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Meredith Talusan knows a thing or two about journeys. When I called her up in March to discuss her debut book, Fairest (out this week from Viking), she had only been back home in the U.S. for about a day. Prior to our conversation, she had been in Guatemala on an individual writer’s retreat, already at work on her next book: a novel. After receiving an alarming email from the State Department regarding COVID-19, she had to make a mad dash to secure a flight back to the U.S.
Luckily, Talusan is well-acquainted with abrupt and dramatic changes to her scenery. Her luminous memoir follows Talusan’s childhood as a boy with albinism, known as a “sun child,” growing up in a rural village in the Philippines. Talusan’s gorgeous, vulnerable prose explores her pre–gender transition adolescence in that village and later, Manila, as well as her family’s journey immigrating to Southern California. In addition to being her personal immigrant story, a narrative of gender transition, and a queer bildungsroman of a literature-obsessed Harvard undergrad, Fairest also takes readers through a few of Talusan’s continent-crossing sexual and romantic relationships.
In this interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Talusan unpacks the role of the mirror in trans women’s lives, how she went about tackling the challenge of writing sex scenes about herself, and how Fairest allowed her to honor her messy twentysomething self.
Madeline Ducharme: Mirrors play a huge role in your book. The title obviously evokes the fairy tale rhyme of “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” but there’s also a dual meaning in “fairest” with the question of equity: What is fairest for all of us? Can you tell me more about that?
Meredith Talusan: I’m really fascinated by the mirror because of the fact that it’s such a long-running sort of, like, cliché in terms of trans writing, you know? There’s been so much criticism around the fact that trans women are obsessed with the way that we look and, you know, every trans-related movie has a scene with a trans woman putting on makeup in the mirror. So for me, I wanted to say: Yes, it is the case that one of the ways in which trans women filter our experiences is by looking at ourselves, but, that action, which is so associated—not just for trans women but for women in general—with vanity, with superficiality, is actually also an opportunity for us to introspect. It’s actually time that many men don’t take to do.
In the process of putting on what we need to put on in order to move in the world, we’re also simultaneously thinking about what it’s like to be there, what it’s like to be observed, how it is that we interact and relate to others. As somebody who has such a huge gulf between my internal perception and my external reality, that action is really important to me. The very weird thing about me is that in a lot of ways, I transitioned in order to allow for my internal perception of my femininity and my womanhood to match external reality better, but in fact, I am extremely, extremely internally Filipino. You know, I grew up in a rural environment in the Philippines, I only spoke Tagalog for the first six or seven years of my life, and so there’s this way in which I have to look in the mirror to constantly remind myself, no, other people aren’t perceiving me the way I perceive myself. And I constantly have to negotiate those two perceptions.
You also seem to have this fearlessness around being seen and being observed. That theme seems to be important throughout your book and throughout your life, whether it be at Harvard as the Dancing Deviant (your theater show that got so much attention and acclaim) or being a child television star in the Philippines. Can you talk about the way that visibility in this way has kind of shaped your life and your writing?
There’s this interesting way that as a very young child, there were people who tried to reinforce this idea that I was abnormal, that I was freakish, that I belonged to a category of people that is not worth paying attention to. And I do think that in a lot of ways, I developed this coping mechanism of: “Oh, you think that I’m a freak? Well … look at this!” You know? “Just see what I can do! And see what you think after that!”
It also seems there’s a power that’s granted to you throughout your life by way of perceived whiteness. What was it like to interrogate that experience?
I mean the book has been immensely personally beneficial to me because of the fact that one’s life moves—especially during those periods that I write about in the book—at such a dizzying pace that it becomes very difficult to take stock of your life at the time. And I do think engaging in that interrogation has been super helpful just in terms of becoming much more aware and much more precise about that quality of my life: that this really random genetic occurrence that is supposed to disable me and render me freakish is actually a quality that has, on aggregate, hugely advantaged me. And that isn’t true for a lot of albino people for various reasons.
And it is something that I think about a lot and it’s something that, now that I’ve written the book, I have a much clearer understanding of and a much greater appreciation for people who hold me accountable for being white-passing but also for, you know, being kind to my own self. Being kind to the fact that I am in many ways alienated from my own people because Filipinos can’t recognize me as Filipino, and even when they do, there is a gulf between me and a lot of Filipinos that I interact with just because we have such different experiences, and none of that is our fault. You know, we didn’t create these societal structures. But at the same time, the realities of both are much clearer to me now. That I can simultaneously say, without question, that looking white and by extension, looking cisgender because of the fact that I look white, has been really advantageous for me but also has been really psychologically difficult and damaging in a lot of ways, and both of those things can be true.
Something your book does so beautifully is talk about elements of transition in our lives that are unrelated to gender. There’s, like, your transition from being a rural to an urban resident, from being poor to well-off in a relationship with somebody who has a lot of inherited wealth, being the center of attention to being anonymous. It’s so powerful to read about those versions of transition in tandem with your story of gender transition.
Yeah, that was definitely deliberate. When I was conceiving and proposing this book, I felt a lot of pressure, whether explicit or implicit, from the publishing industry like, “Oh, people are interested in trans stuff right now so this book has to be—whatever it is, it has to be primarily like a trans-related book.” And for me, I was not interested in that, because of the fact that it just oversimplifies my experience. Also, what’s really interesting is that memoir itself is a craft. In this genre, your memoir needs to be about one main theme and one main topic, and I realized that the genre evolved out of writers who had one thing in their lives and could do that. Like, [these writers] could parcel out one thing of their experience and say like, OK, this is what I’m exploring in this book. And for me, I said to myself, “No! Like, I can’t—first of all, my experiences of race and gender are so intertwined that it’s just impossible, there’s no way.” And I think that over time, the book really developed, I call it a kind of prismatic lens. You can’t just see the world from this singular perspective, right? It has to be kaleidoscopic, it has to be prismatic.
Now for a fun question: The sex in your memoir is extremely hot. You write about sex with a beautiful and moving ferocity. Can you tell us about what it was like to mine those experiences and write something so erotic and so personal?
Thank you, that’s such a huge compliment—because at the time, it was like, ugh, this is so awkward.
One of the things that I discovered is that in order to write those scenes, it actually took me getting to a place where I’m so fully comfortable in my current identity, so fully comfortable in my own sense of my own womanhood, which is like a form of womanhood that is just not the same as a lot of cis people’s.
And one of the forms that that womanhood takes is that I am a woman who used to really enjoy having sex as a man. And being able to understand that about myself allowed me to then really open up that space, psychologically. In Fairest, I also expressed the ways in which I felt alienated from sex as a gay man, and I think it’s good to be in a psychological space where both of those possibilities were open, where it’s not just like, “Oh my God, I hated my body, I hated my penis, therefore, everything was bad!” I was in a psychological space where I could also think, “No actually, there were things that you really liked about it!” I really liked enjoying sex without having to feel like people were socially punishing me. I really liked being able to say things that were sexually explicit without people judging me.
One of the early decisions that I made writing this book is to create a space for myself and also for trans writers in general to write about our own experiences, on our own terms, outside of how we can harness that experience in order to make a political or social point. That was really important to me. So if you notice, the book has only a couple of necessary moments, but on the whole, it does not talk about external politics. It doesn’t talk about the Time magazine “Trans Tipping Point” …
Right! It’s like, can someone please write one book, one piece on trans life and culture that doesn’t mention Laverne Cox appearing on the cover of Time magazine?
Right! Exactly. I do think that in a way one of the most political things that the book does is to not politicize itself. Instead, it says these are all of the things that have happened to me, this is how I experienced them at the time, and some of those experiences people now will find difficult to handle, and problematic. They’ll find that they do not conform to their political standards, and all I can say to that is that is how I experienced those things. I am a person that is very different in 2020 than I was back in the early 2000s when I transitioned, and I want to honor that difference. [And I think] the best way for me to honor the person that I was, with all of my faults, with all of my misguided thinking at the time, is to actually represent that person honestly. And to actually represent her without sort of doing this larger political point, larger political rationalization or apology. I feel like that’s for other people to do.