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'Cactus Country' shares what it was like growing up gender-fluid in the harsh Sonoran Desert

Arizona is home to countless stories of young men seeking their identities in the wild frontier of the desert. Zoë Bossiere grew up wanting to be a boy in one of those stories. But Bossiere was assigned female at birth, which meant that other people were often resistant to that version of the story.

Now, Bossiere has written a personal history of frontier life in their own words. In “Cactus Country: A Boyhood Memoir,” Bossiere shares a series of essays about growing up as a gender-fluid kid in the harsh environment of the Sonoran Desert, navigating the minefield of masculinity as learned behavior. The title of the book refers to the trailer park where Bossiere’s family moved when Bossiere was a young child. And as Bossiere told “The Show’s” Sam Dingman, Cactus Country was more than meets the eye.

Full conversation

ZOË BOSSIERE: So my family and I, my parents and I lived in the airstream trailer in Cactus country through the entire year. So we were year rounders, whereas most other folks would come in and they would stay for a couple of days or a week or a few months maybe. And so because it was such a transitory space I was able to live as and pass as this boy because most people would leave before finding out anything different. And so I think in a way living in Cactus Country allowed me to be that boy in ways that I would not have been able to if we had lived in a more traditional place. 

SAM DINGMAN: Yeah. And I think the other thing that, that what you're describing there hits on that is also so compelling in the story is that there's, there seemed to be so few people in your life at that time who you were able to really talk to about this.

BOSSIERE: Right. Yeah. And I think that especially at that time, none of us knew what words to use. None of us really had the language to describe what was going on with me. I certainly didn't, the best that I could do was say, oh, I wish I was a boy, you know, And to express myself in ways that made that really evident, right? So I had a very short haircut. I wore boy's clothing, I carried myself like a boy. I, you know, involve myself in boys interests and hung out with other boys and was a boy in every sense of the word. And I think for my parents, it was similar. I, I don't think that they knew, I think that they were trying their best to navigate what I was going through and to help me while also being limited by what they thought at the time, which was that this was a phase that I would probably grow out of.

DINGMAN: I'd love to talk about your parents for a second if we could because in my mind, it's, it's such a trope in memoir, writing for parents to be these very extreme characters, they're often alcoholic or abusive or neurodivergent. And a lot of times that the central action of the story is sort of fueled by the extreme actions of the parents and your parents in this book are not that they're very nuanced, they're very multi-layered. And I wonder how, how you thought about the challenge of, of rendering them in the book because I, I, I think readers of these kinds of stories are often looking to the parents to be sort of an easy answer for where the, the tension or the drama in the narrative comes from and you complicate that in this, in this book in a really interesting way.

BOSSIERE: I've always thought of my parents as dreamers, you know, before I was born, they were sea lion trainers in a Hungarian circus. They tried to start like a backpacking tour company at one point. So they, they, even though in a lot of these ventures, they didn't end up sticking, right, and they would move on to other dreams, they still tried it out, right? Like they still went for it. And I think even though as characters, they're less central to like the, the primary story, I think that without their example as a child, I don't know that I would have pursued my big dreams. Right. I don't know that I would have seen us moving to Cactus Country as the opportunity that it was to become who I felt I was.

DINGMAN: Yeah, I'm, I'm so glad you brought that up because the thing, this book captures that, I think a lot of books, Miss is how much parents make these choices that set their kids lives on this entirely different trajectory and that they make those choices because of who they are.

BOSSIERE: That's such an interesting thought I think that you just brought up and it's something that my parents and I talk about even now about how they made the choice to move us to Tucson. And so all of us are Tucson ands my parents still live in Tucson though not in Cactus Country anymore. But, but our versions of Tucson like that we experienced are completely different because my parents are sort of transplants whereas I grew up there.

DINGMAN: So speaking of perspective, one of the things that really stood out to me about the book is that you end up encountering people whose stories are not often told with very much empathy. I'm thinking in particular of Dave the Skinhead, who you go over to his trailer and he has a bunch of copies of "Mein Kampf." And you don't really know what that is, but you are also aware that he's clearly angry about something clearly feels like he's been betrayed in various ways. And it's not that you're justifying the fact that he has Nazi literature lying around. But you have this instinct, it seems to me to try to connect with the person that is behind the representation of the person that others might make their judgments based on. And I wonder how much of that is part of your goal in writing this book?

BOSSIERE: I think living in a community like that, you learn to get along with everyone or you learn that it's important to get along with everyone because it's a small community. It's almost like a small town. And in doing that, you begin to see aspects of their humanity that maybe if you weren't interacting with them in that way, on a daily basis, you wouldn't see otherwise. I feel like living in Cactus Country really helped me to develop a sense of empathy and compassion for people who would maybe normally be blamed for the kinds of predicaments they find themselves in because I saw what their lives were like and I saw how complex these issues really are and like with Dave, I think what people often forget is that there is a person behind that rhetoric, a whole person, you know, with a history and a potential as well.

DINGMAN: Yeah, that's kind of a good segue, I think, to the passage I was hoping that you would read, which is,, it's on Page 34 and it starts with,, hanging from the trunk of the Palo Verde tree.

BOSSIERE: Yes, absolutely.

Hanging from the trunk of the Palo Verde tree.

I swung my hand down in front of the beetle.

The insect tested its weight against my skin with its front legs.

Then gingerly climbed onto my palm.

I raised the beetle up and held it in my cupped hands.

Its pincers looked even more menacing up close, but it didn't try to pinch my fingers.

I knew it wouldn't, considering the creature in my hand.

I thought maybe we weren't so different.

I couldn't imagine then what my future would hold or how to reconcile the girl dad saw in me with the boy, I knew myself to be.

But if I had to stay in Cactus Country while the other boys left, maybe that meant I belonged here like this beetle did in our desert kingdom.

The insect ambled slowly to the tips of my outstretched fingers.

Antenna waving through the air in seconds.

The beetle opened its great wings, launching itself from my hands and into the bright expanse of the sky startling me.

I'd never seen a Palo Verde beetle take flight before I watched it go.

Waiting to see where it would land.

DINGMAN: Zoë Bossiere, author of "Cactus Country," A Boyhood Memoir. Thank you so much.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.