Sally Elhennawy always comes back to love

Sally Elhennawy is a writer who explores themes of Queer love and desire in her poetry. She is a third-year student in English literature and creative writing. The Ubyssey sat down with Elhennawy to discuss how she explores both her identity through writing, and her work as a source and expression of reclamation.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

What would you say poetry represents for you at this moment, and what has it represented for you in the past?

SE: In the past, it represented an outlet for creativity. Right now, it represents an expression of my identity. Sexuality is an aspect of identity that’s so fluid and changing. Poetry gives you the space to not have to have everything figured out, but still to be able to capture the expression of identity.

Would you say writing helped you to discover your identity?

SE: I always knew that I was Queer — that was never something that was in tension with my identity. But writing helped me recognize my place in the community. It made me think about my role in this community, about the history that Queer people have gone through, and what I want to do with my future work.

What themes arise frequently in your poetry?

SE: Love shows up a lot in my poetry. To narrow it down, Queer desire. I really like this idea of reclamation – reclaiming certain forms or themes that have historically belonged to a particular group, but that I now feel like I have the right to co-opt in a way that is meaningful for me. I like that I’m able to write a sonnet in a way that’s meaningful for me and talk about Queer love and desire and have it be beautiful in those [formal] constraints.

I’ve also written a personal essay about rom-coms, which were my favorite movie genre as a kid. For me, it’s not about abolishing the genre because it stands for something that I don’t believe in, but it’s about creating space to reclaim it, and make it meaningful in the way that you see yourself represented.

What do you see as being the value of reclaiming these romantic conventions or forms that have been traditionally associated with heterosexual relationships?

SE: Growing up seeing the value placed on things that don’t include you makes you feel less valuable and less worthy. To reclaim that reaffirms your own value. From a purely practical point of view, there’s no reason that such beautiful things should be restricted to one group of people.

You mentioned earlier that you felt like writing had helped you to recognize your place in the Queer community. Would you be able to elaborate on how writing helped you to recognize your place?

SE: I didn’t have language or the experience to verbalize how I felt about being a Queer person until I started writing and expressing that through poetry. In writing, emotions [arose] that I might not have been able to [otherwise] experience

What do you feel that writing offers in terms of exploring love, and in terms of exploring sexual desire?

SE: When I put my pen to the page, I often don’t know what I’m going to be writing. Love and desire are things that I carry within me and are informed by my Queerness, and those are really hard things to think about on your own. It’s like imagining the universe and how tiny we are in the universe — it’s a really difficult thing for me to sit by myself and conceive of, and it’s similar to something as big and powerful as love. To sit with myself and think about how tiny I am in comparison with what love has been throughout history and what it’s meant to people, and all the bodies of work that it informs — it’s a lot to be going through my mind.

Writing helps me reckon with that. It helps me pare down my emotions in a way that’s digestible for me. I find myself writing about things that I didn’t know that I was going to be writing about. It always comes back to love for me, and it always forms in a way that I hadn’t been able to verbalize to myself before.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

SE: One of the things I love about writing poetry is how it allows you to get to know yourself better, but it also allows you to form connections with other people. Some people might be afraid of the fact that the emotions that they feel that mean so much to them are felt by other people, but I take comfort in the universality of certain emotions. Poetry for me has been instrumental in sifting through my own identity, but also in realizing that I can be inspired by people out there, and I can also inspire other people.

This article is from Reclamation, The Ubyssey's 2023 sex and relationships issue. Read more personal essays and student stories from Reclamation here, and sexual health and education articles here.