By Roland Basha
Trish Salah longs for something that many of us take for granted and many others wander in search of. The elusive sense of belonging in, and a stranger, to both. A transsexual poet of Lebanese and Irish origins, and an outspoken political activist, Salah personifies the ambiguous identity that she explores in her work.
Salah presented her first book of poems, Wanting in Arabic, to a modest crowd at the third reading of the Live Poets Society series at Oakham house on Tuesday, March 11.
Holding a beer in one hand and her book in the other, she opened the evening with “Phoenica? Lebanon.” The verses explored her Arab origins and, at first, touched tentatively on her sexuality.
For Salah, Phoenica is a metaphor for her own nomadic existence, dwelling as she does between the mythical and the real. She is trying to find the place that was denied to her at birth, a place she feels she belongs to as much as she belongs to Canada. As Salah puts it, belonging is “be longing,” which is the same as longing to be.
The images of Beirut in post-war ruins, the immigrant experience in Canada, and her own quest for a female identity vie for space in Salah’s work. She talks about her father, who died of a stroke at 37. She describes his death as an “immigrant’s death of a high-salt diet, a foreign tongue,” and “too many years of 18 hour days.”
Asked about the way her family perceived her sex change, Salah winces. She says it’s a “private matter” and refuses to talk about it. She fends off questions about her sexual transition as well, countering with “How would you feel if I asked you about your sex life?”
And yet, her poems are confessional accounts of her transsexual experience. In one of her poems she describes graphically the minutes of a breast implant’s insertion, and in another she describes the derisive way in which a doctor addressed her.
Salah turns her uncertainty about sexuality into poetry; it is the raw material of her art, and perhaps she feels there is nothing left to talk about once she has read her piece.
From experience, Salah knows that her outspoken politics can be construed as controversial. She notes that transsexuals who keep a low profile don’t find it very difficult to integrate in the society.
“It depends on how ‘out’ you are. I am very ‘out’ and political about my transsexuality, so that draws attention and tends to get on people’s nerves, whereas when you just go about your life and do your own thing, then I think, there tends to be a lot of acceptance and it’s partly because people don’t experience their lives as being disrupted,” says Salah.
Karen Mulhallen, an English professor at Ryerson and the organizer of the Live Poets Society reading series, met Salah at a reading at the Imperial Pub four years ago.
‘I was knocked down by her poetry. I thought that her poems were brave, and investigated subject matter that most poets won’t go near,” she says.
“We’re bringing some really edgy, vanguard writers on to the campus, and I am happy with it,” says Mulhallen.
Amongst the controversial issues in Salah’s work are small-town attitudes towards Arab immigrants and the effect of Salah’s transition on an already marginalized — yet close-knit — family.
But controversy is not the only reason why Mulhallen invited Salah to read.
“She’s a writer who is experimental in language, who is experimental in structure. She’s got a marvellous sense of rhythm and nuance. She’s able to open up words and make the rhythm run,” says Mulhallen.
Along with other forms, Salah has written ghazals, traditional Middle Eastern rhythmic couplets, where she blends the ancient poetry form with her English.
This polarity of being in one place and yearning for the other is conveyed by the title of her book, Wanting in Arabic. The English language and Arabic words blend beautifully in the poetry, just like her feminine bust coexists with the stubble she sports on her chin. In many ways, Salah disrupts conventions and transcends them, in the hope of paving the way for new realities. Quoting a renowned psychoanalyst, she says in one of her poems: “Millot writes that we transsexuals make a demand upon the real, for its adjustment. Just so.”