Last I saw Meredith Talusan in person, we shouted lines from the classic sleepover movie Center Stage at each other across her living room and she told me about her survey of trans women’s memoir covers. Her own memoir, Fairest, was set to come out in a few months and it was on her mind, the way trans subjects are treated in art. Talusan has a brain like that: a lightning fast sharpness that connects her own experience to the world around her, past and present. That makes sense—her career as a journalist both requires and shapes an inquisitive worldview, that ability to see both the small details and the big picture at once, in concert. A contributing editor at them, Talusan has had her hand in many different projects, from fiction to reporting. All her varied craft expertise comes to bear on the telling of her own story. Fairest chronicles Talusan’s early life in the Philippines, where she was considered exceptional in many ways—albino, a child television star, and raised as a first-born son. It artfully juxtaposes her childhood with her education at Harvard many years later, where she began asking herself questions about passing as white and what it would mean to deeply consider her gender in her particular racial and economic context.
It is always strange to interview a friend—the circumstances of conversation become structured and formalized. It is even stranger to interview anyone about anything except illness during a pandemic, to interview anyone at all when all our socializing takes place on Zoom. It is the veneer of interaction, something reflected back to us by a strange mirror, mirror on the wall. But, as usual, Talusan is upbeat and game. Game for releasing her book during a world-changing plague, game for digging into big topics while our minds are on the crisis unfolding around us, and game to talk about her book’s astrological sign.
–A.E. Osworth for Guernica
Guernica: When it comes to your prose style, the prime descriptor I think of is “unflinching.” You have a willingness to cut to the hard heart of something. An example:
At least I’m not Asian. The unconscious thought became words inside my brain before I had the chance to replace “I’m not” with “I don’t look,” as I watched the Asian men in that room hover at the periphery of desire, those planets revolving around their white suns. We’d read an essay in Professor Miller’s class called “Looking for My Penis” the week before, which talked about how Asian gay men were automatically seen as subservient and emasculated, so they metaphorically did not have penises. Gavin intoned in class that it was important to let go of these ingrained stereotypes and for Asian gay men to consider themselves powerful and desirable, even as he seemed oblivious to the way his white good looks made him the star of the class, the room’s attention constantly pulled toward him. That essay was meant to unpack stereotypes about Asian gay men, to allow us to come into our desirability on our own terms, but the lesson I got was that it was a lot easier for white men to get laid, and in matters of sex, there was no real difference between looking and being white, since that was the only criterion gay men used to judge you anyway.
There’s a lot going on here: incisive memory of an event that occurred decades ago, a thought you had at the same time, and a recounting of it that seeks to plainly tell—and not give a reader any breathing room between—difficult truths about race, gender, and the gay community. As unflinching as that is, and as rapid fire as that is, did you ever flinch?
Meredith Talusan: One of the ironic effects of being routinely subjected to emotional abuse online whenever I publish articles, mostly from cis people, but sometimes even from other trans people, is that it leaves me with the feeling of: If I’m going to encounter something that’s emotionally really difficult, I would rather impose that emotional difficulty on myself than leave room for other people to do it. So if other people are going to judge, or blame, or cast aspersions on the ways that I behaved and thought of myself as a young person in college, I would rather them do it in a context where they have all of the available truthful information, so that I can say, well, that’s the truth. Nobody behaves ideally 100 percent of the time. The acknowledgement of that thought is a really important part of my emotional development, both as a human being and as a writer. I feel like, even five years ago, I might have said something like that. But it would have been mystified in a lot of rhetorical mumbo jumbo. In that particular case, that was just a moment that happened. And it represents a number of moments, not just a single one.
Guernica: You use the word “us” to situate the character of Meredith inside the gay community in Professor Miller’s class. I noticed frequently, throughout the book, the choice not to apply any retrospective distance when you’re talking about past versions of yourself. Whenever we’re following you through anything, we’re following right behind you. As a trans person, and one who writes about their past selves and often has a lot of trouble integrating those versions with my present understanding of myself, I would love to hear more about that choice.
Talusan: It was really important for me particularly, because my experiences are experiences that people don’t typically have, whether it be albinism or being whitepassing or being trans—in my case, a combination of all three—I had to be clear to myself about what my states of mind were in those specific moments that I lived those experiences. The internal worlds of those scenes are complicated enough. I didn’t then want to intervene to say, oh, you know, I don’t feel this way now, or I would have done things differently. The only function that it would have wouldn’t be literary. It would be me trying to exonerate myself and I don’t want to exonerate myself. I don’t think that it’s my place to exonerate myself.
So instead, what I chose to do was to intersperse scenes in which I flash forward in time, so the reader’s perspective is refracted through those scenes but they get to judge for themselves. The one instance in which I did use the retrospective voice was in a scene during a photography class at the New England School of Photography, where I said that I befriended somebody who went to RISD and that we separated ourselves from the class as newly minted graduates from elite schools versus people who were more vocational. I did add “comma, cringe worthy in retrospect.”
Guernica: I asked this particular question because there’s an essay that I wrote where I misgender myself. And I read it out loud still! And it’s hard to do. And I won’t change the pronouns because it feels bad to do either way.
Talusan: I wouldn’t call it misgendering in that context. I feel like it’s retrospective gendering. Because the only time when one misgenders oneself is when one uses the gender one does not intend for oneself. But when one uses their former gender intentionally, it’s not misgendering. It’s re-gendering or situational gendering. I think the reason it feels difficult, at least for me, is we anticipate the ways a cisgender dominated public is going to then take that ball and run with it. And also probably, to some extent, other trans people having a problem with it.
The reason we are sensitive to misgendering is because, at best, people are misperceiving us, and, at worst, want to do us harm. Neither applies when we do it intentionally ourselves, except that it risks other people doing it, like for instance a reader review of my book. At this point I’m willing to take that risk because as much as I feel like politically it’s useful and good to default to a world in which nobody refers to anybody except for their current gender, I feel, as an individual, the model of me never having been a boy or a man doesn’t feel internally right to me. Especially because I grew up in a cultural context in which all of those categories are so different. So I’m already engaged in this weird translation. I’m already translating from the gender system that I grew up in, where my consciousness was formed, to an American gender system. It’s already the case that some of the fundamental elements of transformation in the US just don’t necessarily make sense to me, including the idea that trans people are in any way inferior. There’s just no cell in my body that experiences that because I grew up in a culture in which third gender people have been, at least in indigenous culture, super valued and celebrated.
At a personal level, it would feel wrong to use she pronouns for me during those periods in my life because I myself never really thought that I was not a man during those moments.
Guernica: It must be really weird to release a book right now. For instance, I was asking the last question, like, oh, I read this essay out loud, is this weird for you? And I realized that maybe you have not yet had an occasion to read this book out loud. What has this experience been like, and do you feel like releasing this particular book during this pandemic highlights any of its themes or contents, either in similarity or in total juxtaposition?
Talusan: I feel like I’m probably handling it better than other people. I grew up in a dictatorship, I lived through five coup attempts, a number of volcano eruptions, at least two major earthquakes and, like, dozens of typhoons by the time I was 15 and left the Philippines. So I feel like I’m acculturated to take everything in stride. From that perspective, people shouldn’t be worried about me releasing a book during the pandemic because there are so many more things to worry about, and people should worry about those. Of course, I want the book to reach and affect as many people as possible, so I’m doing my best to make that happen while at the same time trying to be as helpful to other people as I can, whether it’s through mutual aid campaigns, through fundraisers, through—I’m giving workshops right now for writers, and that’s for my own sense of mental well-being as much as anything. That’s probably very Filipino of me, but not thinking about the collective in times of crisis is a super unintuitive way to think for me.
In terms of the book’s relation to the crisis, honestly, I have resisted doing that. Like, oh, let’s tie my book to this to this thing that’s happening now! The book touches on AIDS. At some level, the book is about a person who undergoes a lot of personal turmoil and navigates through those issues. So if one were a PR person, one could probably create ways to tie the book to the current crisis.
Maybe it’s my academic background, but I know so many books that weren’t necessarily the best received for various reasons at the time that they launched and that over time became hugely appreciated. I would rather this book be read ten, twenty, thirty years from now than for it to be a huge success right now. I think a lot about Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh because—I have to fact check—I think it was published the day before 9/11 [interviewer’s note: it was published a few weeks after]. I’ve seen Alex talk about that, talk about how difficult it was to publish a debut book, but also such a heartfelt, difficult book, in that environment. I consider Edinburgh part of not just the gay canon, but the literary canon. It gives me a lot of perspective in terms of what it means to come out with a book right now.
Guernica: So I had the privilege of recently “attending” a panel called “The Art of Craft: Trans Brilliance Edition.” It was part of The Fold 2020, which is a Canadian festival, and one of the themes of that discussion was how every trans author is called things like “brave” or “fearless” or “raw,” often at the expense of a closer read of their work. I want to cop to it, even. I called your prose “unflinching” (and I myself am trans!), and that is dangerously close! Is that true, in your experience? How do you feel about it as a descriptor? Has it been applied to your work? How do you feel about that?
Talusan: I don’t think people have called my work raw. Because it’s not, really. Partly because I was a French scholar before I became a writer, I think my prose is too French-inflected. It’s all, like, compound clauses and it doesn’t have that like [Meredith roars, A.E. laughs]. I don’t know how you would transcribe that, but—
Guernica: I’ll do my best!
Talusan: At the same time, it’s also important to recognize the ways in which
we have certain expectations of different demographic groups. We expect the minority voice to be less polished—it’s just like, oh, coming out of their gut! This is just my experience splashed onto the page! I do think that, to some extent, I resist that, while at the same time acknowledging that because a) society is complex, but also b) as complex as society is, everything is ultimately white supremacist and patriarchal, and by extension transphobic, I do think that there’s a sense in which my prose style being “refined” also risks being cast as “in contrast to” or “refreshing.” For all of those reasons, it’s really important to engage with the qualities of a work on its own terms.
In terms of bravery, I have to tell you, I’ve been called brave my entire adult life. What it really means is: “Oh my God. You manage to live a life in which you’re not deeply ashamed of yourself, crying in your room for hours and hours each day because you’re a freak in all of these ways. Aren’t you so brave!”
Guernica: Every time I get called brave, I get real mad. So thank you for putting it in a way that I can process why I get real mad.
Talusan: Right, and I’m not brave! I feel like people who are brave are people who are able to surmount obstacles or difficulties that are outside the parameters of who they thought they could be and what they thought they could do. I could imagine that applying to some trans people, even a lot of trans people. But I’ve just never been the type of person who says to myself, oh no, I’m so scared, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’m the type of person who does it first. And then I’m like, oh shit, I probably should have been scared of that. Like a week later. So in that sense, I’m not brave. Maybe I’m just rash.
Guernica: We’re queer. So we have to close by talking about astrology. Because it’s the rules. Your book is a Gemini! Now, as a Gemini myself, I know folks love to hate us even though we’re awesome. How do you feel about your book being a Gemini?
Talusan: I have, you know, somewhat ambivalent feelings about my book being a Gemini.
Guernica: Yes! Tell them to me!
Talusan: Richard, one of the major figures in the book, who broke my heart, is a Gemini. So Geminis, both as people and as objects, have had a history of eliciting my deep, deep love and attachment, but my relationships to them to end up being very complicated. I suppose that’s a fair description of whenever one puts work out into the world, because the way that you perceive your own work isn’t always going to be exactly the way any individual reader receives it. Thankfully, I’ve been well prepared by my previous experiences with Geminis for those relationships to be complicated and for that to be okay. Over time, I’ve grown a lot more adjusted to the idea that relationships, whether to objects or people, don’t have to be binary. That we can dwell in their very textures and complications, and that’s part of what makes life worthwhile and exciting.