Winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, The Body Papers by Grace Talusan is a memoir crafted in chisel-sharp language that packs the punch of poetry. Framed within evocative situations that range from making yogurt or crossing Manila streets to family road trips and hamster mishaps, the essay-like chapters explore Talusan’s experiences of an immigrant childhood in white suburbia, of racism and the “double consciousness” described by W.E.B. Du Bois, of sexual abuse and its searing after-effects, of family secrets, of re-encounters with the Philippines, of hard medical decisions in the face of a genetic predisposition to cancer. And yet, despite the pain these topics encompass, to read The Body Papers is to read a story of recovery and empowerment, leavened with wise humor.
The judges for the Restless Books Prize, Anjali Singh and Ilan Stavans, conclude their citation by calling The Body Papers “an inspiration to thousands of young immigrants who feel the weight of secrecy and silence pressed upon them.” Praising The Body Papers as an “unstinting self-portrait,” Luis H. Francia writes in his review for The New York Times how Talusan “chronicles that fraught passage from one world, one body, to another, marking with sensitivity how an American life can be both burden and benediction.”
Born in the Philippines, Talusan grew up outside of Boston. She graduated from Tufts University and received her MFA at the University of California, Irvine. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines, as well as an Artist Fellowship Award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and support from the Somerville Arts Council, the Center for Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon, and the Women’s National Book Association. Her essays, fiction, reviews, or articles have appeared in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Boston Magazine, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. She teaches at Grub Street and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, in addition to being the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University.
Dead Darlings: The Body Papers is tremendously brave in the truths it reveals. Your Author’s Note mentions that you long avoided writing nonfiction. How did you ultimately choose memoir as your medium?
I have more perspective, now the book is published, that it is indeed a brave thing to write about these truths, but while I was writing, I did not feel brave. I felt lots of other things—shame, embarrassment, fear, grief, disgust, and anger—but not courage. Many, many times over the years, I stopped writing this material and almost abandoned what became this book. And yet, I could not stop writing from this part of my life. When I look back at old attempts at short stories and novels, it’s clear I could not get away from writing about these truths of my life. The fiction was almost always thinly veiled autobiography and memoir.
I don’t say that to be coy or self-diminishing, but I didn’t wake up one day and decide to write a memoir. First of all, because I didn’t grow up with books, movies, and TV that centered people like me, it didn’t occur to me that I could center my own voice and story in a book. Secondly, I didn’t expect anyone would care to read my story. I figured they wouldn’t be able to relate to me, even though I am a person! As an avid reader all my life, I’ve read lots of books by people who don’t share characteristics or social identities with me, and I always found ways to connect. But I think part of the experience of marginalization is feeling limited, even in my own imagination and dreams of what was possible for myself.
The Body Papers developed from individual essays into a memoir through an iterative, organic process. I wrote individual nonfiction pieces out of a need to write them. I started with images that would not leave me. I think the first thing I published from this book was “My Father’s Noose” in Brevity. This was a turning point. I felt more comfortable dropping the veil of fiction in order to explore myself as the “I” narrator. I felt so free.
As a writer of both fiction and creative nonfiction, how would you compare the particular power of each genre, for telling difficult stories?
They are equally powerful. I am moved by both modes of storytelling. Some readers have told me they prefer memoir, biographies, and creative nonfiction because they are about real people. There’s something very moving and convincing about the author being the same as the narrator, but I am just as moved by fiction. Fictional characters sometimes seem as real as real people to me. That’s how powerful the reading experience can be.
Your Author’s Note opens with “my story is not only my story.” While every family or community is, of course, uniquely fraught, is there any advice you would give other memoirists (or novelists) as they write through hard truths involving others?
I am lucky that all of my immediate family members and their spouses and children are incredibly supportive. They have bought multiple copies of my book and give them as gifts. They travel long distances to show up at my readings even though they have already attended several. I did not expect this response. In fact, a part of me was certain I would lose everyone I loved after publishing this book. This is probably why it took me so long. I was afraid. In the end, I decided it would be worth it, and I made peace with the fact that I could not know how people would feel about the book until after it was published.
I think the process of writing and publishing are two separate activities. In order to write what became this memoir, I could not worry about people’s reactions. I don’t think it is productive to imagine how people will react to your work as you are trying to make it. Once I signed the book contract, I tried to prepare my family for what was in the book. I write about all the things that are difficult for me to talk about. I can only fully express them in writing. I know family members were surprised to know my innermost thoughts and feelings.
In terms of advice, I recommend that you write whatever it is you need and want to write. Writing has multiple stages. As you develop your material and work towards publication (or not), you can make decisions about what to keep in or leave out. But I do think it’s important to write the stories down as a gift for yourself.
You acknowledge with gratitude Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal Writing, which “[helped you] find the backbone of this book.” Can you tell Dead Darlings more about how you arrived at the structure for The Body Papers?
Through Corporeal Writing, I took an online course on revision, which involved an exercise of reading my work for lines and images that stand out, repeat, and exemplify what I want to convey. That exercise helped me see the themes, images, lines, and moments that resonated throughout the disparate essays that eventually became the book. This began the shift in approach to my manuscript. I am so grateful to my online classmates and Lidia Yuknavitch for reflecting, highlighting, and showing me what was on my pages.
Several other readers and writing groups also helped me find the structure. My editor at Restless Books, Nathan Rostron, was instrumental. I had to be open and playful and not stuck to what I thought the order of the pieces should be. I had to trust that through the process of ordering and re-ordering, I would find the best shape. It requires faith in the process, and in the certainty that the book exists, and your job is to find it.
Did you know from the beginning that you would use the included photos and documents as organizing context?
My brilliant friend, the poet Joanne Diaz, encouraged me to put these pieces together as a book. She came up with the title, and she had the vision to suggest using photos and documents as a kind of connective tissue. By finding other photos and documents, I was inspired to write new material that wasn’t originally in the manuscript. If you ever get stuck in a writing project, I highly recommend looking at researched material, photos, archives, and other documents to get inspired again.
I’m interested in your choice to include poems written by your relative, Alfrredo Navarro Salanga. Can you talk a bit about your reasons and what his work has meant to you?
My exposure at an early age to the work of Alfrredo Navarro Salanga, my “Tito Freddie,” was really important in my becoming a writer. He was my pen pal, and even though I was still a little girl, Tito Freddie encouraged me to write. He was confident in my talent. He helped me see early on how important and even dangerous writing could be. Writing could be so powerful that governments would punish you for it.
He was a brave and generous man. I try to embody that spirit myself. Because he died before I could meet him in person, I wanted to include his poems in my book as an homage, a tiny way to show my deep appreciation. Even though I didn’t meet Tito Freddie in person, I feel I know him through his friends and admirers. He made a big impact while he was alive, and he continues to live on in his writing and in the people who loved him.
Who are some writers you have enjoyed reading and/or whose work has helped you with your own writing?
There are too many to include. You are asking for a list of a lifetime of reading. I would not be a writer without having read and admired so many books. I mentioned several authors in my Acknowledgments, but I’d like to mention some books that I returned to as I revised The Body Papers: Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina; Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club; Daniel Schirmer’s The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance; and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.
You write beautifully about how being “in a new place” can make “it [feel] possible to act in a new way.” Has the publication of this book put you in another new place, enabling you to act in additional new ways?
As someone who has seen her lifelong goal and dream come true—to publish a book—I have traveled to a new and foreign land. For many years, I came to peace with the idea I might not be able to do the thing I had always wanted to do. That seemed like an adult reality I would have to accept. I told myself that the process and practice of writing was what mattered, and publishing didn’t because it was out of my control. I could only control whether I showed up to write or not.
And yet. It has been a true gift and joy to have The Body Papers out in the world. I am so grateful to Restless Books and all the readers and folks who have supported my book in all the ways that books need supporting. I truly feel like I crossed a border in my life. I have gone from someone who did not know I would publish a book to someone who did.
Whether your dream is to publish or to do something else, please try to get what you want out of life. I know that is such a cheesy thing to say, but I say it from having gotten what I wanted. Even though I was scared to publish the book, I also really, really wanted to (but was afraid to admit aloud how much). Having traveled here, I am still myself, of course, but something inside of me has opened up. As old as I am, I feel new again, and that there is still the possibility of magic, change, transformation, and hope in the world. I have been constantly surprised by things happening to me after the book has come out, and this has made me dream again.