Discover Why Wanting in Arabic Is This Year's Best Transgender Fiction

By Trish Salah

Originally published on Advocate.com June 30 2014 5:00 AM ET

Poet and scholar Trish Salah's new book, Wanting in Arabic, just won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Transgender Fiction. Salah's win is an accomplishment representative of her career, which she's spent, in part, showing readers the critical importance of transgender literature.

"So often trans* people's work is read as a symptom of our identity rather than as creative and critical writing that may arise from our experiences, oppression, and culture, but which is not reducible to it," Salah recently told The Manitoban.

A Lebanese-Canadian professor of women's and gender studies at the University of Winnipeg, Salah has focused her research on the emergence of transgender and transsexual minority literatures as well as feminism, decolonization, sex work, and transnational sexualities. Most recently, she organized Writing Trans Genres: Emergent Literatures, a groundbreaking conference dedicated to trans literature.

In addition to Wanting in Arabic, Salah has published numerous scholarly articles, sits on the editorial board of Transgender Studies Quarterly, and has just released her second book, Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1 (Roof Books).

Read an exclusive excerpt from Wanting in Arabic below.

Phoenicia ≠ Lebanon                     

Phoenicia ≠ Lebanon
though they occupy the same place, more or less                
        a) on a map?                                 do you see
           b) in my heart?                        to the west, the accident
         c) in this poem, Phoenicia ≠ Lebanon?    that holds you down?        

    i have never been to Lebanon                  before i was
though i have often dreamed of Phoenicia        dreaming in this world
the cedar groves, the long low galleys            my father was
bazaars raucous with a thousand tongues         born in Lebanon ( ≠ Phoenicia)
                                                                                       & before Lebanon was
Babylon by any other—all too Greek for me.        
                                                                        & though he did not die    
                                                                        there, in Phoenicia, or, in Lebanon

i am my father’s daughter                              (few return from that voyage
 May he rest in—                                       like Odysseus, from the sack of—
                                                                  to die, comforted in his own bed)

who, as a small boy, intimidated at the prospect of the priesthood—
of following in my father’s footsteps
until they ceased to be his—
                                                                  he only made it to the seminary,
before he came across the Atlantic transformed                             May   he   rest

in—
in the middle passage, like the Phoenicians, perhaps
in their long low—
before him                 never to return—not without my mother & she,
                                  Irish Catholic, with her own “troubles”
                                                                        you can’t get there from—


perhaps that’s the origin of my infatuation with high heels
or better, mary janes,
eschewing the Jesuits’ cassock
for convent girl plaid

what i never could figure,
my brothers had it worse & they didn’t turn out
sissy boys, she-hes, homo
sexuals, or, as in my case,
lipstick lesbians.
were they not raised for dodging bullets, racist dogma,
the Christian Phalange, to fight for ruined
Beirut against all odds, against Muslim, Palestinian?
after Daddy’s death, precocious, they studied the way of the warrior,
or its suburban equivalent, Tae Kwon Do,
the Tae Kwon Do twins used their powers
to protect their too femme older bro’  
strutting the corridors of St. Pat’s High,
neither a phobic bone, nor a homo
between their strapping young bodies

so maybe it wasn’t my father’s plans for us
that got me so queer
maybe it was a child’s premonition
of his stroke at 37
an immigrant’s death of stress, a high salt diet, a foreign tongue and, let’s face it,
too many years of eighteen hour days
or perhaps it was smaller
just the way his mouth got tight about
his voice strangled and raging at
a 5 year old’s inability to sleep
i’m not unsympathetic, who wouldn’t
be frustrated by chronic insomnia in a child so young?  anyway, who cares why
i ended up my daddy’s little girl?

i ended up my daddy’s little girl                                                              didn’t i?
heartbreaking, he didn’t live to see the day & the boy
i was, caught dead in a crossfire in Beirut or Belfast
prostrate before my pretty Mohammed                                                ever after
and nothing to do with Phoenicia        
or Lebanon, but ex-girlfriends’                               and after my surgery comes
memories of a childhood, Cypress                that boy’s dead by any other name
where my cousins also fled a June War in ’67
                                                           you know what the dead do best is rise
and, called                                                                            Phoenix-like, again
to return to Lebanon
where i have never been
my name should be Phoenicia
i’ll prefer Yismine, for my aunt’s sake.
for shame’s sake, my French, my Arabic will mime strangers’ tongues
missing my father’s tongue

the Phoenicians were the ranging traders of another world
 on the news tonight shelling in this Lebanon,
    a trampled marketplace
        a strategic site
occupied by the French, the Americans, the Syrians, the Israelis
and Beirut is a hole in the ground through which the past comes up
                                                                                                       (never-the-less,
                                                                                             my cousin Nada says,

                               never you mind, cuz, some of the richest people in the world
                                          in that city. it will be beautiful and whole again,

                                                                                            give it five years
                                                                                  just you wait and see! )


i stole this poem from Robert Kroetsch
but don’t feel sad about it, he wasn’t
Phoenician & even at sea, even trading
in words, in the past, in love, in the middle passage
                                                                                                   in the in between
i’m not either
but am i Lebanese?
not like that dyke comic,
do you remember her? playing coy,
Ellen? the TV lesbian?
who, coming out on Rosie O’Donnell
was either Lebanese or lesbian, on TV or off
(lesbianLebaneseTV)
except, perhaps, as in my case
where, sure, say it:
i am
a) Lebanese
b) lesbian
c) TV
d) all of the above
e) none of the above
                                                                                so much for that

 

Read more of Salah's work on the following page. >>>
Ghazals in Fugue                    

I     

From her home wander love’s uncanny away, you!
Is it past: whose to tear memory away, you?

Stolen upon thought, "I’ll not see the end of this."
Ya aa’yni, turn your gaze from me away, you.

A girl’s hand may stop unexpected, bleeding over
What, wrest, was—eye to eye, between, a way, you…

Fall mistaking what looks she tosses for salvation.
Beware such boasts, what they give too freely away, you.

Unhinge the doors, with talk of children, your double, war;
Send memory’s limbs flailing. Who cast peace away, you?

II     

Hear the sound of rain, on hotel window, so stark it bleeds
Like waking, like Hitchcock? Blinds so low, it’s too dark to read.

Here, the train breaking haunts, further out, the frame, broke hours ago.
What are Effrit to make twin towers glow, too dark to read?

Disfigured, losing specific dimensions, failing
In their finitude, what world is mirrored, too dark to read?

As fire works, roaming compulsive, the mind makes interior,
What was your house, her tomb, charred terribly, too dark to read.

There your girl becomes pursuit, embers, a route more circuitous
Her elliptical and fraying parabola. Too dark to read

Such hyperbole of desire.  Fire returns void, in its avoidance.
Brute motor repetition writes parables too dark to read.


III     

Into the wilds, some cliché of the wilds… it’s not the war
We flee, north, from Toronto—that year we’re not at war.

Gone to cottage like white folks, and compose queer idylls, break
Our fast at the Colonial, stock up at Nassr; say that’s not war.

With our weight in lebne, mint, parsley, burgle, beans for ful, lamb
For kibeh, we beg no guarantee of country. Anything but war

Until the third bottle of wine, allows someone to ask
If, in Lebanon I am that man, if not, that war,

My father wanted. You want to know what bargains
With snow will I make? Were my cousins not in that war?

Would I not have been with them, at Sabra, at Shatilla?
Naïve to the war, I break all our glasses, this ghazal’s form, smiling.


IV    

In the commons we give up on speaking, fall quiet
Cast looks to the mountains; from the pool, all’s quiet.

More to hold us here, than memory, or will, allow.
Lying by, in glassed-off heat, we listen past fall’s quiet

Whispers’ crackle, a jammed radios’ abandon, as mute,
Iraq’s young succumb to deserts “we” let fall...  Quiet

As, when we slump into the sauna, genitals swaddled
White cotton shrouds, all eyes avert. Quietly appalled,

Afraid to see my breasts, yours, to site black dick. In the north
Country, we feel what they fear, the weight of whiteness, falling.

                                                                                                                (quiet)

Reading The Book of Suicides                

II

A change of sex is not a suicide note
Or, it goes across death, to a particular word

Veiled, you lie in the sun, your eyes wet
With what body are you   leaving?

(Turning earth over, a sign, you hope, of dawn.
Sigh for the last words, the night she left behind.)

Suppose, when next we meet you do not know
This face or flesh, suppose my name is changed.

Reincarnated, skipping over death, the lovers.
I know you distrust the tale already.


IV

The third sex is always dead to the first
Transcending, to the second, susceptible.

Where seducing is a virtue of finitude
A rose is kept for your garden.

And wilder growths allow you to imagine
Vast expanse beyond slant pale of headstones

Neither the world nor Ghalib dead, imagine—
Your promise fulfilled, snow rising to heaven.

Roses bloom inward, a miniscule infinity
Bubbles of earth aflame, efflorescent with air.

VI

A change of sex is not a suicide note
What is a crypt? She heard him with his word.

Veiled, crossed out, divide of his mouth still open
She made her up—a language—we can only imagine

For the future, divide of the world still open
Not man or woman then—angelic, childish, feral, undead

Language keeps its secrets, pink tongue roses, blooming
The intoxication of death or you, a body becoming its own

Name or sounding it out, slivers of cool wrists
Broken, inscribed as accident, an accent encrypting

A change of sex, the languish of your shadow.
Or the sounding bell of this word’s breach:

What a sex is, is forever  misled.

 

--

Selected from Wanting in Arabic by Trish Salah by permission of TSAR Publications. Copyright 2002, 2013.
 

Contributor: 
Mitch Kellaway