Origin Stories: That Time Trish Salah Memorized Lord of the Rings

She has long used the writing conventions of the genres she loves to explore greater possibilities for living

Halifax-born writer, poet, and gender studies professor Trish Salah always knew words would be a big part of her future. Books and writing were an important part of her childhood, whether she was falling in love with a new book or reciting the plots of entire novels to the adults around her.

“There’s one moment that stands out for me,” says Salah. “As a very young kid, I decided to explain to my uncle who was visiting—a very patient man—what the plot of Lord of the Rings was. It was a kind of recounting in a very chronological order. I think he probably didn’t understand that I intended to speak for several hours.”

By the time she reached junior high, she was writing her own fantasy, science fiction and poetry. Like a lot of young writers, her work was derivative at first, but she continued to develop her skills and when she was in high school, she entered her first writing competition. Although she doesn’t remember the name of the competition anymore, Salah says it was a contest specifically for high school students in Nova Scotia.

Looking back now, Salah says the story was about “a young genderqueer hustler” living in a futuristic society. The main conflict of the story was “a seduction and assault by a group of decadent aristocrats.”

“When my mother and the school psychologist took a look, they were very worried,” says Salah. “I don’t know if it ever was sent forward.”

Years later, she thinks that story was an unconscious—or perhaps semi-conscious—attempt to achieve two goals: to use the writing conventions of the genres she truly enjoyed and to “think about the possibilities for living.” Now, when she reflects on the science fiction and fantasy she enjoyed most when she hit her twenties, writers like Angela Carter and Rachel Pollack come to mind. “They definitely reworked those genres to think about the social in various ways,” she says.

The master’s thesis she wrote in the 1990s, which she describes as a series of interlinked magic-realist stories set in the Halifax underground music scene and linked by poems, reflects those interests as well. For Salah, writing is about imagining the world in new ways and the simple pleasure of storytelling. It’s also a way for her to play with and develop new insights into language. She adds that she also enjoyed exploring “how language always does more than it seems, or than we intend.”

She didn’t submit any more writing during her high school years but she did continue to write. About a year after high school she moved to Montreal and enrolled in the English and Creative Writing program at Concordia University. She started submitting to small magazines, and got involved in a few different publications including The Moosehead Anthology and Index Magazine. Around the same time, Salah developed an interest in the way French feminists were using l’ecriture feminine and l’ecriture au feminin to “write the body.”

“I was curious as to whether or not this way of writing one’s self as a woman, into subjectivity, into literature and into the world might provide a pathway for my own self becoming legible in the world,” she says. “I think my first publication was in Tessera, which was a bilingual journal of feminist poetics and poetry. [The poem] was called ‘when there are three’ and it was really about the question of whether l’ecriture feminine could encompass trans women.”

Ultimately, Salah began focusing on poetry because it helped her sort out her thoughts, develop arguments and explore her relationship with language, including Arabic.

“I grew up in a mixed household with part of my family speaking Arabic,” she says. “I never really learned the language—my father passed when I was seven and that language learning didn’t continue. I’ve never really returned to it as a project, although it’s been marked as a kind of point of desire or a point of alienation in language.

“I guess I became interested in thinking of poetry as a medium to think about language and its relationship to what it is to be a person.” This exploration ultimately resulted in Salah’s first published book of poems, Wanting in Arabic.

Her second book of poems, Lyric Sexology, explores gender identity and the discourse around it. Although the book was published in the US in 2014 , it’s just been released in Canada by Metonymy Press (with extra poems!).

“I think it is also a kind of passionate reckoning with the very uneven, violent and difficult ways in which trans and genderqueer have been written in various archives,” Salah explains. “I say passionate, because it is about recognition and desire within distortion, and also about attending to the fact that trans and genderqueer people have had a role in making the discourses that I’m calling archives, if sometimes under very compromising or impossible circumstances.”

Salah’s next published short story, “It Can Grow!!!” will be included in the upcoming collection of science fiction and fantasy writing called Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy by Transgender Writers. The collection will be published this fall, by Topside Press.

Written By

Sarah Sawler is a Halifax journalist, book reviewer and author of 100 Things You Don't Know About Nova Scotia.

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