The Assay Interview Project: Grace Talusan
February 8, 2021
Grace Talusan is the author of The Body Papers (2019), a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, a winner in nonfiction for the Massachusetts Book Awards, and the winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Born in the Philippines and raised in New England, Talusan graduated from Tufts University and the MFA Program in Writing at UC Irvine. She is the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University.
About The Body Papers: Born in the Philippines, young Grace Talusan moves with her family to a New England suburb in the 1970s. At school, she is made to feel “other” as one of the few kids with a brown face, and later is terrified to discover her family status is “illegal.” At home, the confusion is worse: her grandfather’s nightly visits to her room leave her hurt and terrified, and she learns to build a protective wall of silence that maps onto the larger silence practiced by her Catholic Filipino family.
The abuse and trauma Talusan suffers as a child affects all her relationships, her mental health, and her relationship with her own body. Later, she learns that her family history is threaded with violence and abuse. And she discovers another devastating family thread: cancer. In her thirties, Talusan must decide whether to undergo preventive surgeries to remove her breasts and ovaries. Despite all this, she finds love, and success as a teacher. On a fellowship, Talusan and her husband return to the Philippines, where she revisits her family’s ancestral home and tries to reclaim a lost piece of herself.
Supplemented with government documents, medical records, and family photos, The Body Papers is a breathtaking testament to resilience and the power of storytelling to overcome trauma.
A free reading group guide for The Body Papers can be found here.
Paul Daniel Lee: Your book begins with yogurt. It felt like a whimsical place to start until I read your description of Manila, where “[e]very day… something upsets my expectations.” Yogurt for the narrator is “wonder,” “magic,” and “alchemy,” "something invisible and alive that can transform liquid to solid.” Throughout the book, I find echoes of this yogurt-type alchemy. The narrator is a Filipina immigrant, morphing American experiences with her heritage, or seeking to navigate hurtful family experiences and forming new ones. Can you talk a bit about this notion of alchemy?
Grace Talusan: Thank you for being such an astute reader. It is a pleasure and honor to hear from readers, especially ones who read so closely and generously, as you have. As for echoes of transformation throughout the memoir, it wasn’t a conscious decision to bring all those things together, but as I reflect back to when I was both living my life as well as writing what became The Body Papers, I can see how interested and invested I was in exploring change in many ways, including experiences of wonder and magic as related to transformation.
The thing about alchemy, and I don’t know that much about alchemy (except for a brief search), is that it didn’t work. And yet this search to find a process to turn a basic metal into gold drove many ancient scientists and philosophers for many years. I am sympathetic to that attempt. As a writer, I am also trying to turn words into gold and there is a distance between what I feel and dream about what I want to write and what ends up on the page. But the trying and the discovery in the attempts are enough to drive me.
I wrote and published my memoir during a time when I was reflecting on my life, looking back and realizing how much of my time and energy until that point had been on recovery. There were years of my life where I sat in quiet rooms with other people who were also actively working on recovery. But is recovery even the right word to describe what we were doing, sitting across from each other in circles, telling and listening to each other other’s life stories? What was there to recover? I will never heal enough to regain the person who I would have been if I had not been dehumanized by my grandfather for seven years. Through writing, I attempt to discover who I was and who I am. To make something, even if it’s not gold, out of my life, which includes joy and love, but also trauma, fear, violence, and other base human experiences. Writing, for me, is a quiet act of rebellion.
Don’t we all try to resist tyranny and oppression, or things we don’t like, in some way? Among other things, I write, but I wonder what other people do to resist.
I am interested in what ways you view the body as a type of geography. In the book, the narrator discusses not only the relationship of her body with other people but also the shifting shape and form of her own body, through cancer threats and subsequent surgery. Contrasted with this, the narrator recalls Manila, referenced as almost a lost part of her body. How do you understand your changing understanding of these two types of geographies? Are there ways in which one has influenced your understanding of the other?
Paul, your questions are so insightful. I really enjoy them and would love to hear other readers answer them so I can hear their interpretations. Sometimes what someone else has read and observed makes more sense to me. So much of what I did in The Body Papers is not planned or conscious. That doesn’t mean it was an accident or random, but I followed my instinct. I followed the images and feelings that came to me and the questions and thoughts that followed them. In fact, it wasn’t until I read the judges’ note about my book that my own writing became clearer to me. The prize judges, Anjali Singh and Ilan Stavans, wrote, “She presents the concept of ‘the body’ as a concentric circle that expands outward: the female body, the body of the family, the body of the Philippines, the body of a writer’s work.”
You ask about what I understand about “the shifting shape and form” of my body and Manila, where I was born. Bonifacio Global City, the area where I lived when I stayed in Manila for several months, was continuously changing. Daily, I walked past signs announcing what store or restaurant was “Coming Soon” and when I looked up, I could see cranes and men building upwards, as there was no more room to expand across the area. I could go away for a few days and return to the area and be slightly disoriented because something new would open or what had been there, my landmarks, had changed in the time I was away.
And of course, my body changed in response to the environment. I was walking all the time, which meant I was in better shape in some ways from moving more than usual, but because I was outside and breathing in particulates and other invisible things in the air that I wasn’t used to back home, I was also dealing with asthma. I was in and out of the hospital a few times with breathing troubles over those months. I was forced to think about something very basic, breathing, something I take for granted and this was a big change in my body. It was also terrifying. If you can’t breathe, things can go bad very quickly.
What I just described, the changing physical landscape of the city and the reactiveness of my airways, are more visible, visceral evidence of transformation, but I am aware of how my moods, my ideas, and my relationships can also change in big ways. And sometimes this is in response to geography, where I am. Anyone who has been sheltering in place for these past several months understands this. I am in my apartment most of the time now and I feel such a shift, I feel a whole different life experience is possible, when I visit (in a socially distanced way) friends and family who live in big houses with outdoor spaces.
I am very impacted by space. Even the way I speak may change based on geography and context.
Can you discuss the use of artifacts, especially images, throughout the book? I often found it enlightening, when you include letters and legal documents. There’s something concrete about seeing the actual immigration document, for example. Additionally, the photographs offered images of you, both past and present. However, one image, in particular surprised and disturbed me. You choose to include an image of Tatang, the narrator’s grandfather. Can you discuss this decision and how you see its inclusion as part of the story you tell of the narrator’s abuse?
The artifacts, especially the images from the slides my father took throughout my childhood, came late in the editing process of The Body Papers. It was fun doing the research to find the papers and other documents, especially when the revision process was difficult. Doing research was a way that I felt like I was working even if I wasn’t actually getting into the drafts and rewriting.
My father gave me a metal box of slides as I was editing the book. I might have seen a few of the slides, but most of them were new to me. When I was a child, my father had a family picture night a few times a year where he would show us slides of our life that he loaded in the carousel and projected onto the wall.
I went through the hundreds of slides in the metal box and it was a way of working on my book.
I thought a lot (and consulted trusted people) about the choice to include an image of my grandfather. It was pretty awful going through the slides and seeing how present he was in my family’s life for so long. In the end, I only allowed one image of him to be used and it is one that I’m not in.
I had to contend with images of myself as child, changing before my eyes, and these images told their own story. Those photos of me as a child, which I agonized over including as I thought through ethical considerations, were an important argument and a kind of evidence for what I was writing. I felt they were too intimate, but I also thought they needed to be in the book. I’m asking the reader to be a witness with me.
Much like other crimes that happen in intimate spaces, what is the evidence, in the legal sense, of child sexual abuse? I didn’t get justice in court or in the legal system or a chance to read a victim impact statement so my writing, including the documents and images, served that function for me.
The chapter on family animals struck me as especially revealing in this book. At times, it’s brutal and others hilarious. The story of the narrator’s father killing, cooking, and trying to serve the rooster to the narrator’s family is one of the more memorable moments. Perhaps family animal stories are one of those nearly universal experiences. My family certainly has some wild tales. This chapter foreshadows the human violence, which comes later in the book. In what ways do you find that your placement of this chapter shifts the reader’s perspective about the narrator and her family?
Again, this is another instance of the joy I feel in hearing about your reading experience. This may be an unsatisfying response, but I did not think about ordering the chapters in the memoir with that in mind. Perhaps someone else did, my editor or my writing group friends, who all gave me great advice in terms of ordering the manuscript, but I didn’t think in those terms and never thought of my life experiences with terms like foreshadowing. But you are right—it’s true. The brutality in that chapter is connected to the brutality in the chapter about the punishment my father got as a child from his mother which is also connected to the detail about the broken glass stuck in the family compound walls where we lived.
I said that I wasn’t intentionally foreshadowing or placing material in a certain order, but I did consciously try to make connections between the multiple kinds and levels of violence—personal, political, historical, colonial, gendered, economic, and on and on--that we live with, are subject to and even, at times, enact.
In your afterword, you casually mention how you sent this manuscript out and forgot about it. I’m curious how you “trained” yourself for the process of submitting work as the success. How long did you take you adopt this perspective? Were there any early submission celebrations? Did any of the rejections you received during this time help or hurt your training?
I started submitting my writing when I was an MFA student. This was back when you had to print out your submission and mail it along with a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Preparing a submission to send to literary magazines in those days required multiple errands—the computer lab to print the submission, a store to buy envelopes, and then the post office to weigh the submission for the correct postage. Once the postal worker took the envelope, I would watch them drop my writing into the box with the other packages and I’d say goodbye to it, a sort of blessing. Publishing would mean that I was doing the right thing pursuing writing. It would mean I was a writer. So, my wish would go out into the world and inevitably, months later, the thin envelope returned to me and I’d plunge into despair: I wasn’t talented; I would never get published; I should just give up my dreams of being a writer. But the despair was always temporary, and I’d return to writing and look for more calls for submissions. This process was very slow. Sometimes it was years between me sending a piece out; hearing back; and then finally getting the print copy. This gave me time to grow and mature, learn more about writing and the submission process to literary magazines, and to realize that I was going to keep on writing regardless of whether a literary magazine published my work. It took me such a long time to publish that I did celebrate my first accepted piece. I was very happy that my first short fiction appeared in an anthology of diasporic Filipina women’s writing.
I still kept sending my writing out and I kept spreadsheets of where I was submitting writing. Every now and then, I’d get a piece accepted and I celebrated every one of them.
I don’t remember who told that sending writing out into the world was the success, because it meant that I was doing the things that I should be doing—finishing pieces and sending them out. Because I was in this habit, the rejections stopped being meaningful. I guess in that way rejections were helpful because I learned to develop a thick skin and to figure out why I write outside of external acceptance.
Publishing is so different these days; it’s so fast, practically instantaneous, and you can reach a bigger audience of readers. Just recently, I came across a call for submissions, wrote a piece in response, emailed it out, and it was published online. A process that used to take years happened in two weeks. Even so, I still celebrate, usually in a small way, anytime that I get an acceptance and an opportunity to share my writing with readers.
Paul Daniel Lee is a 2020 recipient for the Academy of American Poets’ University & College Poetry Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, I-70 Review, on Poets.org, and others. He previously served as the Assistant Poetry Editor for Willow Springs and currently lives, works, and studies in Columbia, Missouri.
For Further Reading