All Manner of Shades of Green: Callum Angus’s A Natural History of Transition

by Cleo Peterson

Cleopatria Peterson is a non-binary trans mutli-disciplinary artist. They write, illustrate, printmake, and are the co-founder of Old Growth Press. They don’t know how to keep still and think we have a lot to learn from bears. You can see more of their stuff at www.cleopatria.ca or follow them @cleopatriia on instagram/twitter.

A Natural History of Transition
Callum Angus
Metonymy Press
2021, 200 pp., $18.95

Callum Angus’s debut, A Natural History of Transition (Metonymy Press), is a collection of eight short stories, each uniquely asserting that trans people are not limited to a single transition. They can continue to grow and change in their own way, like the erosion of a mountain. There is a delightful diversity to what it can mean to be transgender in this book: through one’s body, nomenclature, mundane magic; one’s relationship to others, nature and the world we inhabit. Angus’s worlds themselves are always shifting and growing into new meanings and shapes. Together, these stories underline what Angus points to as one of the most beautiful aspects of trans existence: change and fluidity.

Reading this collection was a much-needed breath of fresh air; it was a true pleasure to discover Angus’s eight worlds and see something of my own self reflected back on the page. Angus captures a feeling of transness that one too often has to dig for, or else may never see at all. His characters are simply human, flawed and imperfect, but wholly alive in their own way. To be offered the diversity of transgender experiences and bodies, when so often we are forced to take what we are given, is a delightful treat. As a transgender reader, each story gave me the gift of allowing a transgender body their own space to breathe and simply exist, not reduced to some exaggerated plot point or overblown explanation. And while each story feels settled into our current world, there is a very present magic within.

[Trans people] can continue to grow and change in their own way, like the erosion of a mountain.

The difficulties of trans existence are not overlooked and often highlighted as challenges or joys by their protagonists. In “The Swarm,” an ever-shifting character (whose body is made of a multitude of various insect species) is confronted with all the challenges of mundane family life while also fielding the constant feeling of their own body, and the memories, some traumatic, that are held inside. Nothing made me laugh out loud more than “Mom I can’t hear you over the cicadas fucking.” The collection’s title story, “A Natural History of Transition,” follows an unnamed protagonist as he recovers an estranged uncle’s strange roadside museum, filled with otherworldly specimens. He does this all while navigating the difficulty of returning to his hometown, where the community knew him once as an entirely other person—though he is more himself in the present. These scenarios, though often fantastical, serve both as metaphors and literal depictions of all-too-familiar experiences that trans people live through, every day, in reality.

If a person cannot meet another in their understanding of transness, in the vast multitudes of possibilities that being transgender contains, then they can at least meet somewhere in this collection: in a story, one or all eight of them. The way these stories’s other characters navigate their understanding and misunderstanding of our protagonists captures the very human relationships they have with each other. From a son giving birth as his estranged mother passes, another sharing their partner’s binder, nuns communally living as their genders shift with the season, and children creating meanings and a museum from names and found objects, each story touches on and captures how the world is unique to every trans individual. Detransitioning, childbirth, deadnames, outing, and of course transition are all themes that Angus manages to explore in deeply unique ways. It’s the range Angus captures that makes this a worthwhile read.

This lush world is just the affirmation one needs: that, just like the insects and the foliage, we too are natural.

Just as there is a diversity to the relationships and experiences, each story holds the vast presence of nature. This lush world is just the affirmation one needs: that, just like the insects and the foliage, we too are natural. My favourite story, “Rock Jenny,” follows a protagonist that lives for so long unsure of who or what she wants to be that she becomes nature itself. (Often I have wanted to be a tree instead of a body, so there was something very relatable to how Jenny felt.) She transitions when she is 11 and then transitions back. The word detransition isn’t used in the story, the deliberate lack of such a term allowing the body and identity to be a fluid thing unattached to a prescribed meaning. Jenny is contrasted by her partner and foil, Zef, a white transgender man who understands Jenny’s desire for more and also has his own fear of her changes. Change and uncertainty are natural things to be afraid of, suggests Angus, while also portraying that the magic of the transitional journey leads to something new and even more wonderful:

Jenny says to Zef, “It takes everything in me not to be a rock.”

“Then you can’t fight it,” Zef says. “Just be a rock. I’ll still love you.”

And that’s it: Jenny does. Her body slowly becomes larger. First a rock, then a mountain.

That Jenny felt she needed permission was such an important theme to portray and challenge. So often in real life we must ask permission to be our authentic selves—from loved ones, all the way to health care professionals. When that permission is denied, we suffer. But Jenny ultimately receives it.

Change and uncertainty are natural things to be afraid of, suggests Angus, while also portraying that the magic of the transitional journey leads to something new and even more wonderful …

Even permission can be said with words but not actions; we see this contrasted through Zef and Jenny’s parents. Still, Jenny adapts, against the pressure of her loved one’s expectations which make it harder for her to change into who she wants to be. When Jenny makes her final transformation of the story, it affirms that the permission she is granted from others was never needed. The pleasure of this story is just that: there is nothing that stops her. Angus has constructed a world where a girl can become a rock, a mountain, the moon. The wonder of it all is how normal and commonplace this magic is; that, like so much, like one’s transgender body, it is natural.

I feel so blessed to be alive when I can read and enjoy fantastical and natural stories that capture the spectrum of living as a transgender person. We have always been here, and we will continue to be, and that in itself is a natural history of transition. A Natural History of Transition subverts what we are so often told—that being transgender is not natural. Through mountains, insects, museums, the sea, moons, laboratories, and all manner of shades of green, Callum Angus has asserted that to be trans is to be natural. And what is natural if not simply living, even in a world that is fantastic and fantastical in the smallest and greatest of ways?



Cleopatria Peterson is a non-binary trans mutli-disciplinary artist. They write, illustrate, printmake, and are the co-founder of Old Growth Press. They don’t know how to keep still and think we have a lot to learn from bears. You can see more of their stuff at www.cleopatria.ca or follow them @cleopatriia on instagram/twitter.

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