December 04


Zen Origin Story by Lisa Bunker

Three threads of inspiration brought Zenobia July into being—one light, one dark, and the third, celebratory.

The light thread was a decades-long itch to try my hand at the Sherlock Holmes trope. I love the idea of the quirky genius detective. But, I got to thinking, what if my detective works in cyberspace? And what if she’s female and trans? Then Sense8 came out, with its trans woman hacker character Nomi, and I had to navigate the bump of someone else having gotten to my idea first. It helped to remember what a friend wise in storycraft once said to me: it has been done, but not by you. So I made my cyber-genius trans girl younger than Nomi and gave her a different vibe altogether, and all was well.

The dark thread was the tragic history of Leelah Alcorn, a trans girl who committed suicide in Ohio in 2014. She left behind an eloquent note on Tumblr, in which she wrote, among other things, “My death needs to mean something,” and “Fix Society. Please.” Leelah’s death hit me hard, and writer brain started working on this question: what needed to be different in order for her to survive? Out of that work came Zen’s backstory. I gave her a family of origin something like the family Leelah described in her note, but I also gave her an escape that Leelah didn’t have—cool Lesbian aunties who become her guardians.

As part of this thread, I have included characters who are transphobic, but I took care not to write them as cartoon villains. No demons. All humans. You can only change hearts and minds, I firmly believe, if you refrain from returning the fear and hate that get pointed at you. And Zen herself feels pulled between worlds. Her old life was killing her, but it was still her life, and she loved her parents.

The third thread of inspiration arose out of the public reaction to my first book, Felix Yz. When I was writing Felix I chose in a light-hearted why-the-hell-not sort of way to make a bunch of the characters LGBTQ. Felix is gay, his mother is bi, his grandparent is genderqueer, and more, without any of it being the preachy point of the book. Some reviewers loved this, but others objected, saying this level of rep was unrealistic and strained credulity.

My reaction was, wait, what? Don’t they know? Like any other marginalized group, we LGBTQ folk find each other, in real life and online. Friend clusters, group houses, communal gathering places, family of choice—these are crucial to our survival and well-being. And, clearly, they have not been depicted enough in fiction. So, I decided, next book I write, I’m going to celebrate LGBTQ community. Thus were born the cool Lesbian aunties, and their friend Uncle Sprink, a drag queen, who plays an important role in Zen’s life, and Zen’s friend group at school, most of whom are baby Rainbow People in one way or another.

Three threads of inspiration braided together, and now I get to introduce you to my girl Zen. Like any human, she’s far from perfect, but she is who she is—a fierce young soul determined to live. And I absolutely LOVE this cover, by Marcos Chin. He read the story closely, and the details are spot on, down to the bracelet and the stickers on her laptop. I showed him Zen, he showed her back to me, and now I’m so excited to bring her into the world. I hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as I have!


Lisa Bunker is the author of Felix Yz and recently left a thirty-year career in public and community broadcasting to write full-time. She lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, and does not play chess as well as she would like, but still plays anyway.