COOPER LEE BOMBARDIER navigates his journey to a sense of belonging through art, stories, and performance. The essays take us from a working class childhood in South Shore of Boston to San Francisco, Santa Fe, on tour across the States with Sister Spit, and more recently north to Canada where he calls home. His work has been published in the Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, CutBank, Nailed Magazine, Longreads, BOMB, and The Rumpus. He has also had essays in numerous anthologies, ones that have garnered a Lambda Literary award, 2018 American Library Association Stonewall Book Awards, and Barbara Gittings Literature Award. The Huffington Post named him one of “10 Transgender Artists Who Are Changing the Landscape of Contemporary Art.”
Pass with Care is his first book, one that takes on his journey into his own physical presence, claiming a body and identity on his own terms. He moves from “A Body Trapped in an Idea of a Body” (p.26) to “Accepting my body as trans helped me see how much I am like other people–not special or different–because in accepting my body I had to accept life and that fact that I was living it” (p199).
It’s beautifully written.
The essays in Pass with Care describe a tomboy childhood, (“I was a tall, awkward pork chop of a girl in boys’ clothes with a thicket of dark hair that hugged my round face like an over-padded helmet” p.17), to becoming a butch dyke in San Francisco of the early 1990s (“dressed up as I tend to get, in my favourite embroidered Western shirt and unwashed 501s, rough as sandpaper, and big black boots worn down in the heels,” p.183) and starting to transition while in Santa Fe during the mid-late 1990s. I remember Cooper hosting spoken word events in town, he was a charmer, a presence, and well-known in our small queer community. Through him, I discovered Sister Spit, Michelle Tea, and Sini Anderson who were on and off tour during those years. In Pass with Care, I learned about a darker side to his sense of community here, I’d had no idea. It’s humbling to be reminded how easily people draw lines in the desert sand and to claim one identity that pushes out others. I’m sorry to say that Cooper was kicked out as he transitioned from butch to trans. As he writes, “Embarking upon this transition meant that I was shoving off from the shore of lovability, that I was in fact worthless.” (p.52). He writes about these and other struggles with such compassion for his younger self that it took my breath, softened my heart, and I had to pause.
The essays shift around in time and style. Some chapters are a blend of childhood and home, others on the role of Buddhism, acceptance, and transitioning. Lists. Interviews. Flashbacks. Poems. Memories. We read of how people reacted to his appearance in anger, in confusion, in binary concepts. In Lips Like Elvis, one shopkeeper’s irritation at not being able to box Cooper in one gender or another, leads Cooper to reply, “I’m not trying to make people think anything. I’m just trying to feel as much like myself as I can.” (p.36) The Identity Poem builds upon labels within labels to the point of the ridiculous and back out. The Conversation records some of what people have asked when trying to figure out why would he want or need to transition and then coming to support him with “I’m excited to see you be more comfortable.” (p.29). In My Life in Ink, Cooper tells of his attitude to tattoos, the first at age 12, in the 1990s having strangers show up at his door asking for some, squandering an apprenticeship at Black and Blue, and then giving stick and poke tatts on tour; “It is about connection, a reminder, a friendship, an adventure.” (p.169)
To me that sums up this collection: Cooper’s essays are intimate memories, unique and beautiful if hard stories, ones full of connection, pain, and as Bombardier wrote, “an indelible souvenir of a time and of a place” (p.169). They stay with me.
Pass with Care: Memoirs
By Cooper Lee Bombardier
Nonfiction | 240 pages
Paperback and hardcover editions
ISBN 9781948340489 (Hardcover): US $24.95
ISBN 9781948340212 (Softcover): US $18.95
Publication date: May 12, 2020