When I found out that Grace Talusan was publishing her memoir in 2019, I knew I had to read it. Entitled The Body Papers: A Memoir (Restless Books), Talusan’s is a brave and harrowing story of her immigration from the Philippines to the United States with her family when she was a baby, her process of becoming a U.S. citizen, her fear of inheriting ovarian and breast cancer, and perhaps most importantly, her survival of years of sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather.
Talusan’s book, as reviewers were quick to note, excels at telling the untellable, and I knew her memoir would fit perfectly in my courses which focus on Nasty Women Writers, Rebel Girls, and the #MeToo memoir. Not only was I able to teach her powerful book, but when I found out that Talusan was living in the Boston area like myself, I reached out to her to see if she might be interested in coming to my classes. She did! My students and I were thrilled with her warm and wise presence and loved the writing workshops she conducted at my university.
I was fortunate to be able to build a relationship with Talusan after the extraordinarily moving experiences my students and I had with her (across all three of my courses) that when it came time for the paperback launch of her book, she invited me to be her interviewer. The interview that follows took place at the Boston Athenaeum on March 3, 2020, days before the Covid pandemic took our world by storm.
Elif Armbruster (EA): You open your book with a trip back to the Philippines that you made as an adult. Can you talk a little bit about that trip and how that was for you?
Grace Talusan (GT): Yes, well, I had a dream to be a Fulbright Scholar. I applied probably three or four times, and then I finally got it this last time. If you are a U.S. citizen, you have access. You don’t have to be part of a university or an institution. You can apply to be a Fulbright Scholar. It takes a long time, it’s a lot of work, but it was worth it. That’s how I got to live in the Philippines for six months with my husband. It was fabulous. I would never have had that opportunity, because any time I’ve ever been to the Philippines, it’s been for like 10 days, because I have to take a break from work. But if I can tell work, “Oh, I have this fellowship,” then there’s this way that I was able to go. And the state department at that time, it was very well funded, and we lived a really good lifestyle, like a lifestyle I live here, frankly. It was very fancy, and it was wonderful. I was with Filipinos every day, and I got to experience that. It was also the time when I realized that I’m American. I always think, “Oh, I’m Filipino. That’s really the homeland.” No, I am American. That’s who I am. They know it. They see me. They talk to me for two words, and they are like, “Oh, you’re American.”
EA: That’s interesting. You didn’t necessarily look American to them in the Philippines, but they discerned a certain Americanness in you?
GT: Yes, that’s who I was to them.
EA: I have a question about that, actually, about how you identify. Do you identify as FilipinoAmerican, American-Filipino, Filipino, or American. So, I’m guessing you would say American?
GT: Yes. I mean, in certain spaces, especially when I’m in community with other Asian Americans, or Philippine ex-Americans, or people of color, or women of color, I gladly have solidarity and identify with folks, but I do, fundamentally at my core, feel American, whatever that means, but it is something. In the Philippines, I did feel that there was something about the way I stand, how close I talk to people, the things I want to talk about, that seem to be American.
EA: Right. All your cultural “marks” are American. What you talk about, and how you talk about them–that’s what you mean?
GT: Yes. All those things about me that are American.
EA: Can you tell us a bit about your journey, how you went from being an undergraduate premed major at Tufts University to getting an MFA at the University of California at Irvine and then being able to publish this memoir?
GT: I was a senior at Tufts University. It was second semester. It was probably around this time of the year [early March] and I had done all the premed requirements. I didn’t do well at them. I was okay. And everyone in my life was a physician. My parents are physicians, all their friends. I actually didn’t know you could do anything else but be a physician, so that’s the track I was on. Then a professor said to me, “You know, you’re really good at writing. Why don’t you consider writing as something that you do in your life?” And I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that you can do that. How does one do that?” So, he says, “Oh, go work; go get a job for a couple of years, and then get some experience and just write. Take classes, have a group.” So, I called my parents to campus. And I’m sure I scared them. I tell them, “I need you to come here right away. I have to talk to you about something. They said, “Okay.” And they came and I told them, “I don’t want to be a doctor anymore.” They were like, “That’s fine. Why did you make us drive through traffic, rush hour, to get here.” They said, “Do whatever you want. It’s fine.” But somehow, I had gotten the idea in my head that I had to be a doctor. They weren’t explicitly telling me what to do, but I had that notion, from various places, that that’s what one should do.
EA: And then what happened after graduation and how you ended up here, celebrating the paperback edition of your book?
GT: I graduated and went to work at Houghton Mifflin for a couple of years as an editorial assistant, a production coordinator. And then I felt really stifled. I thought, “This cubicle life, this nine-to-five thing, I don’t like it.” And then, another teacher whose writing class I took at Harvard Extension School said offhand as he was leaving class, “You know, you’re really good. You might apply to graduate school.” And I thought, “Wait, there’s graduate school for writing? What is that?” That brief conversation really got me here. It was offhand for him, but for me, it was life-changing. Then I looked into it and I was like, “Oh, wow, there are writing programs you can go to and some will give you full funding.”
EA: After you received your MFA in Creative Writing, what did you do?
GT: I applied to the University of Oregon to teach creative writing and got the job. I’ve tried to be aware of when these opportunities present themselves. And even if I didn’t feel ready, I tried to talk myself into it by saying, for example, “All right, I definitely don’t feel ready, but I’m going to do it. I’m going to take that step forward and see what happens, even if I definitely don’t feel ready.” And that’s what happened there.
EA: Tell us how you began writing your memoir and how that process evolved?
GT: I was always writing no matter what, but there were ups and downs, of course, where I despaired, at times, about my ability to publish. And eventually, after 20 years of being at it, my MFA thesis, which was fiction, ended up being the seed for this book, my memoir. There are paragraphs from my MFA thesis that I’ve lifted paragraph for paragraph, and put into my memoir, because that was a novel that was loosely autobiographical, and based on my family, my extended family.
EA: That’s fascinating. So, this book started out in a novel, a work of fiction, and that was your intention: to write a novel not a memoir?
GT: Yes. Absolutely right. I did not want to be the person that went out and said, “This is what happened to me.” I wanted to have the veil of fiction so that, if I felt like it, I could just say, “It’s fiction,” and I could always have that as an out.
EA: That makes sense. Your memoir is filled with traumatic experiences, most especially the sexual abuse, that would be very hard to write about, so what led you to have the courage to turn it into a memoir? I am curious if that decision had anything to do with the cultural climate after the election of 2016. Were the timing and the political climate, and the concept of being a strong “nasty woman,” helpful in terms of bringing this memoir to fruition?
GT: Yes. I think it’s exactly that moment, because I won the Restless Books prize in 2017. The #MeToo movement and the conversation was happening at the end of 2016. That’s when I was deciding to enter the contest. I think I felt more comfortable. I felt like, “Well, there are all these other women, mostly women-identified folks who are telling their micro stories on Twitter, and actually coming out and challenging very powerful men and systems. They’re doing it. I’m going to join them, and I don’t feel alone anymore.” I wanted to join that movement, and that’s why I felt comfortable writing the memoir and saying, “I am the narrator and the author of this work.” Though it sounds funny, the hashtags, #MeToo, #NastyWoman, and #TimesUp, to name a few, really helped me feel I had a place to exist. I was able to write a #MeToo memoir and be a #NastyWoman for it; it was great.
EA: That’s wonderful that the #MeToo and #NastyWoman movements enabled your courage. Speaking of #MeToo, since the book has been out and you’ve been doing readings and touring, have other people come up and shared their stories with you? Because it seems to me, one of the most empowering aspects of the #MeToo movement is that people share their stories, and that generates more stories, and that generates more connections. Has that happened in your experience?
GT: Yes, it has, and it has really been incredible. A friend of mine who published a memoir that also is about childhood abuse warned me and said, “Just be prepared for people to come to you with their stories.” It’s happened […]. I’ve shared my story. I will hear people tell me theirs. They don’t necessarily all talk about abuse but they’ll talk about feeling invisible or not heard, or not have representations of themselves in the culture and in literature. But definitely, people have disclosed to me what’s happened to them, and I’m glad that they can. I mean, I couldn’t even say what happened to me to my parents.
EA: I understand that. So, #MeToo has been extremely beneficial for survivors of sexual abuse, hasn’t it? The concept of being a strong and outspoken woman who is not afraid to tell her story has become an emblem of power, for example, of being almost like the “nasty woman” that was Hillary Clinton.
GT: Yes, I could never imagine this happening, being able to talk about my grandfather’s abuse of me and not being struck down or something. I had to make a decision that I would take this risk, and I did, even though I knew some people might not like me anymore or might abandon me. But I wanted to tell this story for the next generation. I want to warn the next generation of my family and I want to be honest with them. And so now I talk about it a lot. And I haven’t been struck down, so to speak. Every time I talk about it, I realize it’s okay. We can talk about these things that we’re scared to talk about, or that society tells us we shouldn’t talk about. And maybe we’ll get somewhere, because it’s actually happened to quite a lot of people. I’m not alone in this. We are not alone in this. There are all kinds of ways people have been abused by the power dynamic.
EA: Very true. I can understand wanting to warn the next generation because you survived trauma and sexual abuse and silence for so many years—seven years, correct?
GT: Yes, for me it was seven years. And I also want to people that you can survive a lot. You have to take steps to do that, but horrible things can happen to you and you can survive. There is life after that. It doesn’t mean your life is over, which some people have told me that they thought, “oh, if this ever happened to me, I would never survive.” But we do survive, if we are lucky. It’s going to be hard, but you can still reclaim your life and have a life. And in a way, it’s a very radical thing to do: to live a happy life. My therapist says this: “The best revenge is a good life.”
EA: Oh, I love that! That is perfect. Has there been any backlash from your family?
GT: Well, I haven’t heard from all my relatives. Some have just ignored me, and I’ve heard that some are angry at me. But I’m not going to take care of those relatives anymore.
EA: That being said, you wrote about your family having a “genetic code to deny and dismiss.” Can you speak about that and what your relationship is like with your parents today?
GT: Well, my book isn’t totally about trauma. It is about the things that I can’t talk about, yes, but it is also about love and how complicated love can be. For those who haven’t read it, one of the stories I tell is that my grandfather abused me sexually for seven years and it was known. I only found out that people in my family knew this about him after my book came out. Other children had talked to their parents before I was born, and nobody did anything. Everyone kept that secret and protected him, the patriarch. My parents didn’t know what he was doing to me, but when I told my parents when I was fifteen, they chose me and our family. My parents have always chosen me. They’ve told me all along that they support my writing and support my telling this story.
EA: Thank goodness.
GT: It’s not easy to have a kid who’s a writer, but they’ve accepted it and they celebrate it. They are my biggest defenders. After the book came out, they took calls for me; they protected me.
EA: I’m so relieved to hear that.
GT: I think it speaks to reconciliation. We’re not aware of things; we become aware later; and then we can reconcile with people. There are ways to ask forgiveness and to repair damage. That’s what I see my parents doing with me by supporting me now.
EA: Do you find it strange though that no one ever spoke to your grandfather or punished him? Did you ever thinking of filing a damages lawsuit? Readers ask: why do you think your grandfather was allowed to get away with his actions?
GT: I think it’s deeply entrenched. I mean, it is misogyny. There is not a great desire to protect girls and women.
EA: It is a gender problem where society protects men but not women.
GT: Yes, it seems institutional. We as a society have a lot of work to do with respect to protecting and listening to women.
EA: To conclude our conversation, can you speak a little bit about writing as a healing process? Would you say that writing your memoir helped you heal? And, where are you at today with respect to your feelings?
GT: I had to do a lot of work on myself to publish this book and to be the person out in front with this book. What helped was being in community with lots of people: writing groups, students, therapy groups, and so forth. So, while my experience isolated me, my healing revolved around reengaging with a community of people and not feeling shunned, but feeling accepted. I had to have that over and over again. I had to put myself in environments that were kind, compassionate, and warm, and that was healing for me, just to be with people, no matter what we were doing. That’s what I had to do to write my memoir. Even being here today at the Boston Athenaeum. This is another community I had where I did some of my writing. And being here with you, that is a form of support too, and that means something to me.
EA: Thank you. It means something to me as well. I have really enjoyed learning more about you and your book.
GT: Thank you for being with me and for being willing to have this conversation. And to everyone in the audience, thank you for coming and listening and showing up at this event. That means a lot; that gives me hope for the future.
Grace Talusan is a #Nasty Woman Writer.
© Elif Armbruster 2021