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Grace Talusan

Grace Talusan was born in the Philippines and raised in New England. Currently, Talusan is the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University. The Body Papers, winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, is her first book.

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“Grace Talusan writes eloquently about the most unsayable things: the deep gravitational pull of family, the complexity of navigating identity as an immigrant, and the ways we move forward even as we carry our traumas with us. Equal parts compassion and confession, The Body Papers is a stunning work by a powerful new writer who—like the best memoirists—transcends the personal to speak on a universal level.”

– Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere

“There is so much to admire in this brave and fierce and deeply intimate memoir. By taking such an unsentimental and plainspoken approach to her material, Talusan simply demands that the reader pay attention. The Body Papers is told in thematic sequences in which the author and the family come continually to light, in flashes that get brighter as we read, and by the end we see everyone in their full humanity and comprehend the depths of both despair and love at their core. As a child of immigrants, I found much to relate to in the family dynamics—alternately laughing and shuddering with recognition.”

– Christopher Castellani, author of Leading Men

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The Body Papers

An Interview with Grace Talusan, author of The Body Papers

09/02/19

The acts of language and speaking, or not speaking, feature prominently in Grace Talusan’s memoir, The Body Papers, winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, so it was truly a pleasure to be in conversation with her recently and to have the opportunity to ask her about the experience of writing her first book. The following interview was conducted over email in the spring of 2019. While Grace and I began by discussing The Body Papers, we soon found ourselves covering other ground as well, from the everyday structure dogs can provide in our lives, to the value of formal education for writers, the vital importance of good editors, and a lot in between.

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Erica Bernheim: As I was reading The Body Papers, I found myself thinking about other writers who have published non-traditional memoirs that make use of collage forms. Lynda Barry (whose name I was delighted to see appear in your acknowledgments), Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Susanna Kaysen come to my mind. Who are some of the other writers and artists whose forms and formal decisions you would say have inspired and influenced you?

Grace Talusan: I have loved Karen Tei Yamashita’s books for a long time and while I was editing The Body Papers, I picked up Letters to Memory (Coffee House Press September 2017), a beautiful epistolary memoir. Throughout the book are handwritten notes, photographs, and other images from her family archives. They are incredibly moving and opened up possibilities for me as I revised my manuscript.

Many years ago, I read A.M. Homes’ novel The End of Alice and then the related book, Appendix A: which Homes’ website describes as “a collection of epistemological evidence, clues to the narrator's mind, his "confession," and photo scrapbook, his paintings, trinkets he pocketed: a ring, a watch, three teeth, the knife--all remnants of his lingering and deadly infatuation with a little girl called Alice.  Appendix A is an exercise of imagination, occupying an unexpected space between truth and fiction, art and evidence.” That stayed with me and also showed me that there were ways to put together a book that were nontraditional.

Besides the writers I listed in my “Acknowledgements” (Sandra Cisneros, Jessica Hagedorn, etc), I was influenced by any writer I came across who breaks the rules of what a page in a book should typically looks like. I can remember seeing E.E. Cummings for the first time as an elementary school student and being so excited by the playfulness in his poems. There’s a part of me that has a hard time taking up space on the page and “wasting” paper so it is freeing for me to see writers own the page and do whatever it is they want on it, including only have a few words or taking up an entire page with an image, in order to achieve their desired effect.

EB: Can you speak about the process of selecting the photos you used for The Body Papers? I’m also curious about your decision to caption the photos from the third person perspective, rather than first person. How did you make that decision, and what effect do you think it has for or on your reader?

GT: Until this moment, I never thought about the narrator who captioned the images. I think I was being lazy, but your question brings up interesting possibilities in terms of who is narrating the images and how that is a different voice from the text. My husband, Alonso Nichols, is responsible for most, if not all, of the contemporary photos in the book and he had captioned them already for to use for other venues and I copy/pasted those into my book and then edited them. A more interesting response, and probably truer, is that the photos are very already intimate and captioning them in third person was a way for me, as a writer, as a human, to get some distance. I decided to pull a lot of photos that were initially in the galley because I felt they were too revealing and intimate. What I mean by that is the look on my face in the photos of my childhood says everything. They were too painful for me to look at because I knew the true story behind what I was trying to hide with my smile.

That’s my story and perspective of what I needed to do to get this book out in the world with images in it, but in terms of the impact and effect on the reader, I can only speculate, but the third person captions perhaps builds more credibility? I think other immigrants, people of color, women, girls, and other marginalized folks understand this experience of wanting evidence or “receipts,” as they are called, to back up their version of things. In case the reader didn’t believe me or dismissed my story, I wanted there to be a kind of third person evidence that the reader could assure themselves supported my story. It’s unfortunate, but that is something I’ve learned to do over a lifetime of being dismissed in small and big ways.

EB: In her novel Geek Love, Katherine Dunn describes some of our most brutal moments from childhood, the lessons we learn, including why children conceal information from adults who might be able to help, how painful it is to realize that adults can’t fix some problems: “Grownups can deal with scraped knees, dropped ice-cream cones, and lost dollies, but if they suspected the real reasons we cry they would fling us out of their arms in horrified revulsion.” In Chapter 12, when downplaying the extent of your abuse in a conversation with your father, you say that “[e]ven then, I wanted to protect my parents.” For you, does this impulse to protect also become a factor in understanding why victims of abuse may remain silent for so long afterwards?

GT: I can only speak for myself and for the understanding that I’ve gained through talking with other survivors about why we are silent. There are the usual ways that have been talked about and explored—victims are not believed, they are dismissed, they are threatened, they are pressured to “take one for the team”—and this moment with my father was a way to explore a nuance of this experience. Power is seductive and I wanted even a tiny sliver of power, or the idea of power, in that moment, a time in my life when I was quite powerless in dozens of ways. The notion that I could protect someone else’s feelings, even if it wasn’t true, was a kind of power that I wanted. That moment was also one of the most uncomfortable in my life and I wanted any chance to alleviate the discomfort.

I can tell you that I told my friends what was happening to me while it was happening. They were children themselves and looking back, I don’t blame them for their responses, but they did not believe me. They said I just wanted attention. They told the other children in the neighborhood about what they called my lies. They said my grandfather was too nice to do those things. If my friends didn’t believe me, I had no hope that anyone else would.

EB: Throughout The Body Papers, you juxtapose images of domesticity against images of violence and abuse, such as in Chapter 3, when your father “hangs” in the kitchen while watching his mother prepare food, setting up your own story of abuse later, one which occurs from within the “safety” of home and family. And later, you say that “the irony of all of this is that the most hurt I’ve experienced was while I was living under her roof” (pg. 130), in reference to how your mother cares for you in your adulthood. Is there a way to reclaim one’s home once it has been violated?

GT: I have heard of people having rituals and ceremonies that helps with this. I have never had the experience of feeling truly safe in any home I’ve lived in so I don’t know. I’m not one who is always checking the locks on my windows and doors, but I can say that if there are strange noises, at first, I am completely prepared for anything to happen, for a stranger to walk into my bedroom. Then I have to remind myself that our windows and doors to the outside are locked and I am safe and it is unlikely that that small noise outside is someone breaking through our locked windows and doors.

I worked with a cognitive behavior therapist on this once. She told me to imagine a red traffic Stop sign when I had these intrusive thoughts. I do that. My home is my body and I will likely work the rest of my life trying to reclaim it.

EB: Dogs make intermittent appearances throughout The Body Papers. Your father has the chance to re-live his tragic childhood experience with Lucky through your family’s pampered beagle, Sashi. And later, your husband notes how differently he is treated when he is walking your sister’s dog than when he is walking by himself. Are there other ways that animals and your own relationships with them have factored into your writing?

GT: We don’t have our own pets at this point, but my husband dreams of having have two dogs. So we don’t have animals in our life expect intermittently. In terms this book, I wrote several pieces while dogsitting a yellow lab named Finn for a friend. My writing scheduled revolved around walking and feeding him. I would take him out and feed him early in the morning and then I’d go write for a few hours and then walk him at noon and then return to writing and then walk him and feed him dinner and then read or write and then walk him before I went to sleep. This was a wonderful schedule for me. It forced me to walk and take care of my body between writing sessions and it also put me next to a friendly loving dog who was happy to see me.

EB: The moment of closeness between you and your father in the final pages of The Body Papers is incredibly moving, and I loved the re-telling of it from both of your perspectives. How did you decide where to end your memoir?

GT: I have my editor, Nathan Rostron, and publisher, Ilan Stavans, to thank for helping me find the ending. We went through many iterations of this book. Countless. Dozens. We had many different table of contents. We were moving and shuffling pieces of the book up until the very end. I heard John Irving speak once and he said that he knew the ending of his very long novels, the last line, and he was writing to that line. Whatever that is that he’s talking about, I did the opposite of that for this book. I didn’t know where the ending was and I was not sure that this was the end, but we were constantly moving things around and at some point, this became the ending. I thought it was a placeholder until we found the right ending, but eventually, I realized that this was it. I was nervous to end it here, at this discrepancy between two versions of the same event, because I thought it would raise too many questions for the reader, but the feeling was right where I wanted to leave the reader.

EB: In Chapter 12, you mention that “[d]espite my grandparents’ lack of formal education, they understood its value.” What value do you place on formal education for artists and writers specifically?

GT: I do not believe that artists and writers need formal education to make their work; however, I do believe the value of MFA programs and other similar writing courses is that you are in community with others who could help you in many ways with your growth and development. This often requires money and time. I also think emerging writers need to be careful and discerning about where they take classes and who they invite into their lives. Some teachers and fellow students can be destructive to your writing and you have to guard against that. I have taught for many years at GrubStreet, Inc in Boston and that is the best writing center around. They have intentionally built a writing community that is rigorous, supportive, and responsive.

EB: I noticed in your acknowledgments that you have attended a number of wonderful summer workshops and artists’ residencies, including Ragdale! (I hope you saw the phone booth that Lynda Barry decorated when she was there!) How important have these spaces been for you, not just for your writing, but for connecting with other writers and artists?

GT: Yes! I would stand in that tiny, magical room of her drawings and have a moment almost every time I passed it.

Because of time, I can only attend a summer workshop or residency every few years. I really enjoy them and feel they are a way of resetting and reminding myself that it is ok to put writing and art at the center of my life ever now and again. The Ragdale residency and places like it that are multi-disciplinary are wonderful because I am living and working alongside artists who are musicians, sculptors, painters, fabric artists, and performers as well as other writers. We work alone all day and come together at night to eat dinner. I feel there is a way that all of us impact each other, even in small, but vital ways. I also have loved the spaces where I’m just around other writers. I can be around other people who are like me in that they spend many hours of their life reading and writing to no guaranteed end. Whenever I published an article or essay in a literary magazine or online, my immigrant father would ask me how much I was paid for it and then how many hours it took me to work on the piece. I would want to scream. Being at a residency reminds me that there are other people like me who are motivated (but also privileged) to work in a different kind of economy where the reward is not often financial.

EB: How do you perceive genre and the usefulness of it overall? Where does it overlap for you, one genre into another, both as a writer and a teacher of writing?

GT: I was a child immigrant, the Philippines to the US, but I also was constantly moving cultural contexts every time I left my house. I am very interested in knowing what the rules and norms, explicit and implicit, are for every occasion. I like to know where boundaries and borders are. That said, I have come to realize that the writing and art that excites me the most breaks the rules and opens up what is new and possible. The writers I am drawn to the most are making work that is between or on top of one or more genres. My friend Christopher Castellani, who comes from an immigrant family from Italy, recently published the gorgeous novel, Leading Men, and this book has a play in it that he wrote in the style of Tennessee Williams. When I read that, I thought, “What? You can do that? It’s allowed?” From Chris’ example, now I know that you can. Anything is possible. I need to be like Chris and be braver in my work.

In terms of the fiction versus nonfiction (and there are many kinds of nonfiction—literary journalism, reporting, memoir, lyric essay, and on and on), as both a teacher and a writer, I don’t want to be tricked. Just tell me in some way somehow that this is imagined or fiction or made up. Respect your reader.

EB: Who are some contemporary writers whose work excites you and makes you want to read more?

GT: I am lucky in that I am in the best writing group in the world, the Chunky Monkeys. I am excited by their work and want to read more of it. Looking ahead, I can’t wait to read forthcoming books from my group: Calvin Hennick’s Once More to the Rodeo in December 2019 and Jennifer De Leon’s Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From in February 2020.

I have been paying a lot of attention to contemporary writing by Filipinx writers. I am so excited for Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror in August 2019, Ricco Siasoco’s The Foley Artist and Other Stories in fall 2019, and Meredith Talusan’s Fairest in spring 2020. I just read Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream, which I am buying in multiple copies and putting into the hands of people I love. I have always wanted to write a book where people felt that way about it and did that.

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