An Interview with Grace Talusan, Author of The Body Papers

Grace Talusan .png

CW: sexual violence

Grace Talusan’s debut memoir, The Body Papers, holds truth to personal trauma and the legacies of war and colonial violence. Through essays and documents like family photos, medical records and immigration files, Grace powerfully recounts experiences that often go unsaid. Grace was born in the Philippines and raised in the Boston area, where she went to college before receiving her MFA from UC Irvine. She breaks silence on sexual abuse, immigration, depression, and the trauma and legacies of family relations conditioned by diasporic subjectivities. With The Body Papers, Grace breaks silence for future generations of young Asian Americans—like us.

Grace also teaches first-year writing at Tufts University, where I met her as a first-year student in the fall of 2017. As one of only two instructors who teaches Asian American content at Tufts, Grace has done so much for my community at school. After I published my writing for the first time in our on campus student magazine, at an event in our Asian American Center, Grace told me she had read my piece and encouraged me to continue writing. I’m glad I listened to her! Next year, she will leave Tufts for Brandeis University as the 2019-2021 Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence; she will be missed by us all.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Issay Matsumoto: You open your book by saying, “My story is not only my story.” Can you speak to where this understanding of your experiences and histories has come from? And expanding on that, you are a teacher and an aunt to many nieces and nephews that you write about in your book—who do you write for?

Grace Talusan: That first line, “My story is not only my story,” just kind of came to me but I think I thought about it throughout the whole writing of the book, which is probably why it took me so long to put it together. This book — which is a memoir and nonfiction — some of it comes out of my UC Irvine graduate school thesis in fiction. So there are pieces I can point to in my thesis that are actually the same in this memoir because I was writing thinly veiled autobiographical fiction. There was just a point when I realized I could write nonfiction. So I think I’ve always wanted to write these stories but because I knew that they were intertwined with other people’s stories and I felt very uncomfortable with that, I used the veil of fiction to hide behind.

And then I realized I couldn’t anymore. I waited still even longer for some people to die, frankly, so that I could tell this story. I am connected to my family, I am connected to all kinds of people. I’ve been written about before...there is a power there. There’s the cliche about the power of the pen; and I understand there’s power there.

That impacted my whole entire life, that someone told me an incorrect story or an incomplete story because they wanted to assert a narrative that sounded better.

So I wanted to use my power carefully as a writer. But I also wanted to tell my story because as I say in the Author’s Note, I was told an incomplete story. I was told a fiction about my grandfather and other people—and that hurt me tremendously. That impacted my whole entire life, that someone told me an incorrect story or an incomplete story because they wanted to assert a narrative that sounded better. And I’ve been asked explicitly by relatives who’ve now since died to tell a happier story, to tell a version that illuminates the bravery and sacrifices of my grandparents. And they were brave and they did sacrifice things, but that doesn’t negate the harmful things that they did.

I talk about other people in service to my own story. I don’t want to reveal details or things about them for entertainment value. I only reveal the things that make sense to telling the story I want to tell in The Body Papers. For example, I tell this story about my father. Before he came to the United States, my father let a dentist remove all of his teeth because he was afraid of how much it would cost to fix his teeth in the United States. That’s pretty bad. To lose all your teeth in your early twenties and have false teeth for the rest of your life? That impacts the way food tastes, that impacts the way you speak, it’s a hygiene issue. There are so many things that that impacts.

But that’s how scared he was. And it also to me says something about what happens with immigration, movement, and what you lose, and what you’re willing to lose. So that was a story where I was like, “Yeah, that’s perfect for my book. That is also highly personal. And maybe my father doesn’t want the whole world to know that he has false teeth. And that he made that decision when he was like 22 years old.” So I asked him.

I said, “Dad, you told me that story. I really want to use that for my book. Do you mind?” And he said, “No, go ahead.” I would have felt really rotten if I used it anyways—which of course you can do; you’re the artist, you’re the writer, you do whatever you want—but we can’t pretend that it doesn’t have a consequence. So that’s what would make me feel better. Of course I don’t have to ask anybody permission, but I wouldn’t feel right as a person or a daughter if I had stuck that in there without asking first.

I am incredibly inspired by college students, and high school students and other young people. This thing you’re going to do with your generation and your lives—I want to make sure that I do my best to try to tell the most truthful story so that you are the best equipped that you can be with whatever it is you have to face. For my nieces and nephews, if that means hearing things that make them feel sad or angry or make our family look bad, I’d rather have them have the truth than be completely surprised, like the way I was.

A lot of Asian American stories get lauded as “immigrant” stories or “family” stories without tending to the specific histories and experiences that engender them, I think, and your book is really important in complicating those labels. Can you speak a little bit to the process of growing up, writing, and understanding your story of “family” and “immigration” as not like those of other people around you?

I recognized interactions, I recognized relationships. I recognized the values that my family also has that I don’t really see in the other families, like the White American families that I grew up with.

My sister Mary brought home The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston and that just changed everything for me (even though I am not Chinese—although my father probably is of Chinese descent in the Philippines. I didn’t grow up with a Chinese identity.) But I saw myself in that book. Even though it’s so different from anything I’ve ever experienced, it didn’t matter. I recognized interactions, I recognized relationships. I recognized the values that my family also has that I don’t really see in the other families, like the White American families that I grew up with. So it was amazing. It was incredible. It really opened things up.

And then I read Amy Tan. Around the time I was coming of age, there were a lot of mother-daughter Asian immigrant stories getting published. Many of them sadly are forgotten at this point…But every year there’d, say, be one, and I’d find it and read it. And those were good in their own way. None of them really stayed with me as much as say, Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston did. Only one other book from all the ones I read at that time stayed with me, and that’s probably Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone.

Oh my God, yes.

I know! It’s an incredible book, right? Those were the ones that stayed with me that did something different. I was like, “You’re really getting at some kind of truth here.” She’s talking about suicide in a family. I mean, it was so good.

I went to grad school so there was a way that I was being read and perceived that was very much in a context of what was happening in publishing with Asian American women. “Oh, it’s going to be so easy for you because you’re Asian like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston.” No, it hasn’t been. I got told all kinds of things by all kinds of people, like, “Don’t bother writing an essay collection, it will never sell.” That’s what this book started as. This memoir started as an essay collection. It wouldn’t exist unless my friend encouraged me to do it and say, “Well who cares if they said essay collections don’t sell and you’re not famous enough to publish an essay collection. Think of it as a poetry collection and just put it together.”

Frankly, I can’t do something that’s not me. People have said, “Oh, why don’t you just write a vampire book—with Asians?” Or something like that, right? I try, I can’t.

You’ve tried to do the vampire book?

Not really. I mean I thought about it. I thought like, “Okay, what if I tried to write a bestseller?” But what does that even mean? Wouldn’t we all just write bestsellers? If we knew what that was, wouldn’t we do it? I don’t think you can predict what that’s going to be.

It’s hard work no matter what and I’m not really doing it for the money (it would be nice to make money). I’m doing it because I want it to exist and I want it to reach people. And I want it to publish well and all of that.

Racialized and gendered labor is a very consistent theme in Asian American experiences and histories. Can you speak to the labor of writing, making art, and documenting your stories? What obstacles did you face? And when did moments of levity come to you?

As a woman, as a girl who grew up in my particular family, I am used to treating myself second. We’ve got to take care of the men, make sure the laundry’s done, make sure there’s food. It’s bad habit because it’s very gendered and unequal, but it’s hard for me to shake it that the work of men is more important than our work. Of course I don’t really believe that, but I’m saying that I was trained that way and it’s hard for me not to act that way.

And then when people center my work, it’s startling to me...I had a reading last night and Jenna Blum, this wonderful novelist who introduced me read a quote by Muriel Rukeyser, that’s basically like, “What would it mean if one women told the truth about her life?” That’s the quote. And she read that and was talking in reference to my book and I know that quote. I think about it a lot actually, and I thought about it while I was writing the book. What would it mean if I was honest about how things are and how I experienced things, and I don’t think about hurting other people’s feelings?

For writing, which seems to be a very individual act sometimes, what does community mean for you?

I do think writing is individual and solitary, but I also see it as very much in community and in dialogue with everything that came before. I was with a writer friend and he was talking about his other writer friend he had, and this person was about to die, and the friend said, “Oh, I’m so sorry I haven’t been in touch more.” and the person who was dying was like, “No, I read your writing all the time, we’re constantly in touch!” And I just thought that’s incredible to think about.

Even if you’re not there, your writing is just this living thing that people feel close to you from. Writing is solitary, but I am writing within a context. I’m writing in response to everything that I’ve read, in things that are about to be published, I just feel like I’m very much in a conversation.

I’m writing in response to everything that I’ve read, in things that are about to be published, I just feel like I’m very much in a conversation.

There were a few years after graduate school where I became incredibly self-conscious and I couldn’t write easily actually. It wasn’t until I kind of gave up, and I was like, “Yeah, it’s been a long time since grad school, nobody cares about my work. Nobody’s going to publish it. I might as well just write to myself, and write to my nieces and nephews. Just think of them.” And I did. And then writing was great, it was really just for me. It was private. But of course there’s a part of me that’s still ambitious and still sent things out and then got feedback.  

I’m a part of a writing group called Chunky Monkeys and they’re incredible, there are 11 of us, we meet once a month, but we also stay in touch through email, answer each other’s questions…It’s wonderful. They read my work so they know me—and they know me through early drafts. I trust them. They trust me. There are a lot of healing relationships that happen there. So even if things were a little bit difficult for me growing up and my idea about relationships got skewed, I think some of that is getting healed through my friendships, including my friendships with writers.

I’d like to turn back a little bit to your college days. I understand you attended ECASU [before it became ECAASU]. Can you talk about your experience and what it was like to be engaged in Asian American issues in that particular moment and still be committed and engaged in those issues right now?

It’s wonderful to be back in touch with ECAASU. It was exciting. The meeting was at [Smith College] and it was amazing. It was this auditorium full of other people like me...I was encountering Asian Americans like me. That felt really different and it was amazing. There were leaders there: Dustin Nguyen who was an actor on 21 Jump Street and other things, Helen Zia was there—I think I had lunch with her, when I was 19 years old. It was incredible to have all those leaders there. At that time, the thing that was interesting people was protesting Miss Saigon, the musical that was happening on Broadway, and so folks from there who were protesting it had come to [Smith College] to talk about their work.

What I liked about that ECASU meeting was we were trying to listen to everybody’s voice…I don’t remember what they called the document, it was either a constitution or a mission. I don’t remember. But it was a multipoint document that said what we are, what we want to do. And it was incredibly moving to see an auditorium of people talking it out: “No, I don’t want this word, I want this word, for this reason.” That was amazing to me, that people were going to work together to co-create this document that would describe what we were at the time.

What stories do you think still need to be told?

For our community, I want to hear more.

For our community, I want to hear more.

Think about all the permutations of White American families that we’ve read about, seen in movies, seen in sitcoms, seen on series. Like, how many different kinds of issues and families have we seen? That’s how many I want to see for Asian Americans—for people of color, for immigrants, for Latinos, for African Americans, [you could] go on and on. That’s how much I want to see. Much much more of whatever your story is, whether you’re working class, middle class, incredibly privileged—I actually don’t care. We just need more of our stories.

I know what I’m working on next and it’s a novel and it’s research on Jewish refugees to the Philippines. What was interesting to me is, you have a new country that’s just come out of colonization, and they’re extending themselves saying they want to take in other people who need help. So that’s something that’s driving me now. What does it mean to be offering help when you are in need of it yourself? And trying think about the human desire to help each other. And that’s what I want to explore next.

But whatever story our community has, even if you don’t think you’re a writer, or a storyteller, or whatever, it does matter that you tell it in some way or another. Whether it’s on Twitter, or Instagram stories, or whatever way you want to do it, your unique perspective adds to our humanity—our understanding of who we are and our role in the world. And that can only be good.