Spotlight Interview: Grace Talusan

Grace Talusan’s first book, The Body Papers (2019) won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. She was born in the Philippines and raised in New England. A graduate of Tufts University and the MFA Program in Writing at UC Irvine, she is the recipient of a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines and an Artist Fellowship Award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She is the Fannie Hurst Writer in Residence at Brandeis University. 

In late 2019, Memorious contributor Joanne Diaz interviewed Talusan after the publication of the hardcover version of The Body Papers, which begins with Talusan’s return to the Philippines in 2015 during her Fulbright fellowship. A few months before this trip, Talusan interviewed Diaz for Memorious about Diaz’s latest poetry collection, My Favorite Tyrants. Memorious presents this second interview as a sequel to the first, as a model of dynamic writerly friendships and discussions, and in celebration of the March 2020 paperback release of The Body Papers.

The title of this book is The Body Papers: A Memoir. When I think of the word memoir, I think of its relationship to memory, and how the word has its roots in the Latin memoria which means “mindful,” and has even deeper origins in an old Sanskrit word for martyr. A memoir, then, draws upon the writer’s action of re-membering, of taking the pieces of the past and putting them together in a new way. There are so many ways over time that people have thought about this word, this concept, this practice. 

How did you arrive at your title, which includes the phrase A Memoir? What does that word do for you and for the book?

Thank you for your attention as a poet. I like hearing about the roots of the word. What does it mean that one of the roots is martyr? I have a lot of associations with that word because as a Catholic girl, I grew up reading books about the lives of saints, who were martyred, and imagining myself in stories like that. Back to your question, the categorization of memoir came late in the process of editing the book. For many reasons, I never thought about writing a memoir. It just wasn’t something that I could conceive of doing, because who cares about my memories? (Although I love the form and have read other people’s memoirs for years). In some ways, I felt I fooled myself into writing this book. What became this memoir was written in bits and pieces over several years when I felt I really had an experience and story about my life that I was burning to write, whether anyone would ever read it or not. 

Memoir is an act of remembering and it can also be an act of witness, of bringing something secret, shameful, and hidden into the light. I wrote “My Father’s Noose” out of an urge to understand my father. It’s about a moment that I was not present for, obviously, since my father was still a child when his mother punished him so cruelly. It’s a piece that is very important to me because by writing about that memory, remembering with my father, I felt I was able to be there for him. It’s a strange kind of time travel, but I was glad to be a witness for my father during a horrible and lonely moment of his childhood. If you’ve read the book, you can understand why I might be drawn to that. Although I’m certain that anyone who has lived through childhood can appreciate this.  

Something very special can happen after a story is shared. I will never forget when I was on stage in front of a few hundred people who had read “My Father’s Noose” and that night, my father happened to be sitting in the front row. Someone asked a question about that essay. My father perked up, turning around and looking over the auditorium, taking in all these people who were outraged at what had happened to him. I could see his face from where I was standing. He was amazed. He couldn’t believe these strangers who had read about him could care about and show such compassion towards him. I hope he carries that feeling with him always. I sure do.   

To write this book, you use report cards, documents, photographs, timelines, elementary school report cards, and journals in a way that feels forensic, documentary. This documentary evidence led me to think about papers, because of course the title guided me in that direction, as does the narrative, and it made me think about the French phrase sans papiers, which refers to undocumented immigrants in France. And yet, the paper trail that follows you, and that you follow in this book is remarkable. And it isn’t just seemingly forensic documents, it can even be poems from your uncle, Alfrredo Navarra Salanga, and excerpts from other people’s work. How did you make curatorial choices for the kinds of documentation that were valuable to you as an author?

People remember differently, but facts are not disputable. Because I had the experience of gaslighting, of being dismissed, and not listened to, I felt the need to overcompensate with paperwork and documentation. Receipts! But there was too much and we had to decide what a reader might need and want from the documentation. 

And yet, sometimes new information comes to light and what we thought of as fact changes. The paperwork shed new light onto stories that I thought were fact. For example, I was sure that I arrived in the United States when I was three years old in the winter. I remember the snow and the cold and being little enough to be lifted up and plopped into a shopping cart seat. But that is only where my memory begins. My FOIA request revealed definitely that I arrived in America at age two in the middle of summer. Tensions and conflicts between my memory and the documentation were so important in my storytelling. Another time the documentation impacted my storytelling is when I projected slides that my father took of my childhood onto my living room wall. I appeared in color as a child, life-size, and these images were so moving to me. I could not anymore deny or dismiss my trauma. I saw it play out on my face and my body as I looked at slides of me through the years. I felt a lot of sadness and compassion for myself as a child. I always wanted to run away from remembering, but I could not when I was faced with images of this girl who was being assaulted every night and ground down. I had to be a witness for her, for myself. I started to love her. 

I wonder if you ever felt surprised or moved by the ways that there were things you may not have fully anticipated before the book became a book. I don’t mean to presume, but here’s what I’m trying to get at. I wonder if there were surprises for you with some of the characterizations you created. At least for me as a reader, the most surprising person in this book is your father and how he develops on the page. I was surprised by what a really important role he had in the book. And I was deeply moved by him many, many times. Did you know in advance that your father would be such a big part of your book or was this something that evolved? 

When I was revising the book, I could not see the whole thing. I was working too closely on sections and on the sentence-level to see what it was until after it was published. I remember sitting down to read the hardcover and discovering this. Out loud, I said, “Oh no.” And in my head, I thought, “My God, I published a book about my father.” I really didn’t know that nor plan it. And yet, I agree that this is what I’ve done. 

My father is a man of few words. Even though I see him almost every week for a family meal and I’ve been listening to his stories, which are only one or two sentences long, all of my life, I find him mysterious and fascinating. He is full of contradictions. Even when he’s sitting across the table from me, he is always far away and out of reach. I suppose this has forced me to fill in the gaps, imagine and speculate, which is good practice for a writer. 

I suppose the story of my father is also the story of me.   

In this book, but elsewhere in your writing, you are so attentive to place. We might think that place is a one directional sort of relationship where we are capable of changing our environments, moving into spaces, and altering them in some way, but they alter us as well. How is place on your mind as a writer?

 I am obsessed with place. My first big life experience besides being born was migrating to the US. I changed worlds and realized very young that this was possible. Perhaps because I left my first home, I’ve always been trying to return to it. I grew up hearing about this place called the Philippines all my life that to my parents and other Filipino immigrants, was synonymous with the word, home. For example, “We’re going home for holidays.” They always seemed like they were trying to get back there. I would do the same thing, say “home” when I meant the Philippines. I don’t do that anymore. I came to think about the Philippines as this mythical home where I would feel I finally belonged. I visited some of the settings where the stories I grew up listening to took place, but I did not find home there. The places had changed and the people were long gone. I needed to “go back home” to the Philippines to understand that it was not my home. Home is where and when I am with my loved ones. I am lucky to have many homes.              

What were the ethical risks of writing this book?

I’ve done some reporting so I’m fairly clear on ethics in journalism, but memoir seemed to operate under different rules. There were times when I interviewed my parents and had my tape recorder and notebook out so they understood that what they said was on the record. But most of the time, we were just living our lives and I was observing it. Both my parents recognize the look on my face when I’ve found something I want to write about. They’ll interrupt someone telling a story and say, “Watch out for what you say. Grace is a writer.”

I know where the ethical line is for myself. For example, when I was almost done with the book, my father told me how he allowed his dentist in the Philippines to pull all his teeth before he left for America. As soon as I heard my father say this, I knew I wanted to use that detail in the book. But I felt really uncomfortable. I knew he wasn’t going to read the book so I could have probably snuck it in without informing him. But that didn’t feel right. I thought about it until I saw him for the next family meal, which I spent the whole time working up my courage to ask, “Dad, last week you told me about getting your teeth pulled. I know it’s medical information, but how would you feel if I put that in the book?” I didn’t explain why I thought this image was so resonant to the kinds of losses immigrants can experience viscerally through migration. Luckily, he said, “Go ahead,” so I can sleep at night. For the most part.  

Before the book was published, I asked people if they wanted to read the parts they were in and if there was anything in the text that they wanted me to reconsider before publication. This is not required, of course, but I wanted to continue a relationship with these folks after the book was published. They all said that they trusted me and did not want to read the book in advance of publication.

And how did your family respond to the book?

Many people ask me how my family reacted to the book. I’ll tell you the hardest story first. A cousin who I do not know well reached out to me after she read the book. She told me the same exact thing happened to her at my grandfather’s home in the Philippines when she was five years old. She was terrified that the same would happen to her young daughter. Initially, I said, “Don’t worry, our grandfather is dead.” And then I remembered that this kind of trauma can repeat itself. I suggested she talk to someone, a therapist. Her story will haunt me forever because I found out that soon after my grandfather abused her, she reported it to her parents. My grandmother knew. Who else knew and didn’t say anything? And why didn’t they? Obviously, this little girl’s bravery could not combat misogyny. There were no repercussions for my grandfather from her telling and in fact, he was allowed to continue on, to years later, come for me in America.

In terms of other reactions, knock on wood, it’s mostly been positive. I’ve allowed myself to be known and I was not abandoned by those I love the most. 

My father will never read or listen to the book, but he is proud that published it. When my father saw the second New York Times review, he wanted to know when I would be on the bestseller list. Suddenly, I was full of fury, remembering how he would always move the goalposts for achievement; how when he was teaching me to swim, he would drop me in the water and stretch out his arms and say, “You only need to swim a little more to get to my hands.” Meanwhile, he was walking backwards. I never felt like I was good enough and it all came back when he so cavalierly expected that my book would be on the bestseller lists. As if this was nothing. “Dad, some people would say two reviews in the New York Timesis good enough,” I said. “And I have no control over whether I’m on the bestseller list.” And then he did something that surprised me. He apologized. He said that he had misunderstood. That might have been the first time he’s sincerely apologized to me in my adult life. 

My mother, on other hand, has decided that I’m the literary version of a Kardashian and she’s Kris, my momager. She tries to attend all of my book events and has hand-sold my book to countless people. She’s read it multiple times. The first time she read it, she called me and I listened to her sob for over an hour. She was so sorry for what I had gone through as her child. She regretted her role and the ways she had not seen what was happening. I told her that I had forgiven the two of them, my parents, already a long time ago. My siblings and their spouses are incredible. They do whatever they can to get my book into people’s hands. I am lucky for their enthusiasm and endless gestures of support. After my youngest brother read he book, he wanted to videochat and process it together. He had very strong feelings, from tears to laughter, and he allowed me to experience his vulnerability and feel how grateful he was that I had written about our lives together. To me, these experiences have been an unexpected opportunity for closeness. We could not have had these conversations without the book.     

My nieces, nephews, and nibling are so proud of me, which is such a wonderful reversal because it’s almost always the other way around. I am their biggest fan. Naomi, who is now sixteen, introduced me at a book event at my childhood library, where I used to would take her. She said, “If you ever talk to my aunt, you know that she does not forget anything. This memory led to the memoir that we enjoy today. The Body Papershas not only brought me closer to my aunt, but it has opened my eyes to the person that she is. As the oldest of the cousins, I speak for all of us that we are incredibly grateful for such an amazing and loving woman who goes out of her way to drive through the city or even fly across the country to spend time with us. Since I was diagnosed with cancer at such a young age, I don’t remember a lot about that time. Seeing the struggle and stress that my family went through in the book during made me realize how lucky I am to have such a family. I may have a biological mother, but my aunt really did act as my second mother. I am incredibly grateful for my aunt’s loving care and how this love grew even as more cousins joined our family. The book made me realize that not only did she have a huge impact on my life, I had a huge impact on hers.” My oldest nephew on that side of the family said, “I thought it was cool that you finally put all your work out there for everyone to see.”     

On my husband’s side of the family, his mother, siblings, our nieces and nephew, and extended relatives in Louisville, KY and Hampton, VA are really excited about the book. Many of them have bought it and tell people all about it. And my husband is proud of me. The book tour has meant we’ve been apart a lot and he continues to tell me how happy he is for me and how important it is for me to take it around and talk to folks. 

How, if at all, is writing a form of healing for you? How do you think about the relationship between illness, trauma, and the writing process?             

Most of what I write, no one will ever see (nor would they want to). That kind of writing is for process rather than publication. I process the world through writing. It’s a way of paying attention to what something actually is instead of what I anticipate or worry it will be. Practicing this kind of close attention is the exact opposite of my go-to coping mechanism, which is mentally checking out. So writing has been healing in that it has allowed me to practice being present.            

Reading can be a form of healing as well. I’ve heard you talk about how your book has been a very powerful reading experience for some people. Readers have felt it was restorative in some ways, even recuperative. How, if at all, is reading a form of healing for you?

I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have books to read and stories to listen to. Reading has not only been healing for me, but there are some passages in books have kept me going during hard times. 

You bring up reader responses to my book. People say that they see themselves in my book. While I know what they mean because I’ve had reading experiences like this; at the same time, I’m totally surprised because I’m writing about such specific, personal experiences. It’s moving to hear this kind of feedback especially because I’ve felt like such an outsider for most of my life. 

I feel such a responsibility to the reader, but who even is this imaginary reader? Is the reader me? Not if I’m publishing the writing because then there will be actual readers, strangers to me, and yet, through this book we have a kind of intimate relationship that reading can allow. 

You said writing is a form of seeing, understanding, and recognizing what was happening to you, and how that process of looking inward could be so effective to people outside of yourself. It’s a wonderful achievement.

Thank you.

_________

Joanne Diaz is an associate professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University. She is the author of two collections of poetry, The Lessons and My Favorite Tyrants, and co-editor, with Ian Morris, of The Little Magazine in Contemporary America.

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