you were younger and who you were when you started writing this book?

ZB: For a long time, I avoided writing my story because I didn’t want to look back. I didn’t want to remember the child I’d been because I didn’t understand who I was now, as an adult. I wrote about anything and everything except my past.

Before I was born, my parents had worked a season as sea lion trainers in a Hungarian circus; this was a family story that had always fascinated me. So instead of writing about my childhood in the desert, I wrote a book about their experiences in Hungary. I put my heart and soul into that project, but every time I brought it to my thesis advisor or to other writers for a workshop they would ask me, “Where are you in this? Why are you writing this?” And I just didn’t know what to tell them.

Years went by. By then I had gone to graduate school in two different states and I was starting to miss home. I felt that maybe I was ready to find out who I was, and why I was. I still didn’t know how to answer the big questions I had about my gender, or why I’d made the choices I made as a child, or what they meant for me now. So I started with what I did know, which was the landscape of Tucson, Arizona.

I wrote about the desert plants, which are sharp and stoic, and about the sun, which is fierce and so intensely hot it’s like you’re on another planet. I wrote about the boys and the men I remembered in that desert and the effect they’d had on me. I wrote my way into the past — into the boy I was — and it was only through this process that I was finally able to understand who I am.

FM: I was so excited to read a book where gender fluidity, rural living, and poverty all intersected. I feel like — now more than ever — this is a real life experience that people need to read about. What inspired you to share your story?

ZB: For me, it was wanting to understand my childhood — who that boy in the desert really was, and why he continued to haunt me into my adulthood. But it was also inspired by lack. When I started writing Cactus Country I was a graduate student and an editor of a literary magazine. Between those two positions I spent a lot of my time reading, but I rarely encountered a story, especially a true story, that depicted anything like the world in which I’d grown up.

There aren’t many books about childhoods that take place in a trailer park, or way out in the Sonoran desert. There aren’t many books by writers with fluid, non-conforming, or otherwise expansive experiences of their gender identity and expression. There aren’t many books by transgender writers, period. But I’m happy to say this is changing.

While writing Cactus Country I felt so lucky to read and be inspired by books like Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T. Fleischmann, Hall of Waters by Camellia-Berry Grass, The Natural Mother of the Child by Krys Malcolm Belc, Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, and Fairest by Meredith Talusan, among others. There are also several books that are either forthcoming or recently released that I’m so excited for readers to get their hands on — Pretty: A Memoir by KB Brookins, Touching the Art by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Idlewild by James Frankie Thomas, and Endpapers by Jennifer Savran Kelly to name just a few.

My big hope in writing Cactus Country was to encourage others to tell their stories, so I would love to read more books like these in the years to come.

FM: You touch on so many important topics in your book, ranging from childhood gender identity, sexual assault and other forms of abuse, masculinity, and mental health to name a few. There is an endless amount of incredible messages that will stay with people long after they close the final page. If you could pick one message for a reader to take away from your book, what would it be?

ZB: Thank you for all of these incredibly thoughtful questions, Frances. I imagine a lot of readers might pick up Cactus Country because they’re already tuned into questions of gender identity and are thinking deeply about issues of trans representation. For other readers, the book may offer a way of thinking about gender, identity, and many of the issues you just mentioned from a perspective they might not have considered before. But no matter who might be reading, the message I’d like folks to take from Cactus Country is that my story isn’t the only story — whether of genderfluidity, of trailer park childhood, or of the Southwest.

My book is a representation of one life in a vast constellation of lives, of stories, that make up the transgender spectrum. At this moment in history, when so many groups are trying so hard to curtail our rights and freedoms, to expel us from public spaces, to ban our books from libraries, people need to hear stories like these more than ever before. I would love for readers who found Cactus Country resonant in some way to continue to seek out and support books by queer and trans writers — to learn more about our community and its history, who we are and who we are not, and to carry that knowledge with them out into the world.

Cactus Country by Zoë Bossiere (Abrams Press, 9781419773181, Hardcover Memoir, $27) On Sale: 5/21/2024

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