For many kids, middle school is a fraught time. Friendships are forged and broken; bodies begin to change in sometimes uncomfortable ways. For Zenobia July, starting middle school is far more complicated than it is for most of her peers.
She’s starting at a new school far from where she grew up, but more importantly, she’s now identifying as the girl she always knew she was, leaving behind the boy she’d been labeled as since birth. Zenobia July is the name of Exeter, New Hampshire novelist’s Lisa Bunker’s new book for young adults. She spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello about her book.
Find Lisa Bunker's top five reading recommendations here.
There were three separate inspirations for this book. The first is light and fun. I've always wanted to write a super-detective in the Sherlock Holmes vein. So my detective works in cyberspace instead of the real world and is a teenage transgender girl. If I get to write more Zenobia books, which I certainly hope I do, then I want to develop a long arc of her solving cyber mysteries.
The second one is tougher. There was a real-life trans girl named Leelah Alcorn who committed suicide in 2014 who left behind an eloquent note on Tumblr and among the things she said was, "Please make sure my life means something." And I really was hit hard by that. That sort of went viral when it happened and I was aware of it and people were doing online eulogies for her and so on. And I really took that to heart and my storybrain started working on the question, "What did Leelah need in her life that she didn't have so that she could have survived the situation that she found herself in?" She had a family that did not welcome or accept her. They subjected her to conversion therapy. Suicide was the only way she could find to extract herself from the situation she found herself in.
So I started imagining a different path and that was the beginning of the story of Zenobia who, in the book, looses her family of origin. Her last surviving parent dies just before the book begins. She moves to Portland, Maine to live with her cool lesbian aunties. So the answer to the question, "What did Leelah need?" in this book at least was: a second chance with a queer family of choice.
Can you talk a little bit more about family because, in every page of this book, Zenobia is trying to construct that family, whether it's a combination of her aunties or her friends, her circle of friends at school. How important is it for someone going through what she's going through to have that kind of family that's super supportive?
Well, it's not even just family. It's community as well. The friend group and the other things. The aunties have friends who become involved. That's as I said before, there were three inspirations. The third is something that happened after Felix was published, which is that I started getting reader reviews that said there were too many LGBTQ characters in the book. Which I did for fun, to see how many characters I could match those letters.
So in Felix, as an unpublished writer, I was just messing around. I made Felix gay, his mother was bisexual, his grandparent is genderqueer, and so on, just to see what it would look like. Because I'd never read a book like that. I got some pushback from a sector of the reading public who seemed to think that there was a kind of unspoken limit on the number of queer characters you could have in a book. And I thought, "But don't people realize that when you're out in the world and you're exploring identity and claiming identity, you get so much help from family of choice and friendgroups and from the sort of collectives that happen in the real world and online. There's this enormous sort of force of community and family of choice among the rainbow folks. I wanted to do it on purpose this time so I depicted not just Zen living with her two aunties, but also she immediately connects with the fringe alt-queer friend group at school. Those sets of people in her life help her navigate this incredibly difficult thing she's trying to do, presenting as a girl for the first time in the new school.
That's one of the big differences between this new book and Felix Yz, because in Felix Yz there were characters of the LGBTQ community who were not struggling with their identity and for whom it wasn't the central the thing of the story. But in this story, Zenobia is struggling and she's turning to the people who have been there before, who can help her with that.
That's right. Identity much more central to the story, but I think I managed to stay true to the idea that I started with in Felix, which is that I don't ever want to write a book that's just about that. Another lecturey, lessony book about Identity with a capital I. It's more central because she's trying to do something that's hard to do. But she's also solving cybercrimes and making friends and other things happen in her life. And I never want to write a book that's just about that because it's reductionist thinking that you run into once you're presenting in the world as a transperson.
In my case, I hate it when I get reduced to that. It's only one small part of who I am as a human and not a very important part. So I don't ever want to be that trans person, I want to be Lisa, who is a writer and a state rep, and who has children, who plays chess, who plays piano, and oh, she's trans. Oh, okay. So anyway. Tell me about the chess. That's interesting. Or whatever, you know. I want it to be an incidental detail about me so even though Zen's first year living as a girl is an important part of the book. I never want that to be the only thing the book is about.
Let me ask you about something else in the book, which is middle school. Middle school is a tough time for a lot of kids. It was for me. Confession time here, I got into a lot of trouble in middle school. I was the bad kid. I was cutting class.
I'm shaking my finger at you.
[Laughs] I recovered. I became a very good student after that point in my life. But it was tough. What was it like for you?
Middle school was awful, I suppose. I was a lurker on the edges. I was so deep already in this sort of boy/man project that I tried so long to do because I thought it was my only choice in life.
Trying to be the stereotypical boy/man?
Well, not stereotypical. I never went all in on masculinity and tried to be the sort of big, strong, loud sports boy. Besides being an unexpressed trans girl, I was also an introvert and shy and nerdy. And so I just lurked on the edges and mostly watched people and had my private pursuits and my one or two friends and my family. I was a lurker.
I ask about middle school because this book seems like it could work not just for trans kids or kids struggling with wondering who they are, but anybody going through a tough middle school situation because the cliques form, and they're almost essential for any middle school experience, and they're difficult to deal with and they cause rough emotions. It's hard to read the room sometimes and see who's your friend and who's not your friend.
And in this story, Zen spends the entire story living in stealth, so nobody knows she's trans except one or two characters. So the teasing and the bullying that she encounters have nothing to do with an LGBTQ identity. They're just teasing her because her dress doesn't fit right. Now, there happens to be a really complicated reason why her dress doesn't fit right, but the girl who teases her about that doesn't know that reason. She just sees a kid who is a little bit oddly dressed and sees a bullying hook and goes for it because that's who that kid is. So yes, there is something univeral about it. And I do hope to reach readers who don't identify as any of the letters of LGBTQ, too, because I think it's important to show the lives of these queer characters to folks who don't already live in that world. I want to get beyond preaching to the choir and write stories that are so exciting and compelling that they grab all kinds of readers.
I wanted to ask you about names. Names are very important to the characters here. Zenobia got a chance to choose her own name. Can you talk a little bit about the significance of names in this novel?
There is the part where Zen got to choose her own name. She chose Zenobia in part because it goes from Z back to A, so it's like typographical illustration of going back to the beginning and starting over again. There is a character named Arli and Arli is genderqueer, identifies as neither male nor female. Arli is a word geek and Arli is fascinated by words or sets of words that have no repeat letters. And so Zenobia July, for example, is eleven letters with no repeats. Arli's full name is Starling Ketum is thirteen letters with no repeats. And an attentive reader will find several more words or phrases with no repeat letters. So it's this deep word geeky thing and when I was designing this story, I needed to choose names that worked for that.
Lisa Bunker. Ten letters, no repeats.
As it happens, yes. I didn't do that on purpose, but I'm so glad it worked out that way.
Well, it's an asset to the book, I think, the fun that you seem to be having on the page with words. It is, as you say in your author biography, one of your geekeries.
Yes, exactly. That's a lot of what writing is for me: the fascinating games you can play with language. It's endlessly, endlessly diverting. I just never get tired of it.
This is the first time we've spoken since you became a state rep.
How's that been?
I've been having an amazing time serving in Concord. I was elected to represent my town of Exeter, one of four reps plus a floaterial rep. I started serving in January. I'm on the Ways and Means Committee, so I jumped into the deep end of the pool. I've learned an enormous amount about state revenues and the lottery and all sorts of things I never knew anything about before and I've learned way more than I ever knew before about how state government works.
The other part that's fascinating about serving in Concord is that I am working every day I'm there with people I'd never otherwise meet because we all live in our little bubbles. But in Concord, it's 400 folks selected from across the state of New Hampshire, and we're sort of slotted into all the different committees to have party balance and so I have these Republican colleagues I sit next to everyday. I've gotten to know them and be friendly with them. I've worked really hard to bring some of the same sorts of ideas that I'm working on in my writing, this post-binary narrative kind of thinking, to that work.
For example, I made a pledge, which I have still kept to this day, to not say anything mean about anybody or to anybody. There's lots of state reps on Twitter. You can see people slinging mud at each other and getting insults in and I just don't want to play that game. I want to stay respectful. I want to work on differences. I want to fight injustice. But I also want to have ways to say "we" and "us" that still mean everybody. I think that's so important, both in writing and in politics.