Matt Lennox
MFA student Matt Lennox in Afghanistan in 2008

Matt Lennox was in the middle of a war zone when he wrote many of the works featured in his first published collection of short stories, Men of Salt, Men of Earth. But none of the stories focus on his war experiences. He admits he’s still unsure if that’s a subject he wants to tackle.

“I haven’t yet answered the question as to whether or not I’ve earned the right to speak for a number of others.”

It was 2008, and Lennox, who is now doing a master of fine arts in creative writing at the University of Guelph-Humber, was a staff officer at Canada’s military headquarters in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Living under the constant threat of rocket attacks and dealing with the injuries and even deaths of other soldiers, he turned to writing as an escape.

“I was working in a pretty nasty place where people were doing pretty nasty things to each other,” he said. “It can really take a toll on you. Writing gave me a mental break from it all.”

Lennox was responsible for monitoring what was happening on the front line and responding to radio calls for medical help. It was a job that required him to be constantly on alert. But at night when the fighting calmed and the radios were quiet, he would sit at his desk and write.

During his 10 months in Kandahar as a reservist, he completed 12 short stories; the theme of searching for male identity runs throughout them.

“Many of my stories investigate what it means to be a modern man. We live in an era where male identity no longer has any definition. This is evident in Canadian literature, which is very feminine overall.”

Men of Salt, Men of Earth was published by Oberon Press in Ottawa and was short-listed this summer for Canada’s ReLit Awards, which were established by Newfoundland author Kenneth J. Harvey ten years ago to acknowledge the best new work released by independent publishers.

The 2010 ReLit short list included both Lennox and 2009 MFA grad Zoe Whittall for her novel, Holding Still as Long as Possible.

The title story of Lennox’s collection appeared in Best Canadian Stories in 2006 and was his first published work. Still, he says his tour of duty in Afghanistan gave focus to his writing: “Up until that point, writing had always been just a hobby. It wasn’t anything I took seriously. But I really started writing a lot more while I was in Kandahar, and the momentum has continued since I came back.”

He continues to balance his passion for writing with his career in the military. Now living in Toronto, he is completing his MFA at the Guelph-Humber campus, writing his first novel and working full-time with the Canadian Forces running the provincial operations centre.