This Saturday the Association for Mormon Letters will have its annual meeting. In support of their work, I would like explore one of Mormon literature’s most important pioneers, although you are unlikely to have heard of her since, sadly, her reputation within the LDS community has largely fallen off. Also unfortunate is that interest in her among American literary critics as also waned since its peak in the late 70s. Still, there continues a steady stream of dissertations, theses, and papers discussing her work. Despite her star setting somewhat in the West, she yet has a large following in China, where a major retranslation of some of her best work was just released this week in Beijing. However, her largest influence continues to be found in Ethiopia where certain aspects of her work seem to speak to the Ethiopian Orthodox mind with more affinity than anywhere else in the world. It was in fact in Addis Ababa working on tsetse fly research that I first came upon the work of Gilda Trillim.
Trillim was born in 1919 in Burley Idaho, the daughter of a dairy farmer and a former librarian from Boston. In high school, her English teacher entered some of her work in a state contest and it was quickly realized that she had significant talent. Her experimental style quickly earned her accolades and a scholarship to Radcliffe College where she erupted onto the literary scene with her first book, Cattle Memories. Her second book, A Slouch in the Shoulders of Deity shook the literary world to its core. It challenged previously held assumptions about what constituted literature and the ways it should be read. Her work’s unusual style and challenging form have often been imitated but seldom equaled.
It might be prudent at this point to give a lomtick of her writting, to ground you a bit in her style in order to cast into relief the events that structured her later life. A chapter from her book Breathless Triangles is short enough to be included in its entirety.
Chapter 21. Wherein Seekishness is Laundered.
Objects: Cloud, figurine, lighter fluid, rat, helmet, paper cup, Post Office, translator, icterids, stories, fifteenth century, flat, municipality, lecture, blouse, Angleworm, refugee, comet, quilt, holiday, porch, finger, saw, trout, penny, haystack, guitar, loom, shadow, rain, laundry bin, caterpillar, piston, soil, hen, nematode, steeple, mountain pass, Nancy, muskrat, ankle, Romanian, perfume, vessel, avenue, moat, pedestrian, brandy, suggestion, fairies, swamp, flax, soup, pocket watch, yam, baby powder, lentil, music box, plus sign, braid, wishing well, door knocker, toy soldier, dirt clod.
Action: flee, escape, canter, coalesce, inform, delete, bicker, saunter, deliberate, slouch, press, prostrate, hurdle, wander, peddle, fixate, blast, stare, destroy, argue, bless, forsake, delineate, hope, sit, flip, seek, slip, orchestrate, belittle, bounce, stomp, flicker.
Attribute: green, bright, overt, spritely, comely, glowing, dark, heavy, sanguine, overt, lazy, grey, gifted, mysterious, great, eager, obedient, quaint, clumsy, melodic, panicky, steep, obnoxious, high, witty, hollow, victorious, glamorous, purple.
In the manner of: swift, careful, vigorous, doubt, loud, eager, calm, glee, fond, just, acid, quirk, playful, shrill, late.
As you can see this is not easy literature. Early attempts to understand it endeavored to create standard English texts using the words provided, which efforts were especially popular in French circles , but it was vigorously argued that this was not her intent and the text was to be taken as given—not reconstructed or folded into a more interpretable text. This reading was largely settled on as a result of a debate between scholars at Edinburgh and Chicago who, while both noticed that neither conjunctions nor articles were provided, came to very different conclusions as to what that meant. The Edinburgh school prevailed with some stunning work by Susan Levant and Malinda Gregson that showed that textual reconstructions where never Trillim’s intent .
Current trends have viewed her work as possibility generating literature–especially copious in the writings of Ethiopian Orthodox theological seminaries and theology schools. The Reverend Hierodeacon Rellime Amada has been writing some especially interesting things. He holds that Trillim should be taken as is, that the addition or withdrawal of a single word changes the possibility of the text and therefore its entire meaning. To reclaim the given possible, one must open oneself to how possibility rests in the given; to the grace imbedded in the text and how that grace then operates in a person’s life to release the possible. To wish for another word, or to redact what has been put forward, is to limit the possibility of the text. Only in what is given is the possibility of the text opened and the meaning allowed to unfold. He believes she was writing of a kind of redemption in which the saving comes from embracing both the strange format and the words offered.
Trillim moved to Bangkok in the late 1950’s with her dear friend Babs Lake where she did some of her most important work. However, she felt slighted by her people who never came to see her work as worthy of being labeled ‘Mormon literature.’ In a letter to her sister she wrote:
It makes me sad when I think about the way I was treated by some of the faculty. At my last reading there they snorted and jeered. One even rudely remarked ‘Poppycock’ and walked out of the lecture hall. I don’t think they want to remember me as Mormon or claim me as one of her own.
I believe this might have been BYU. It’s clear she was right. If you search for her work on the Mormon Literature database she does not appear and her books, now largely out of print cannot be found in any library in Utah. However, she remained true to the faith her entire life and claimed to be a Mormon wherever she went.
Toward the end of her life, her work took a strange turn. First the section ‘In the manner of’ disappeared, then the ‘Attribute’ section got shorter and shorter until it too disappeared. Her work became stark–cold lists of nouns that took a darker and darker cast. Words like ‘chain,’ ‘pit,’ and ‘abyss’ began to predominate. Most of the light playfulness she was known for disappeared and a seriousness and intensity enveloped her work. Her books now came out more slowly sometimes with years between each volume. Her last work can be repeated here in its entirety. It was called, Hammered Pliers and it consisted of a single chapter:
Chapter 1: The framing dissolves in strong acid.
She died shortly after its publication. I found a copy of this slim volume in a small English used bookshop on Jomo Kenyatta Avenue in Addis Ababa. Strangely the title page was inscribed: ‘To my friend David O., The bravest man I know.’
I would like to think perhaps this was once owned by David O. McKay and imagine he found her work as intriguing as I do. I hope that the AML will revive this grand Lady of Mormon Letters whose name deserves to come out of obscurity.
(1) With the advent of the modern of modern computer technology, there has been a revival of the French School with attempts to take the power set of the words in the novel, with the constraint that each subset includes at least one of the types of words (objects, attribute etc.). While there have been some interesting readings using these techniques, (see e.g., Batour and Tangle. Badiou, set theory, and Trillim: The ecstasy of the void, Author & Text 34:234-241, 1998) my own feeling is that these have largely failed.
(2) See their, “Emergence of meaning and the unnecessary inclusion of conjunctions: linkages, networks, and ecological relationships in Trillim, Feminist Studies 6:24-56, 1980).
(3) For a picture of Trillim with Babs Lake in Bangkok see here.