Saturday, March 28, 2020

Zenobia July, by Lisa Bunker

While her father's hunting accident has left middleschooler Zen an orphan, the decision for her to come live with her Aunts provides an opportunity to finally become the girl she has always known herself to be.  With a new town and anew school, Zen has decided that she'll present as female and not even tell anyone that she's trans.

Being a girl proves harder than she expected.  There's the natural worries of passing, but Zen also find that being a girl involves tricky social skills with which she is not familiar.  She knows that being a girl feels right, but doing it right does not always come to her.  She doesn't know to be wary around queen bee Natalie.  While prim Margaret seems like she would make a good buddy, her conservative religious family proves to be a no-go.  For safety and comfort, Zen is drawn to a group of misfits, made up of racial and sexual minorities trying to fit in.

Zen is far more than a trans girl.  She has major computer skills.  When a hacker defaces the school's website with racist and transphobic graffiti, Zen leaps into action, helping the school track down the perpetrator.  All along the way she worries about finding out that the person who did this is likely someone she knows, someone who may not even realize that they have attacked her.

A complicated collection of ideas that surprisingly works.  The major plot line of Zen learning how to be a girl is handled quite well.  Zen both addresses her frustrations with the boy parts of her (she's well aware that as she enters puberty that things will get harder) and with learning the skills to reinforce and validate her femininity.  Related to this, there's a lovely series of interludes where various characters describe how Zen appears to them, with even the most reluctant observer agreeing that Zen is a girl.  Subplots about tolerance of cultural pluralism (Muslims in one instance and homosexuals in the other) neatly intertwine.  Zen's two aunts, their marriage, and the overall non-traditional family they form is another component.  

I also appreciate the things that the story doesn't do.  No traumatic outing scene.  No widespread bullying at school (mean girl Natalie aside!).  No family screaming match.  No grand gestures or speeches.  It all ends on a high note and, while little external has actually changed, we get the sense that Zen is just a bit closer to her happy place.  That opens us to a sequel or just a nice slice of Zen's growth.

No comments: