Below is the next entry in a series on trans writers and the essay, this time with Trish Salah. The author of Wanting in Arabic and Lyric Sexology Vol. 1, she is also a critic and editor, focusing on trans literature and writing. I was thrilled to chat with her about form, genre, and memory, and of course about her own writing.
Check out some of the earlier conversations in this series, too, with Torrey Peters, manuel arturo abreu, and Ching-In Chen.
T Clutch Fleischmann: I begin these interviews by asking everyone about their relation to genre as a writer and to gender as a writer, and specifically how you respond to your work being labeled as "trans," as "poetry," as whatever categories it might intentionally or unintentionally run into. I wonder if you could speak to such categorization to get us started. Your statement in Troubling the Line, for instance, that "the writing is singular, and eclipses particular modalities of thinking about," suggests one way of resisting such categorization.
Trish Salah: Thanks for asking, Clutch. Such a loaded question for me. When I was a kid I liked genre writing, as in “low writing,” best: science fiction, fantasy, horror, porn, comics. Sometimes I still do. My first attempt at a book length work was a collection of interconnected short stories—I wanted it to be both grittily realist and baroquely fantastic, à la Angela Carter’s Love and The Bloody Chamber, and also to pay homage to the Halifax goth/punk scene I fell in love with in my late teens. But while I was writing it I was also reading more intergenre works, like Borderlands/La Fronteras, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and so the thing morphed and I ended up writing poems as intertexts to weave the stories together. Oddly those poems are what, from that project, ended up being published some years later, as the core of the Language Becoming a Girlsection of my first poetry book.
In the time between writing that short story cycle, and publishing Wanting in Arabic, I’d begun my transition, and perhaps as importantly, had read the following line from Sandy Stone’s “The Empire Writes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto”: “…I suggest constituting transsexuals not as a class or problematic “third gender,” but rather as a genre-a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption of structured sexualities and spectra of desire has yet to be explored” (Camera Obscura, 165).
And while I’ve persistently quarreled with what I’ve understood to be the material and psycho-social implications of Stone’s argument for forgoing passing—implications she is well aware of, and allows for within the manifesto— I’ve also been profoundly enabled in my thinking and writing by Stone’s suggestion that trans people actively seize and redeploy the genres through which we have been written. In a certain way I’ve been pointedly literalist in my reading of that suggestion, focusing on the literary and political potential of taking archives of sexological-psychoanalytic, anthropological, feminist/queer, and literary representations of “transgender,” as critical objects for my doctoral dissertation, and as found material for the Lyric Sexology project.
Relatedly when we—Casey Plett, Owen Campbell, Shelagh Pizey-Allen and I—were planning our trans literature and criticism conference at the University of Winnipeg, we titled it Writing Trans Genres. That was not just to add to the long list of bad trans puns, but in order to surface the way in which, as Namaste, Prosser and others’ have pointed out, trans subjects have been rendered, as textual figures, and to recentre the question of literary genre around trans authorship and audience. To do that was effectively to ask the question of minor literature. That is, beyond articulating a minority discourse—self-representation, which is still an important goal— to ask how might trans writers, critics, audiences intervene in and revise how and what we mean with and by genre, figure, literature, writing?
I’m excited by that process, in which similar archival material is rendered from critical object to academic dissertation and from found material to poetic text. Your work often seems like it is engaged in these multiplicities, of form or genre, discipline or writing practice. Could you speak more to how that might offer us some of those trans revisions to genre, to writing? I’m also thinking of what comes before the text I read.
The presence of the archival also makes me think of the question of documentation, of self and information. In Wanting, in the surgical diary, you say "The question is how I can here try to rewrite this body which is less truth than occasion…" The turn to occasion seems to allow for these archives to speak on the present moment (the event) in an important way, maybe even insists upon it. Does truth in some way need to be turned away from, or decentered, for occasion to come?
Within "Surgical Diary" there is as you say a documentary impulse, and it seems to sometimes be read as a key to other poems in Wanting in Arabic. As you know documentary is often received or interpreted as somehow mimetic, as if it were less evidently writing than is obvious with other forms. Certainly there are truth claims evoked by the genre… and on the other hand, the Foucauldian and feminist discourses on truth claims vis a vis sex and the body, have been, by and large, deployed in ways that are anti-transsexual. So, in terms of occasion, in a minimal way I was troubling truth as something either arising from or written on the body, but also allowing for something more modest, local, and active to be done with/as a body.
Regarding your first question, I think for me the important thing is that the palimpsest of "trans representation" we encounter as if it were what was knowable be made available for recollecting and reworking, or for analysis or deconstruction, rather than that it exist as a foundation for our being. Poetry and critique both offer ways in, as do other genres. My own preference is obviously for showing the trace, its violence and the ambiguity of it.
When you say "poetry and critique both offer ways in, as do other genres," are there trends we could align between those particular genres/ways-in? Poetry might be particularly adept at showing the traces, for instance. If that’s the case, what might the essay, or the memoir, lend themselves to, as ways in?
I’m wondering especially about the utility of memoir, how its attention to personal memory seems to offer some ripe potentials for trans writers, while in reality trans memoirs tend to default to that "foundation for our being," rather than the reworking or analysis (that is, there are exceptions, but trans memoirs seem often to write themselves into the memoir genre, rather than rewriting that genre).
At the same time, we find memory dealt with across other forms of art making– the domestic, home movie of Gender Troublemakers: Transsexuals in the Gay Community, or memory in a Ching-In Chen zuihitsu, etc.
What might memoir, as a genre, offer you? Anything?
I think that is what I was trying to get at, a little, not a solid correlation, but perhaps a tendency, an associative drift or drags within any given generic repertoire. So sure, poetry or any work of erasure or fragmentation might stage or disclose traces, whether of "the body is the inscribed surface of events" or the mystic writing pad variety. Where is the common ground between Kate Eichorn’s Fond and Discipline by Dawn Lundy Martin? There are really different orders of traces. For instance, "phrases in dispute," and the question of what might be a trace of a violence that conceals (or cancels out) the evidence of violence having taken place. But again if we think of ecriture feminine as that which is a writing of the incommensurable of the feminine and the libidinal with a syntax that precludes feminine subjectivity and embodiment, there is a doubling of the liminal with what’s excessive.
As for the essay, Stein famously asked us to experience writing as a way of holding time, and for her composition practices duration and extension. What would a Steinien attention to duration look like in terms of trans memoir? Her sense of composition does resonate for me with zuihitsu, in fact, although maybe there is the deployment of genre breaks internal to that form to mark changes in thought’s tempo and topos within a long duration? I’ve thought more than once that a book like The Heart’s Trafficlooks like a novel from one perspective and like an essay from another.
I wonder about erasure as it features within the conventions that guide both the writing and reading of trans memoirs. Xanthra Phillipa and Mirha-Soleil Ross’Gender Troublemakers is a self portraiture, but certainly not memoir; more like kitchen table theory and a love letter and a call to accounts, each with different points of address, and in places its polemic and its satire are indistinguishable.
But I’ve always felt that trans memoir, even within its conventions, was a hybrid from, and some of this is from Prosser. But if you look carefully at the memoirs and at bildungsroman like the Well of Loneliness or Stone Butch Blues, you can see within those forms, others: the medical case study with its sexological introduction, the social protest novel, as well as elements of the how to guide and the erotic reverie in the stylized narrations of self discovery, etc.
That said, I look forward to memoirs that look nothing like what I’ve read so far.
Lastly, could you speak a bit about the differences between writing and publishing in, say, 2002, when Wanting in Arabic came out, and writing now? What have the efforts and shifts in trans representation, in focused trans publishing, in trans scholarship meant for you, putting words on the page?
In 2002 there wasn’t a broader trans literary context that I was aware of, but in Toronto there was a community context, thanks to zines like gendertrash and the Counting Past 2 film festival, which had in previous years brought to town writers like Aiyyana Maracle, Viviane Namaste and Max Valerio. Xanthra Mackay, who edited and published gendertrash, and Mirha-Soleil Ross, who curated the festival, were also both writers, performers and film makers, and very actively thinking about the politics of trans representation. Counting Past 2 included a performance cabaret, and panels on transsexual cultural production, and transsexuality in cross cultural contexts, and Wanting in Arabic was launched as part of CP2 in 2002. South of the border, kari edwards had two books out that year, and had published post/(pink) back in 2000, but I didn’t know of her work until she invited me to submit something to Transgender Tapestry a couple of years later.
Anyway I had been unsuccessfully trying to place my poetry manuscript for several years before approaching TSAR in 2001. They specialized in diasporic and postcolonial literatures, and had recently started publishing queer of colour work and that along with Counting Past 2, and the left, were my contexts. There were early and generous reviews of the book by queer writers like Margaret Christakos, Rachel Zolf and RM Vaughan.
The launch for Wanting in Arabic was organized by Anju Gogia and May Lui at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, which was an important site of qtpoc feminist organizing at that time. As was the feminist literary periodical, Fireweed, which had a trans guest collective in to edit a special issue called “Trans/ Scribes: Writing from Trans Communities” in 2000—that was one of my first times being published by other trans people. There was also Jason Barsic’s zine, Willyboy, out of Portland, which Xanthra and I had work in and which Mirha organized a virtual launch for in 98 or 99….
Of course since that time, or rather since around 2007, we’ve seen countless trans special issues of journals, the rise of an academic subfield, trans owned presses and literary journals, anthologies, novels, short story and poetry collections, as well as blogs, reviews, panels and conferences on the subject of trans literature. There is a much larger discourse, and there is a lot more opportunity to be in conversation with other writers who want to think about as well as make trans literature. In many many ways that has been wonderful, making our thinking and writing more complex, more attentive to differences among us, and to the great variety of possible literatures we might make. On the other hand, I do sometime think that this exciting proliferation of newness might inadvertently function to eclipse or erase what has come before it.