Not just happy stories: Grace Talusan’s “The Body Papers” explores trauma, undocumented immigration and not staying silent 

Grace Talusan, author of “The Body Papers” | Photo by Alonso Nichols

GRACE Talusan recalls being drawn to books at an early age. Some photos from childhood show her reading or writing, which foreshadow a chapter in her life some three decades later.

“I’ve always identified as a writer or wanted to be a writer,” she told the Asian Journal in a recent interview.

With “The Body Papers,” released this past April — along with her background as an English professor at Tufts University and incoming Fannie Hurst writer-in-residence at Brandeis University this fall — Talusan embodies that life’s calling as a writer. 

Structured in 21 essays based on her memories supplemented by sifting through diary entries, family photos, government and medical records, the book begins with Talusan living in the Philippines as a Fulbright scholar, marking one of the first times as an adult she returns to her country of birth after moving to a Boston suburb in the 1970s.

With her experience as a Filipino American in the Philippines, revisiting her family’s ancestral home guides the storytelling of how she and her family came to the United States and the struggles, whether it was trying to ‘fit in’ by forgoing Tagalog and adopting a Bostonian accent or living in immigration status limbo. 

On the physical ‘body’ side, Talusan dives into trauma that many families may sweep under the rug, from years of sexual abuse by her grandfather to anxiety and depression to voluntarily undergoing a double mastectomy and oophorectomy because of the genetic predisposition to breast cancer. 

Grace Talusan and father (named Totoy in “The Body Papers”) in Miami in 2018.
| Photo by Alonso Nichols

“My parents were so busy back then as new immigrants putting the pieces of their American Dream together: the small business, the house in the suburbs, the two cars. There were five of us children and no servants or supportive family like back home in the Philippines. I didn’t want to be a bother,” Talusan writes of keeping the abuse a secret. However, she later describes coming forward to her parents and years later, recognizes the duty to not only tell “happy stories” when she becomes an aunt. 

“With my book, I wanted to make a space so people can start having conversations that are very important for them to have,” Talusan said in our interview. 

Talusan’s memoir-in-essays was the 2017 winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, which recognizes debut literary work by a first-generation immigrant and awards $10,000 and publication by Restless Books. 

Of “The Body Papers,” prize judges Anjali Singh and Ilan Stavans wrote that “it is the considered, artful work of one who has been processing these experiences with the diligence and courage of a true writer. In its message of resilience—and the salvation to be found in books—Talusan’s memoir will serve as an inspiration to thousands of young immigrants who feel the weight of secrecy and silence pressed upon them.”

Currently on a tour with an upcoming stop at Philippine Expressions Bookshop in San Pedro, California on June 29, Talusan doesn’t uphold “The Body Papers” as the ultimate representation of what it means to be a Fil-Am, but rather a conduit to show how every body is multilayered with stories to tell. 

Author Grace Talusan reads at Brookline Booksmith Transnational Series in May 2019. | Photo by Alonso Nichols

Asian Journal (AJ): How have reading and writing been a part of your life?

Grace Talusan (GT): No matter what happened to me in my life, I would be interested in reading and writing. But I think that with the things that happened to me, writing was a form for me to process those experiences, whether it’s being different with immigration or how I dealt with my niece having cancer or me having to go through the decision to have surgery. All of that I definitely processed through reading and writing.

AJ: Who were some of the writers you enjoyed growing up?

GT: I didn’t discover any writers of color until probably high school or even college. Most of the writers who had an impact on me were those I found in my local library. I loved books by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, and I would go through books and biographies about girls and women. It wasn’t until I found Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston that I finally had writers who really opened up an opportunity…I had thought literature was about white people and I would have to write about them. It was a revelation when I came into contact with other Asian American writers and realized I could depict families in literature that looked like my family. 

AJ: One aspect of your story is coming to Boston at an early age.

GT: It was a big culture shock to go from the city to the suburbs — we lived in Boston then moved to a suburb — because it was pretty homogenous. In the city, there were more immigrants and people of color but the suburbs were largely families who had been in that town for multiple generations. 

AJ: How did where you grew up shape your identity?

GT: It made for great training for a writer because I had to be observant and vigilant and constantly paying attention to what was going on around me by reading people on multiple levels. I’m constantly reading into context and tone of voice, so I would always wonder like ‘what is this context I am finding myself in and how do I fit into it?’ 

Photo shows Grace and family apple picking in the ‘70s. | Photo courtesy of Grace Talusan

AJ: Were there any instances that you still remember? 

GT: I remember a teacher asking a question in an attempt to make a point about how we’re all the same, which I think was not a good point to make because we’re not. But he was asking people to raise their hand like, ‘How many of you eat bread every day at dinner?’ Everyone raised their hand but I lied and raised my hand. Then he asked, ‘How many people eat rice every day?’ I half raised my hand and put it back down again. Moments like this made me realize that I was different in big ways from people even though I was trying to mask it all the time. We did eat rice every day but that was considered a really weird thing to do in the place I grew up in. 

I could act like everyone else around me like take on the Boston accent, play sports and music, and go to birthday parties of classmates. But there were ways that I just couldn’t get around my identity because of the way I looked. I’m not white so there’s no way to get around that. There were ways I was treated because of that with some bullies at school making racial taunts, but people wanted our town to be a friendly, welcoming place so, for the most part, they were friendly to us and did stand up for me when things like that happened. There were just some people around who weren’t as open-minded. 

AJ: What role did your diaries from growing up play in the writing process?

GT: I had diaries and looked at them after I did most of the major writing of the book. There was a period when I was going back and forth with my editor with big revisions so I had this time in between when I did things like look at my box of diaries…starting around maybe younger than 10 years old. I had intermittent writings in my diary and then through high school and college it was much more regular writing. I looked at those to gain confidence that I was correct in dates and names of friends and things that had happened. I also cross-referenced things like report cards, photographs that are dated, letters and notes that people sent me. But that mostly happened after writing as a way to check that I was right on stuff. 

In terms of writing and making the memoir come to life, I really relied on my memory and what stood out to me and what has stayed with me for decades since they had happened. 

AJ: Did you have any conversations with family about you sharing these stories?

GT: I didn’t think of my writing as a book. I was writing essays and pieces for myself for a period of about 10 years. I had tried to publish them here and there. I was targeting print-only journals, but then there was a time when I had what was a book and I then got a book contract so that was when I started to talk to family members more intentionally and tell them what I wrote about and that it was going to be a book. I didn’t give them pages for approval or anything like that…but everyone said, ‘We trust you.’ That level of trust also made me feel like I needed to be trustworthy and made me try really hard to get things right. Of course, it’s my perspective. Talk to people about something you’ve all experienced and everyone will have a different perspective on their experience. I did try to interview people to follow up on things and see if that would add anything but not a lot since it’s my story and I wanted that integrity. 

AJ: What kinds of conversations do you want readers, especially those in the Filipino American community, to have? The immigrant experience is relatable for many, but you also write about deeply personal experiences, whether it’s abuse or cancer in the family, that people tend to not want to talk about. 

GT: What is the point of silence? I can understand if there’s a reason about safety, but if it’s just you trying to instill false pride in the family, then there’s no use at all for that silence. I feel strongly that we should be having conversations that we need to have in order to keep our families safe, healthy, honest and vibrant. Why would we want to maintain a lie? In the author’s note, I say that very explicitly. I was told incomplete or happy stories and that was a very damaging thing. We should feel safe enough and strong enough that we can tell complete stories and still be able to be proud of who we are and recognize the full complexities of our families. 

AJ: How does ‘The Body Papers’ fit into the greater Fil-Am narrative? 

GT: There are not many representations of Filipino Americans in literature and in our culture and I was very aware of that. It took me a long time to come to peace with what I was going through because I knew it would be read as representative in some ways for Filipino Americans, which it should not be because this is just one unique, specific story. It is not representative, but I knew that it could be taken that way. Sometimes there’s pressure because there’s so few of us in publishing that we should tell only certain kinds of stories or those that are happy and make us proud of who we are. I would argue that this story does make me proud of who I am because we all go through difficult things and hardships.

“In the Philippines, I am an Amerikano, a returner, a balikbayan. I’m here to learn what it means to be Filipino, but somehow I’ve only become more American.” -“The Body Papers,” page 233 

AJ: Another layer of your personal journey is going back to the Philippines as an adult through the Fulbright Program. What did you learn during that experience? 

GT: Because I was the only Filipina in classrooms oftentimes, people would look to me as if I was some sort of expert on all things Filipino. That gave me a false sense that I was and that I knew a lot about the Philippines when I really didn’t. When I was in graduate school, I took a course N.V.M Gonzalez on Filipino literature and another on Philippine history. Those were the first times I had formal education on anything Filipino. It wasn’t until I got to the Philippines and spent any time there that I realized I knew very little and I’m not an expert at all. 

I’m learning just as much as any person who’s been schooled in the U.S. I had to learn to know what I didn’t know and learn what I didn’t know. I always thought of myself as Filipino because that’s how people saw me in the United States, but then when I went to the Philippines, I realized that I am not just Filipino, I am…a hyphenated American. 

Grace Talusan visits her family’s ancestral home in the Philippines in 2015 | Photo by Alonso Nichols

AJ: You’ve been doing a book tour across the East Coast this past spring, which has been attended by diverse audiences. What has the reception been like?

GT: From everybody, Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, the response has been, ‘Thank you.’ Whether I’m talking about my body, disease, sexual abuse or immigration, those are things people are responding to with their gratitude in that they’re feeling seen in some way or they’re seeing some aspect of their own experiences even if they’re not Filipino. That’s really gratifying for me because I didn’t know who was going to read this book and thought people wouldn’t care. I thought maybe only immigrants would care or other Filipinos and Filipino Americans, but no, the book is actually reaching people who are not any of those identities. When I bring this up to my non-Filipino or immigrant friends, they laugh and say, ‘Why wouldn’t we be interested in this?’ That’s something from my imagination, thinking that people not of our background could find a universal story in it or something they’re connecting to that’s powerful. It isn’t anything against them personally — it’s because I don’t see movies and literature about our lives so why would I assume that they’d be interested about my life? 

AJ: You’ll be doing a book talk and signing at Philippine Expressions Bookshop in San Pedro in late June. What can we expect from that event?

GT: That’s going to be an incredible event and special because I’ll be in conversation with sociologist Anthony Ocampo, who wrote “The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race.” That’s something special to have both of us at this event, him as a sociologist and storyteller, asking me questions and analyzing my book. I want to encourage our community to tell their own stories in whatever way they want to and what feels comfortable, whether it’s through writing or videos. We need more of our work out in the world for sure. 

AJ: What’s next for you?

GT: I’m doing research, which I could say, about World War II in the Philippines and looking at it as a Filipino American. I will continue to work on essays. Even with just going on this tour and publishing this book, I have already started working on essays about that experience. For now, it’s all about marketing “The Body Papers.” I’ve worked so hard at this with my publishing company and team so I want people to at least know it exists. It’s been such a pleasure and surprise to see how it’s been received. Those two New York Times reviews have been unbelievable — I didn’t even think I’d get one, but the fact that they did it twice was amazing. 

AJ: Any advice for aspiring writers and storytellers? “The Body Papers” comes at a time when we’ve seen quite a few releases from other Fil-Am authors. 

GT: I’d say start with something true that you haven’t seen before. You may dismiss it and think it’s not important. I’ve been reading Malaka Gharib’s “I Was Their American Dream,” which is funny and moving, but also a revelation I’d never seen these details of my life in comic form. I posted an Instagram of a page where the daughter is pulling the white hair out of her mother’s head and people were replying that they would do that too and get paid a few cents. That’s a true moment I’ve never seen before anywhere. That’s so important to represent and write about our lives in those little details because they’re ways to get across the specificity and beauty of our lives, otherwise we’re invisible and erased and have to fit ourselves into what we see on TV and movies, which is recognizable on some level but they’re not specific to us. I’ve also been reading “America is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo, whom I haven’t met yet but I hope to go to a reading because I love her work so much. 

There are two forthcoming memoirs, Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion,” which is coming out in August. She’s incredible. Also, my cousin — she’s technically my niece or second cousin I think — Meredith Talusan has a book called “Fairest” in spring 2020. I did an event with Meredith so I’ve heard her read from that book. Gina Apostol, whose latest book is “Insurrecto,” was also in that conversation at Columbia University. 

I have a big stack of books by Fil-Ams to get to like Cinelle Barnes’ “Monsoon Mansion.” It used to be that I would do this for Asian American writers, especially in the ‘80s when I would buy any new book by an Asian American writer and I’d have a stack of about 10 a year. But the fact that I can have a stack of 10 just for Fil-Ams at this point is really exciting. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.   

Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is an award-winning editor and communications strategist based in Los Angeles with experience in content, strategy and branding for media ecosystems, inclusive fintech startups, small businesses and direct-to-consumer products.

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