Grace and the Literature of Gilda Trillim

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 [1], 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 [2].

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.

Objects: Moonlight.

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.


  1. .

    It’s hard to believe James Goldberg didn’t write this. Not for that reason. For the other reason.

  2. I have to admit I never have heard of her. Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake seems more accessible than this. I got through Ulysses pretty well, as I could, with help, follow the arc of the story. This is a style with which I am totally unfamiliar. But to find out this came out of Burley, Idaho, is fascinating. My wife’s family all came from Burley, and her father would have been a couple of years behind Trillim in high school.

  3. Amy Tho213mpson says:

    This is a style with which I am totally unfamiliar. But to find out this came out of Burley, Idaho, is fascinating. My wife’s family all came from Burley, and her father would have been a couple of years behind Trillim in high school.

  4. Wow, fascinating, Steve. She’s almost like the literary version of minimalism (whose supreme master also came out of Idaho). Thanks for the write-up.

  5. I dedicate this post to Jorge Borges and his book Ficciones.

  6. Also, you forgot to address Trillim’s 1971 moon landing, in which she dug a pit for her neighbor in the Sea of Tranquility. It was a turning point in her career, and her personal salvation, from what I understand.

  7. Yes, I’m sorry I didn’t mention that.

    These (including this one) are written to support a book review of Adam Miller’s wonderful (and very important) theology book. The review will follow someday.

  8. You should be careful with the hashish my friend.

  9. My favorite work of Trillim’s, and the one in which I believe the Mormon influence is most apparent, is the short novelette Injunction, whose pages was completely blank except for the first, which bore the words “And now, behold.”

  10. Intriguing.
    I often wish we could learn more about the amazing individuals who didn’t fit ‘the mold’, but remained faithful nevertheless. It pains me they were badly treated.
    Thank you.

  11. Last Lemming says:

    I’m pretty sure that picture you linked to was actually taken in Iceland.

  12. Last Lemming says:

    So was M. Todd Hollingshead a student of yours? Here’s a sample of his work from the Spring 2012 BYU Magazine.

    What kind of musician waits 14 years to release a recording, makes only 500 copies, and then sells each for more than $100? That would be La Monte Young.

    Never heard of him? You’ve definitely heard of the artists he’s influenced: David Bowie, The Talking Heads, and The Velvet Underground are a few. Artists Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol and composer Philip Glass come to mind. In fact, Young is considered the father of an entire genre of music.

    “La Monte Young is the most famous and influential composer that you’ve maybe never heard of,” says BYU assistant music professor Jeremy N. Grimshaw, whose new, Oxford-published biography, Draw a Straight Line and Follow It, chronicles the life and works of the reclusive musician.

    The book traces Young’s life, starting in Bern, Idaho, where he was born to an LDS sheepherder in 1935. The family later moved to manage a celery farm in American Fork, Utah, where Young was taught by local music legend K. J. Bird. After attending school in California, Young moved to New York City, where he explored minimalist music, a style featuring sustained harmonies, a pensive mood, and long, drawn-out individual tones.

    Fellow minimalist Brian Eno calls Young “the daddy of us all.” Young influenced the many rock records Eno has produced, including U2’s most popular albums and Coldplay’s most recent.

  13. Funny to mentioned him. At the suggestion of J. Grimshaw I listened to Young for three days while I graded papers. Who’s to say that his influence did not inspire this?

  14. I got my copy of the BYU Magazine yesterday, and now I’m not quite sure which reality I’m in…

  15. Steve, you noted you hope she is brought out of obscurity, but you didn’t mention whether she could be also brought out of darkness. Is that a reference to her own aesthetic toward the end of her tragic career? Maybe just an oversight.


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