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Grace Talusan on Her Memoir, The Body Papers

Campus | April 8, 2019

CW: Sexual assault, suicidal depression, mental illness

Grace Talusan (A’94) is author of the memoir The Body Papers and winner of the 2017 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for Nonfiction. She was born in the Philippines and came to the US with her parents at age 2. She has published essays, longform journalism, fiction, and book reviews in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Boston Magazine, Boston Globe, The Rumpus, and various other publications. She received a degree in English from Tufts University and an MFA in Writing from the University of California, Irvine. Her writing has been supported by Fulbright, Hedgebrook, Ragdale, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and others.

We meet in Dewick because Grace bought too many meal swipes before accepting her new position at Brandeis University. “It’s like an Old Country Buffet,” she says between coughs. Still recovering from pneumonia, she apologizes, “I’m only feeling 80 percent better.” I’m astounded, taken aback by how she has still managed to go from teaching classes to squeezing in a meal with me to immediately rushing to her therapy appointment thereafter. If the symptoms of pneumonia were looking radiant while speaking in a low, husky voice before embarking on a book tour, Grace certainly had it.

We settle down on a long empty table upstairs, nestled in a quiet corner. “Taking up space!” I say. She laughs and nods in agreement. “Immigrant families, Filipinx families, Asian American families, [and] families of color barely make up the space of what’s written out there.” In fact, she tells me, there is such little representation that Talusan had even questioned her own stories while writing her memoir, understanding the weight they carry. For Talusan, memoirs are based on memories, her memories are based on her version of events, and her version is her truth. “It is the truth, but is that damaging? It might be, but if we had 500 more books about our experiences, then mine would not be representative at all—mine would just be one family,” she explains.

In the 1970s, Talusan’s parents immigrated from Manila to Chicago before eventually settling in Boston. Her father, Totoy, came to the US on a student visa to finish his medical career. And when Totoy’s visa expired, Grace’s family, despite their newfound middle-class status, became undocumented. With a shuffle of papers, Totoy’s office, Grace’s two US-born brothers, and their entire livelihoods could have disappeared. At the time, Grace had no idea how precarious everything was; despite walking on thin ice, she continued to succeed in school. Until she didn’t.

In the process of researching for her memoir, she wanted to follow a paper trail that documented and explained this change. Totoy kept a file on each of his children, comprised of important papers and school assignments. Talusan studied her file to find “all these other ways of experience, besides memory, to help measure or track this time period.” In first grade, she received the highest marks in each subject. By second grade, there was a sudden decline. “I looked at old photos, and I can see the change even within my face in ways I didn’t [at the time],” she adds. Lastly, she tells me about something else she didn’t fully realize the implications of at the time—that the topic of her senior high school research paper was child molestation.

Every summer for seven years, Totoy’s father would visit her family. And every night those summers, Totoy’s father would visit Grace’s bed. We talked about how Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh was the first child sexual abuse story we had both encountered featuring an Asian American protagonist. In his autobiographical novel, Chee explains how sexual abuse is commonly misunderstood as someone robbing something from you.

“Instead, someone leaves something with you that grows until it replaces you,” he writes. “You imagine that the worst thing is that someone would know. The attention you need to heal you have been taught will end you. And it will—it will end the pain you have mistaken for yourself. The worst thing is not that someone would know. The worst thing is that you might lay waste to your whole life by hiding.”

“I learned—or I didn’t learn—the right things, how to trust,” Grace says. “Even my nieces and nephews and niblings (gender neutral term),” she pauses, “the people I probably feel the most comfortable with, notice how awkwardly I hug them.” She gesticulates a half pat-on-the-back, a half arm hug while half-heartedly laughing. “They don’t know fully why yet, but they will soon.”

Talusan herself would not know the full extent of her trauma until her adult years. With unrelenting and refreshing candor, she describes struggling with suicidal depression, dissociative disorder, insomnia, and recurring hives and boils. “Every month, I pay the equivalent of rent toward my mental health: its own kind of home,” she writes in her book.

Despite enduring trauma almost her entire life, she graduated from Tufts with a degree in English. It was September of 1990 when she first arrived, and in her first week, she received a typewritten letter. Addressed to “Babut” (Talusan’s nickname), Grace’s dad informed her that after dropping her off, her mom got mad at him after telling her there was no reason to cry. “You don’t understand how a mother feels,” he explains.

More than a decade later, married and paying off her student loans, Talusan had begun  exploring the possibility of motherhood. However, her 30s, also known as the “cancer years,” marked a new reckoning. First for her niece, then her older sister, then her, and finally her younger sister. Totoy is a known carrier for the BRCA 1 gene mutation, which increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in women. There was a 50-50 chance of his offspring carrying the gene—Grace and her sisters all tested positive.

“I have a funny story about that,” she says as she scrapes the toppings off her now-cold pizza. “One time, I had a breast core biopsy where I discovered I had atypical cells, pre-cancer cells.” A core biopsy is a procedure where the medical examiner removes small pieces of tissue with a special needle. “They took a core of me, and I had to go teach an hour later,” she laughs. “Of course, I didn’t tell anybody, but it’s like who’s going to substitute me? I have to teach!” She recalls brushing up against a lectern before letting out a yelp barely discernible from a child’s.

Talusan went through with a double mastectomy, but the momentary respite it provided was short-lived. She now faced the question of undergoing an oophorectomy (removing her ovaries), but was certain she still wanted a child. Her husband, Alonso, on the other hand, was not quite on board. As a child, he was abandoned by his father, whom he describes with three words: “alcoholic, womanizer, narcissist.” His father told him, “Someday you will end up in the gutter where I found you,” she writes. For Alonso, the thought of becoming a father was scarier than having no child at all.

When I ask Grace if there was any tension in the ways some people were portrayed in her memoir, she holds my gaze and nods silently. “[Alonso] worried that that was all of him and it’s not. It’s one story. We’ve been together for 20 years, there are other parts of our life that we enjoy—that’s why we’re together,” she says. “I really had strong feelings of wanting kids, but looking back, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do with my nieces and nephews, with my work, with the choices around my work, if I was taking care day-to-day of my own child.”

“In terms of that trade-off, I’m fine with it,” she says. “But,” she continued, “that was something that was hard and I thought about what it meant to share that part of our marriage with folks. That’s not my concern, really. He can have his feelings. People are going to think what they think. I can’t control that. I tried to be as fair as possible, but what’s more important is that people struggle with this question, and it’s not something we talk about very much.”

When Grace turned 40, her dreams of motherhood ended—at least in what is most commonly understood as motherhood. When her niece Naomi was 12, she read her “Tita Grace”, a poem she had written for a school assignment. “A second mother / The person that plays with you, bakes with you and loves you,” she read. Talusan doesn’t think it’s productive to imagine a life without abuse, but sometimes, she admits she sees her future in Naomi.

“I’m hoping Naomi sees what’s possible… I want her—all of them, my nieces and nephews and niblings—to know that they can survive a lot,” she says. “If you have the right support and treatment and medication or whatever it is you need, there is a lot you can survive and live through.”

*

The same year, Talusan received a year-long Fulbright Scholarship to do research in Manila. “A literary pilgrimage,” writers might call this. But for Talusan, it also meant returning and living in a place she hadn’t stayed in for an extended period of time since she was two—a home of sorts. (Imagine, an Asian American defining home).

“It was a really profound experience, to be known, to be seen,” she says. “Even being seen in Starbucks, like, it was air-conditioned so we were there every day, workers would recognize us and greet us by our names. ‘The usual?’ they would say. And I was like, ‘Yeah, the usual!’” For 17 years, Grace has been going to the Starbucks in Davis Square, where workers misspell her last name and where there is no usual. “We talked about our families, all that stuff. There’s a sort of intimacy, a closeness,” she says.

She asks me if I felt similarly when I went abroad to Hong Kong last year. I told her that the men I’d meet wouldn’t even bat an eyelash at a White man. “Isn’t that wild? That we live with this structure every day? It’s just part of the air we breathe here,” she responds.

Returning to a “home” always has its complications, even in a place where we feel seen. “I couldn’t breathe,” she says, laughing. “Like, physically couldn’t breathe?” I responded. She nods and tells me that people in Manila are constantly incinerating trash, which causes her to have asthma attacks.

Talusan also notes that the Philippines is not without its history of colonialism and White supremacy. In her book, she was shocked to hear about her White colleague’s experiences in Manila. “I was like, ‘What? You’ve never opened a door a single time since you’ve been here?’” she says. Because her colleague is White, “people would tell her to come to the front of the line, and of course, she would always decline, but I was like, ‘Colonialism, White supremacy, here it is!’” she says.

In the Philippines, she adds, everybody knew her name: Talusan. You can trace the Talusan lineage back to Grace’s second cousin, Alfrredo Navarro Salanga—a published author and prolific writer. “Here in the US, people can’t even pronounce [my last name],” she says. “Publishing is 80 percent White, and that’s power. That’s influencing a narrative, like what they’re interested in is different than what we’re interested in.”

Getting her foot in the door of the publishing world wasn’t easy. Talusan is well aware of the structural issues she faces as a writer of color and woman of color, but these factors have never discouraged her from writing. Early in her career, she kept a critic journal. “I had this file that has all that’s in my head that keeps me from getting work done,” she says. “I would say all that I wanted to say, like, ‘Who cares?’ or ‘You suck, your writing sucks!’ and I would write in a different font or color and talk back to it.” It’s difficult enough receiving writing opportunities, trying to get paid, or becoming visible, especially as writers of color. “It’s going to be worse if we’re attacking ourselves,” she says.

*

I first met Talusan in January 2016. She was teaching the first-year writing English course, “Asian American Perspectives”—a class she has taught for more than a decade. For the first time in my life, I saw myself represented in front of the classroom, in my readings, and in my assignments. Attempting to compensate for lost time, I would later take all of the Asian American Studies courses offered for the remainder of my undergraduate career, but none of these were taught by Talusan. “Because I didn’t have a PhD, I couldn’t teach a course higher than a first-year level writing course,” she says. “Nor do I really want to [get a PhD]… Places that understand [creative] writing understand that you don’t necessarily have to have a PhD.”

This upcoming fall, Talusan will begin her work as a Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis while still teaching courses at Tufts through Tisch College. Her departure from Tufts is a tremendous loss not only for our community, but also for its course offerings listed under Asian American Studies. When I ask her if she is sad to leave, she immediately responds, “No.”

At Brandeis, she tells me, she will be paid more to teach fewer courses and will actually be teaching what she hasn’t been able to teach here: creative writing. “I’ve really appreciated everyone I’ve met here, but I cannot volunteer my time,” she says. “I mean, I did,” she continues, “But the system is not set up to work in the way I want to work with people.”

What’s next? “I’m working on my first novel and doing research on Jewish refugees moving to the Philippines before World War II,” she says. “I’m marketing, too. I’m doing a different part of the writing process where I’m like, ‘What does it mean to market myself?’”

An introvert (like all good writers), Talusan feels weird about using Twitter and Bookstagram (Instagrams literally dedicated to books). “I’m not good at Twitter, I’m not, I’m really bad at it. I feel like Celeste [Ng] is really good at Twitter,” she says, referencing another female Asian American writer.

But, aside from anxiety-inducing activities like navigating social media and making her next student loan payment, Talusan simply wants to write more. “When I’m working on something, and it’s going so well, it’s,” she pauses, breaking her gaze. “Almost like falling in love over and over again. You must know that feeling, you’re a writer, too,” she says looking back up at me. I do know that feeling—an untouchable place no one can inhabit but you, unaffected by abuse or injustice. “I want to check up on it right before bed and then first thing in the morning. I want to make my coffee and get started, because I get really excited,” she says. “I want to have more of that, those experiences. I want to get more writing done so I can feel that.”