“The Power of Story to Change Hearts and Minds”: An Interview with Zenobia July Author Lisa Bunker

Lisa Bunker is the author of the critically acclaimed Felix Yz, about a boy with a hyperintelligent fourth dimensional being fused inside of him. Her newest middle grade novel, Zenobia July, is a smart and heartfelt coming of age story about a trans girl who is also a cyber detective.

We sat with Lisa Bunker to talk about her inspiration for Zenobia July, imperfect characters, and the concept of a “family of choice.” Bunker, who is also a state representative of New Hampshire, shares thoughts about advocacy and the role of storytelling in political work.

Please tell us about Zenobia July and why you wanted to tell her story.

Zenobia July is about a teenage trans girl with a troubled past getting to live as a girl for the first time in a new family and school, and solving cybercrimes. There were three main inspirations for this book. The first one is light and fun: I’ve always wanted to write a story about a cyber-detective.

The second one is heavier. In 2014 a young trans girl in Ohio named Leelah Alcorn committed suicide, leaving behind an eloquent note on Tumblr that went viral. I was deeply shaken by Leelah’s death, and my story-brain started thinking about what would have had to be different in order for her to survive her life.

The third reason had to do with something that got said in some reviews about my first book, Felix Yz, which was that it had, in the reviewers’ opinions, too many LGBTQ people in it. I had a lightbulb moment—wow, some people don’t know about how the Rainbow Folk find each other—so I wanted to create a positive and realistic portrait of the power of LGBTQ community and families of choice.

“Survival” in middle school is a classic and beloved theme in middle grade. What is it that you think kids need to endure and thrive in those middle years?

Great question! I am not a child psychologist or an educator, but I am a parent and, of course, I was a kid myself once; as a writer for young readers I try to pay attention. I think the number one thing kids need is someone in their lives who tells them, “Whoever you turn out to be, whatever choices you make, whatever paths you end up walking down, however many mistakes you make, I will always love you.” Beyond that, kids need support of family, friends, and community, and they need space and time to figure out who they are, with, ideally, a way to feel reasonably safe while they do that crucial life work.

You tackle some tough topics in the book, including Zenobia’s struggle with religion. Can you explain who the character of Melissa is and your decision to include her in Zenobia’s story?

Melissa is another recent transplant to Zen’s school, and a member of a deeply religious family. She and Zen become friends, in part because being with Melissa and her family reminds Zen of her old home. But Zen also feels uneasy with Melissa, because she can’t feel sure how she and her family would react if they knew Zen was transgender. I specifically sought to depict Melissa and her family as complex and sympathetic human characters, not cartoony stereotypes. Part of my effort to create what I call “post-binary fiction” is to avoid having Heroes and Villains. My protagonists are deeply imperfect and make all kinds of mistakes, and the people they end up finding themselves in conflict with have their own reasons for what they do that make sense to them. They are all humans. No cardboard cutouts. I always want to leave room for a larger definition of “we” that includes everyone.

Zenobia is a gamer. Her anonymity online gives her a lot of comfort and, sometimes, power. But online anonymity also gives rise to a mysterious hate crime at her new school. Can you talk a little bit about both sides of this and how they work in the book?

One of the inspirations for this story was the fascination I’ve had for decades now with the question of what a Sherlock Holmes of the Internet would look like, and Zen is my attempt at such a figure. I hope to write many Zenobia books, in part so I can develop this cyber-detective thread further. Beyond that, I feel safe in assuming that the vast majority of my readers live as much in cyberspace as in the so-called “real world,” so I was interested in setting parts of the story there. Key chapters happen in game spaces, and we also get texting exchanges presented as such in the book, with voice balloons and everything. And, all young readers today are well aware of the slipperiness and flexibility of identity in cyberspace, so I hope the way this story about identity unfolds in part in that space will seem comfortable and interesting to them.

You have a cast of amazing characters in this book but I particularly loved Zenobia’s aunts and Uncle Sprink. Can you tell us about this older generation and their influence on Zenobia?

Zen has been taken in by her father’s older sister, who has no children of her own and who is married to another woman. Uncle Sprink is a drag queen friend of theirs who ends up helping Zen too. The main emotional thread of the story has to do with the slow and sometimes bumpy process of people thrown together by circumstance feeling their way toward a sense of family. “Family of choice” is very important in LGBTQ spaces, and I haven’t seen it depicted much in fiction, so I wanted to present a portrait of what I see as a powerful force for good in many at-risk young peoples’ lives.

In addition to being a writer, you are also a State Representative in New Hampshire. How do you feel activism, policy, and literature intersect?

There are a lot of possible answers to this. I guess for now I’ll focus on the power of narrative in our collective lives. Not just as a legislator, but also as an activist, I’ve seen over and over again the power of story to change hearts and minds. For example, we were successful last term in NH in passing state-wide civil protections for trans folks, a bill that had failed in previous sessions. The difference was, an advocacy group organized and encouraged everyone whose lives would be helped by the bill to tell their stories. We wrote letters and emails, we showed up and testified in hearings, and we got a bunch of initially wary law-makers to understand that gender-variant people are regular humans just trying to survive their lives, same as everyone else.

Beyond that, generally speaking, as a professional crafter of narratives, I find myself well-equipped to advocate for my positions in the State House. And, I’m meeting all sorts of wonderfully quirky and diverse humans through my political work. It’s like casting central for secondary characters (and maybe some primary characters too) in all the rest of the books I will ever write.

What are some of your favorite books from childhood?

Oh my goodness, so many. All of Dr. Seuss; The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; the Narnia Books; The Phantom Tollbooth; The Jungle Books; Asterix and Tintin comics from Europe; Dune, and all that old-school sci-fi generally, Asimov, Heinlein, etc.; The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper (especially book three, Greenwitch); Watership Down (one of the best immersive fantasy world creations I have ever read)…just to name a few. And a special extra mention for the Earthsea books by Ursula K. LeGuin, which were and still are very important to me, both the original trilogy and the three books she wrote later. I re-read them every year or so.

What other books can you recommend to young readers who enjoyed Zenobia July?

I’m not going to lie, this question terrifies me. The more I write the less I read, mostly because I’m deeply susceptible to other peoples’ prose styles, so I’ve basically given up on trying to keep track of what else is out there. I did think The Hate U Give was a remarkable piece of #ownvoices work. I also thought Alex Gino did a lovely sensitive job of depicting a trans girl in George. My go-to source for information about books about Rainbow People is Dahlia Adler’s remarkable blog, LGBTQ Reads (www.lgbtqreads.com).

Zenobia July is on B&N bookshelves now. 

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