As I entered Literati, I walked by Grace Tulusan, author of “The Body Papers,” who sat in the back of the room with a small smile and an earnest glow in her eyes. The lights on the second floor of Literati Bookstore dimmed, and the seated audience murmured in quiet excitement as she weaved her way to the front.
On her final stop on the book tour for her memoir “The Body Papers,” winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing author Grace Talusan began her talk with why she had to get these words out and onto a page. The catalyst was her niece’s eye cancer diagnosis, a reminder of life’s fickleness. It also served as a reminder that voices like hers mattered and needed to be heard.
Talusan said she never considered herself worthy enough to be a protagonist. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in New England as a Filipina-American, she only ever saw her identity portrayed as a joke or caricature. As she began writing the essays that would eventually be compiled to become the memoir, Talusan wrote a story for her former and present self. At two, Talusan and her family immigrated to New England. In a mostly white town, the Philippines faded into a far-away place people knew about because of the U.S. military bases set up there.
In the excerpts Talusan read from her memoir, she unraveled the necessity detailing the immigrant experience. Otherwise, others would take over that narrative and misconstrue the truth. In a mixed-status family (having some documented and undocumented family members), Talusan’s family was granted a path to citizenship with an amnesty bill passed in the ’80s, a compassion toward immigrants she fears has been lost today.
As one of the Filipina-Americans attending the lecture, it was almost unnerving hearing Tagalog words in public and having experiences to relate to. I rarely found books or any forms of art that I could culturally relate to. In this way, Talusan is the electrifying mouthpiece for the unseen and unacknowledged, especially those silenced by a society not made for them. Talusan, like so many other minorities in the U.S., lived that unwritten narrative and finally wrote it down.
Talusan described the experience of being told that “Filipinos eat dogs” and discovering that Filipinos were on display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. In a scrapbook during her research, she found a photo of her great-grandfather at the fair, playing the piccolo in a military parade, in what Talusan called America’s “ideal outcome of colonialism.” Talusan argued that assimilation becomes erasure, as even her parents told her to only speak English, eventually losing any Tagalog she knew. Talusan skillfully weaved her Filipinx identity with the anxieties of having her personal trauma public for the first time.
“The Body Papers” is about the unsayable. Living with anxiety, depression and PTSD, Talusan feared the world and those she loved most would turn on her once the bomb exploded — once the truth that she was a survivor of abuse surfaced. She worried about how the people closest to her would react. A major support system for her, Talusan’s writing circle told her that there was no need to protect those who did not need protecting: Her abusers and those who didn’t believe her. In revealing her truth, Talusan hoped it helped survivors feel less alone.
Her publisher warned her that “a book is a bomb.” Talusan joked that she initially heard “balm” instead of “bomb.” And when the memoir dropped, the bomb did explode and reverberate around the country and the world but not in the way she expected. Critically acclaimed but more importantly with the flood of love and gratitude from readers, Talusan was embraced by every person with a passion for words and for an understanding of the pains and joys of being human.
In the process of crafting the memoir, Talusan learned to cultivate writing as a relationship with herself. Much of Talusan’s talk explored writing as a joyful and cathartic practice. An audience member asked what kept her writing, even if she was afraid. Talusan said her rage over why stories like hers are not out there fueled her. And, because, despite that anxiety and pain, it was writing that pulled her out of those depths every time, to realize the joy in living again.