The Bookshelf: Lisa Bunker on Gender, Identity, and the 'Alien' Inside Felix Yz

Jun 23, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR is Exeter author Lisa Bunker. In her debut novel, Felix Yz, Felix has an unusual problem. When he was very young, he became fused with a friendly, quirky alien from the fourth dimension when an experiment his father was conducting went wrong. The alien's name is Zyx. Now a teenager, Felix is counting the days to the procedure that will either separate him from Zyx or kill him.

As if Felix didn’t have enough to worry about, he’s also struggling with feelings for Hector, a boy at school.

NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke about Felix Yz with Lisa Bunker. Listen to the interview below or scroll down to read Lisa's top five reading recommendations.

Lisa Bunker's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. “This is the book that revealed to me that I am a writer. I was five years old when I found it on a bottom shelf in my parents’ book room, where they had cleverly left it for me to discover on my own. The gorgeously delectable prose—it’s basically blank verse in paragraph form—hit me like a golden revelation, and I understood that the reason I had been born was so that I could maybe someday make a thing out of words as astonishing and wonderful as this.”

2.   A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. “Or, if you’ll allow the cheat, the whole Earthsea Trilogy (and the three further books she added later). My book-geek 6th grade teacher Miss Musgrove read the second book of the trilogy aloud to us—The Tombs of Atuan, a tale of a fierce young soul confronting the infinite—and I was transported by its bleak but beautiful setting and language. Of all living writers, I would most love to meet Le Guin, though I would be fangirling so hard I expect I would be unable to speak.”

3.   Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. “My favorite examination of the trans experience by a trans author, though She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan is a close second. Serano’s explication of the intersectional complexities of trans-misogyny is subtle, trenchant, and galvanizing. Sometimes when I’m struggling and need a reminder of just how kickass we trans women are, I return to the short chapter entitled ‘Love Rant.’ I love this chapter so much I have performed it at a slam.”

4.   Watership Down by Richard Adams. “I feel vaguely sheepish about this one, because it seems too obvious. Lots of people know and love this book. But it’s just so original and so brilliant from start to finish. It’s one of the most thoroughly well-imagined fantasy stories I have ever read (matched only by J.R.R. Tolkien’s stellar work in this arena), with absolutely consistent internal logic, gorgeous poetic descriptions, and a sustained dramatic climax which is the most fun I have ever had reading anything aloud.”

5.   Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. “Feeling sheepish again, but have you actually read it? If you haven’t, you should. If you have, read it again. The A&E TV serial version is great, but the book is even better. It’s both one of the funniest and one of the most generous books I have ever read. Austen was a gentle, big-hearted, uniquely English genius. And this whole paragraph could also have been about Sense and Sensibility. Just substitute in the Ang Lee film version, but still also read or re-read the book.” 

This book has a lot of facets to it—science, sexuality, gender, and coming of age. But first let’s talk about Felix’s name. It’s the first thing you encounter. It’s pronounced “is,” but it’s spelled “Yz.” What’s the story around that.

It’s a geeky thing. There’s this fourth dimensional being in the story, and I wanted to play around with a math thing having to do with that. Felix’s name ends with the letters “xyz,” if you spell out his full name as a string of characters, which can be seen as the three axes of a three dimensional graph of space.

And then Zyx is fourth-dimensional being, so there’s a really geeky thing that happens in the story where Zyx gets a 27th letter of the alphabet. Felix’s grandparent invents it—Felix’s grandparent is a word geek. So we have this 27th letter spelled with an asterisk, pronounced [popping sound].

Zyx’s full name is actually *zyxilef. Let me try that again:  [pop] zyxilef.

So that’s the fourth dimension. This book is full of geekeries: Math, chess, classical music, jazz, philosophy, ideas of the infinite versus the finite and the infinitely permeable barrier between the two.

So, the alien from the fourth dimension, Zyx, with the 27th letter of the alphabet that sounds like [pop]—

That was good!

Thank you very much, I’ve been practicing. How did you find Zyx’s voice? He's a lovely character. He speaks through typing—this whole novel is, for the most part, Felix typing in his blog, and Zyx has the power to take over Felix’s fingers and speak in his own way, usually italicized. How did you find inspiration for that?

Not only italicized but all lowercase and no punctuation, sort of e.e. cummings-esque.

Another thing I like to do in my writing is examine tired old conventional tropes, and see how they could be done differently, so I started thinking about an alien inside a long, long time ago. This was an idea I had when I was a teenager. I thought then: what superpowers would it give you?

When I was writing this now, in my forties, I was thinking more about what it would be like to have a radically different intelligence inside you, one perhaps that you’re going to have to say goodbye to soon. And then I started thinking: aliens, okay, what do we know about aliens? Well, we know they have oval heads and almond-shaped eyes and they land in Area 51 and they come in peace. Those are the conventional alien tropes, and I wanted to invent something completely different from that.

So my concept of Zyx is as a kind of entity who, before becoming fused with Felix, had no physical, corporeal being, no relationship with language, and no sense of individual self apart from a larger collective self or being. In other words, just about as completely alien from a human being as you could possibly be.

A big part of the backstory of Felix is Felix and Zyx learning how to cohabitate the same body, and Zyx learning what language is and how to use it, to the limited extent that vo does.

And then, just for the fun of it, I gave Zyx a combination of deep philosophical insight and childlike geeky joy at things like chess and music, just because it was fun.

And, forgive me, I keep referring to Zyx as he, but it’s actually not accurate. You just used the pronoun “vo” to refer to Zyx. This is a pronoun you use for characters that don’t conform to traditional genders. Another such character is Grandy, Felix’s paternal grandparent, who on certain days of the week is Vern, and on other days of the week is Vera.

This is an interesting aspect of the book, because it’s in the background, it’s there, it’s part of Felix’s family, but it doesn’t necessarily take center stage. I wonder if this is inspired by something personally close to you, because you’re a transgender woman. Was this part of the book particularly meaningful to you?

It was deliberate. I could say I have a couple of different missions as a writer relating to my identity as a trans person. One is, I do not think there are yet enough books in the world for kids or adults or anyone featuring LGBTQ characters without that being the preachy point of the book.

There’s a good number of stories now about being gay in high school, or being queer in high school, or being trans in high school, or whatever it might be. But often—I’m not going to say always—but often those books are about that. I wanted to write a story about a kid who is fused with an alien who also, incidentally among other personality facets, is attracted to another boy at school.

It is, as you say, not the important part of what’s going on with Felix’s, it’s one facet among many. I would say my status as a transgender person is one facet, among many, of who I am. Of course it matters, it’s had a big impact on my life and the arc of my life, but it doesn’t define me. You can’t say, oh, Lisa Bunker, she’s trans, and have that explain me any more than my faith, or my nationality, or how tall I am, or the color of my eyes, or anything else.

So yes, writing stories featuring LGBTQ characters without that being the main point, and without shaking a figure and lecturing at the reader or anybody else. It’s just a thing about Felix, and his grandparent is genderqueer, and his mother is bisexual, and there are a couple of other LGBTQ characters as well in this story.

There’s a second sense of mission related to the first that has developed more recently, because of course I’m tracking response to Felix online and reading reviews by readers. One comment that I tend to get is, there are so many LGBTQ characters in this book that it’s not realistic or it strains credulity, which I think is an amusing thing to say about a book about boy fused with an alien.

What do you think people expect?

I think those reviews come from readers who, for whatever reason, have not had or do not realize that they have a fair number of LGBTQ people in their lives. Perhaps they are used to a kind of convention in our contemporary literary and film world where, in a story, there might be one or two LGBTQ characters but no more than that. A kind of unspoken statutory limit on the representation.

I know from my own experience that there are spaces and places in our world which are almost completely queer people. We find each other. We are a misunderstood and often vilified set of minorities, and so we seek solace and strength in community, and there are communal spaces in real life and online. There are families of choice and group houses, and all kinds of other ways that LGBTQ people come together, and we have culture.

So, a second sense of mission has evolved around depicting that in stories. Still without it being a preachy point, but I want to show a family, like my own family, in which the majority of the members have one of those letters in LGBTQ or more.

For my little family of three, myself and my two children, and my partner two, so I am a transgender woman, I am engaged to be married to another woman. I have two children, one of whom is genderqueer, doesn’t identify as either male or female and uses the pronouns they or them, and then I have my son who is the only cisgender heterosexual person, our token straight kid.

So there are in fact families where almost everybody is LGBTQ and I want to show that to the world.

Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

For me, the gender identity of the characters in this book were part of a bigger puzzle that, when put together, was a statement on identity. If the book were making a point, it’s saying that identities change, that change is normal.

Yes, I wouldn’t say that I set out with exactly what you described clearly in mind as a goal for the book, but now that this book exists as a physical object in the world and I’m having to write little things on the flyleaf, one of the things I’m writing is “reader, book, writer,” it’s a three-ness. There’s this concept that passes through the book of the three-ness of things—how there’s a thing in the middle between two other things. So, whatever my intentions were, if you took that away from the book, and you brought whatever  you brought to the book and that happened for you—wonderful. That makes me happy.

What I would say I was thinking about more, writing the inevitable change that Felix has to go through, is that he’s counting down to a procedure to separate him from Zyx, because being fused together is not healthy for either of them. So either he is going to lose this unusual secret friend he’s had all his life and who he loves, or he’s going to die. That’s a lot to put on any thirteen-year-old and it’s a very fraught time as he counts down.

To me, what I was most interested in was—I passed through significant grief at a young age, my father died when I was 14, and one of the things I noticed as I helplessly tumbled over in the tsunami of that, is that regular life kept happening. I still had to go to school and brush my teeth, and the cat pan needed to be scooped.

Even when these earth-shattering things happen, real life just keeps going on, and that was something I was interested in writing this story. Here’s a kid counting down to this unimaginable procedure with no perfectly happy outcome, massive change is about to happen in his life, and he still has to deal with the bully at his school, and his mom’s annoying boyfriend.

To me, that’s a form of how real life really happens that I wanted to put into fiction.

One thing that Felix had to contend with through that ordeal was that he couldn’t really tell people that he had this weird alien fused to his DNA. Eventually he does tell Hector, and Hector in a sign of love and solidarity says “I believe you,” which is a really touching moment. With respect to your experience when you were young, did you feel you couldn’t tell people about your grief?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I had much to articulate at that time, more than just pain.

I think perhaps a more pointed question, if I may be so bold as to answer a different question from the one you asked, is how did I talk or fail to talk about my gender identity when I was a child, because I was raised as a boy and grew up to be “man” impersonating masculinity in the world, despite not being a masculine person, because I was born with a male body and everyone thought I was a boy.

So I did that, and a person could write an English paper about how Zyx inside Felix is sort of like the trans experience, where you have this radically different self inside you, which you do not feel you can express to anyone. I couldn’t even express it to myself, I never clearly said, as a young trans girl, I am a female person, I’m a girl, this boy thing is just wrong. That was always the case, I just didn’t have the language, I didn’t have the force of will to go against what my parents and the world all said I was. I didn’t have any role models or figures in fiction.

So there is a point, coming back around to why this book is in the world, I have a hope as a writer that if some kid perhaps living in a family, or culture, or town that is not very friendly to LGBTQ people finds this book and they are in the beginning stages of exploring who they really are as a gendered and sexual person, and it’s not matching into the neat binary categories that are being foisted upon them, that they’ll find comfort. They’ll see, oh here’s a kid who’s kind of in-between-y, and here’s another character who’s in-between-y, and maybe it’s okay to be in-between-y. So there is that sense of mission and hope to give solace to young kids coming to terms with identities that don’t into the binaries.

For thirty years, you were working in public broadcasting.

Yes!

So being here in the studio isn’t entirely foreign to you.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a studio as shiny as this one. My last job was fourteen years at a community radio station, which is like band stickers all over the walls and records crammed into everywhere, and the messy community radio model. So this is really nice.

I wouldn’t mind some band stickers around here, but management might frown upon that.

Well, that’s a conversation for another time.

When you were in radio, were you doing interviews, playing music?

In my last job, I was the program director, so I mostly trained people to talk on the radio. Empowering regular humans to be a voice on the airwaves, which is something I believe passionately in.

Are we really going in this direction? Because I rant about radio indefinitely.

We’ve got infinite tape here and a podcast to support it, so go for it.

Okay, well, I started out in public radio in the 80s, as a volunteer at KUOW in Seattle, Washington, and this was in the day and age when you could walk into a major radio station, find something fun to do, and eventually get on the air.

It’s not the case anymore—try to walk into KUOW today and say, "Hey I’d like to do a radio show." They might give you information about volunteering during the fundraiser or something.

But it was kind of a loose and wild time in public radio, and I loved that. I got into that for work, because I did have in my mind that I wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t coming together at that time. I needed to do something else while the writing percolated, so I got into radio, I was announcing classical music, and I loved it. I had jobs at several stations around the country.

But I did see how, what I’ve got into the habit of calling mainstream public radio, how mainstream public radio became increasingly corporate and safe and polished. Those are good things in some ways, but there are also problems with it. I did finally find community radio and was very happy just empowering people there to make, you know, crazy heavy metal radio mixed with radical social commentary at three in the morning kind of radio, with band stickers all over the place. To me that has a sort of vital life to it, which, no offense, is lacking from public broadcasting now. Public broadcasting has become a big-money commodity. So it is polished and produced within an inch of its life.

It’s still a huge power for good in the world, but I kind of miss the bad old days.

Well, I’ll leave this interview a little rougher than I leave my normal interviews.

Thank you, I appreciate that!

So you said writing was percolating for you. What prompted you to put radio aside and be a full-time writer?

I got my lucky break. I got representation for Felix and then a contract, and I was able to financially. I was writing all along. I never stopped writing. It was a frustrating process for a long time. I had not yet come out to myself or anyone else as transgender or transitioned. To a certain extent, in my fiction, I was trying to work out those issues unsuccessfully, just sort of banging my head against it.

The stories weren’t very good, as they probably tend to be when a person is unsuccessfully attempting to work out some major issue through the act of writing and started the process of transitioning that my writing got more free, more joyful, and I wrote a better story.

And when was that?

Within the last ten years. I had my moment of gender revelation in ’07, so yeah, coming up on ten years. I started writing Felix five years ago, as a NaNoWriMo, actually. National Novel Writing Month is this thing where a million people all around the world each write 50,000 words of a crappy rough draft in the month of November.

That’s how Felix was born. I had the idea, as I mentioned, for decades, in different forms. I finally decided, it’s time. It’s time to write this story about a kid with an alien inside.

It went through multiple stages. I wrote the first draft in a month, then polished it. Since it takes the form of a thirty day count down, I got together with my oldest child who’s a talented illustrator and a friend who does radio drama, and we produced a multimedia, real time, serial web fiction of Felix, which unfolded over thirty days at FelixYz.com as though he were actually doing the blog for real, with the posts appearing at the right time on the right days of the week, with illustrations and a chapter in radio drama form.

It was huge fun to do. A lot of people thought it was cool. Almost nobody read the whole thing, so the takeaway from that was, long-form fiction doesn’t work very well on the internet.

Then I rewrote it again and self-published. So it went through a bunch of iterations and it got better. Then finally I met the person who I’m now engaged to be married, who’s a writer also and who had an agent. So she connected to me to the agent and the agent liked the book.

I never gave up, I kept writing no matter what, and I kept improving my craft. When that moment that all writers hope for finally happened and my words were on the right computer screen in front of the right eyes, somebody said yes, and everything followed from that. I was able to leave employment as a radio person and take up writing full time.

How do you like this life as a writer so far?

I love it. I absolutely adore it. This is going to sound pretentious, but whatever: I really feel like the reason I exist on this planet is to make stories for people. I have felt that since I was five. It’s been incredibly frustrating to not be able to until now, but now I finally get to.

I feel like I get to be who I am. That’s what gender revelation and transition was like, too. I finally figured out, wait a second, I’m just not a man. I might still sound like a man—changing my voice has been one of the more challenging things, so probably somebody is listening to this right now and thinking, she sounds like a man. Well, I do. I am not, however, a male person.

So a tremendous unfolding and unclenching happened with regards to gender and now the same thing with writing. I get to tell stories, and I get to be the person who makes the books that kids who need help can find.

That just makes me indescribably happy. And what do you do when all your dreams come true? Well, keep working I guess, that’s my answer. I’m just going to keep writing more books.