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‘Cactus Country’ Moves Beyond the Expected Borders of the Traditional Transition Memoir

I think about identity a lot. Not because of what feels like the most obvious reasons, but because of its malleability, its infinite potential, its shiftiness — all the qualities about it that I admire highly. Most people don’t seem to share this affinity with me. Most people seem content to think of identity as static, as unchanging, as baked onto the core of who we are. Or at least, they’re intent on believing that for various reasons, even if the way they’ve lived their lives contradict this idea entirely. When it comes to how we tell our stories, identity often takes center stage. It’s usually the thing that holds the story together. We’re watching someone become, and by the end, they’ll know exactly who they are. That’s usually how it goes, anyways.

In Zoe Bossiere’s debut memoir, Cactus Country, that’s not exactly how it happens, though. Beginning with a move to a trailer home community that the book shares its name with just outside of Tucson, Arizona at age 11, Bossiere’s story takes us all over the deserts of their adopted home, through the difficulties of gender, class anxiety, and life in the dogged but terrifying American West and the triumphs of a person determined to both survive and understand the place where they came from. Through their experiences in the harsh but lush environment of the Sonoran Desert and economically segregated Tucson, Bossiere illustrates the myriad ways in which they were forced to not only contend with their identity — first, as a boy, then later, as a person perceived as a woman by others, and later still, as a genderfluid person — but also find comfort in letting their identity stretch and morph as it does as time went on and they grew older.

As the new kid at the Cactus Country RV Park, Bossiere learned quickly that if they wanted to be the boy they knew they were, they’d have to watch the other boys and men in the park closely, emulate their emotions, and follow a strict set of mandates that dictated how they should act and why. For the most part, before puberty hit, Bossiere was accepted by the other boys as one of them and was included in their strange rituals of boyhood, some of which were violent and many of which led Bossiere and their friends on adventures that helped shift their understanding of the world around them. But despite this acceptance and the freedom they had to explore the world in and around Cactus Country, a deepening anxiety about their body swirled around Bossiere, especially as puberty hit and their body changed rapidly: “No novel I’d ever read had anything to say about boys with periods, or girls who wanted to punish the bodies they’d been born into. I wanted to read a story like mine, because I wanted to know how that story would end.”

Juggling these anxieties and sadnesses with their oftentimes humiliating and class-discriminatory experiences at their new public school, Bossiere enmeshed themself in the daily events and dramas of their friends and neighbors of Cactus Country and searched for answers about why they felt the way they felt about their body online late at night. As Bossiere grew older, it became nearly impossible for them to fully hold onto the boyhood granted to them in their youth. In high school, people misgendered and misunderstood them, which discouraged Bossiere from trying to figure themself and their gender differences out. Against all odds, Bossiere made it to college, but even that respite from adolescence didn’t give them the opportunity to make any solid determinations about who they were. They were busy trying to survive the ups and downs of being a full time student and co-teacher at a local preschool while also attempting to navigate the pleasures and dramas of their social life. But that doesn’t mean the anxiety and confusion disappeared. It was still always there, lurking in the background of everything they did and in every interaction they had with family members, friends, coworkers, colleagues, and sexual partners.

It’s clear from the beginning of Cactus Country that Bossiere’s story isn’t going to unfurl in the same way many memoirs about trans life do because that’s not the way Bossiere’s understanding of who they were and are now developed. At the start, we’re introduced to “a lone, barefooted boy with short blond hair walking along the road in Cactus Country.” We’re introduced to Bossiere as who they believed they were then — a boy trapped in the body of a girl, a boy born into the wrong circumstances for who they hoped to be. As Bossiere’s story unravels, we’re taken with them as they realize that’s not entirely true. Although Bossiere was initially pushed to adopt more feminine dress and to be more feminine in the way they acted and moved through the world, they discovered that boyhood and masculinity, more specifically, were not the defining features of who they are. Eventually, they would come to accept that their identity is much more expansive than that and that a feeling they had expressed many years before — “‘I don’t feel like I’m either gender, though. I just feel like I’m — like I’m me, you know?’” — was much more accurate in describing how they really felt about themself.

What is also especially exceptional about Bossiere’s debut is the profound sense of place and empathy for the people of this place that Bossiere exhibits in their writing. The Sonoran Desert, Cactus Country, and the rest of the land around Tucson aren’t just barren wastelands of little or no value. In Bossiere’s telling, these places are not just teeming with life but giving birth to new individual possibilities all the time. Many of the people we meet in and outside of Cactus Country have brutal histories and rough presents, but Bossiere’s incredibly compassionate descriptions construct the fullest possible picture of all of them. Even the people who hurt or disappoint or just plain confound Bossiere as they grow up are written with the utmost care and respect, which helps upend any judgment readers might have for the people who choose to live the lives they do out in the law-eschewing deserts of Arizona and the American Southwest.

In the end, Bossiere reminds us of the importance of embracing all that we are and doing our best to run toward our pasts instead of away from them: “…The specters of our past are always one or two steps behind us, patiently waiting for their chance to catch up, even take the lead. When I first left home, I believed those old ghosts were dead and tried to bury them. To live as though they did not haunt my present butt the further I wandered from the desert, the longer I lived beyond its reach, the more those memories seemed to find their way above ground again, like tarantulas flushed from their burrows during the monsoon rains. They echoed across Oregon’s verdant wilds, shadowing me as I traversed the snaking brick paths to the university campus in Ohio. Wherever I went, the wind carried the voices of those I left behind, of the boy searching for answers, their cadence soft and low, an echo only I could hear.” It might seem like a typical conceit, but in Bossiere’s hands, it feels like the hardest-learned lesson of an atypical life.

Through the way they illustrate their perspectives and experiences and the way they depict the others who populate their life’s stories, Bossiere paints a nuanced portrait of transition that moves beyond the expected borders and pathways of the traditional transition narrative and shows the boundlessness of identity and the many options we have available to us at any given time. Our stories don’t have to end where they start if we stay open to the potential around us. Bossiere doesn’t just remind us that identity isn’t fixed — they remind us that, ultimately, we’re in charge of who we become and everything we experience is part of that construction and worth celebrating, even if it stings a little.

This memoir is more than a beautifully and thoughtfully written debut. It’s a gift to everyone, to all of us, in between.

Cactus Country by Zoe Bossiere is out now.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 89 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. Embark on a journey through time with our captivating Traditional Transition Memoir. Explore the rich tapestry of culture and heritage as we delve into tales of tradition and change. Enhance your experience with our animated informational video, providing an engaging visual companion to the memoir’s narrative. Immerse yourself in history and storytelling like never before.

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