Grace Talusan is Brandeis’ new Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence in the Department of English. She has turned her story into a powerful memoir, “The Body Papers,” which she read excerpts from at an event hosted by the creative writing department on Wednesday, Sept. 18.
The event began with an introduction from Stephen McCauley, the co-director of the creative writing department. His description painted Talusan as a remarkable woman, something I found to be true after hearing her speak. The entire Bethlehem Chapel was packed, every chair filled, with a few people standing in the back just so they could hear her.
Talusan came to the microphone after the introduction and first thanked everyone at Brandeis for being so supportive of her story and her transition to Brandeis. Prior to Brandeis, Talusan worked at Tufts University, which also happens to be her alma mater. She seemed excited about this new opportunity and encouraged students in the audience to take a risk and go after what they want.
She mentioned the importance of literature in her life growing up, something that I—and presumably most of the other members of the audience—related to. Her story is much different than my own, but the feeling of seeing yourself represented in the pages of books is an inspiring feeling that resonates through so many.
Talusan said that it was this inspiration that led to her finishing her novel. She mentioned being trolled by questions of “who cares?” and “why bother?” But each time she was challenged, she remembered the significant impact of seeing herself represented in novels.
The first passage Talusan chose to read from her memoir was about her time in high school. She mentioned how easy it was to forget that she wasn’t like all of her friends. That she wasn’t white. At least until they bleached their hair, and Talusan’s black hair turned orange while her white friends got that coveted blonde look.
Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, Talusan recalled some of the racism thrown her way—the implications that her college acceptances were only because she’s a minority, that she was stealing some more deserving white person’s spot, the mocking of her future children since she was dating a white boy, a friend telling Talusan that she didn’t see color, that she saw Talusan as white.
Talusan talked about that friend, Becca, for a little while. Becca was her best friend, and Talusan imagined that the two would be best friends forever, that they’d buy houses next to each other and always stay close. The two remained friends throughout college but hit a rocky patch shortly after graduate school. Talusan was doing well, renting her own apartment with the money she made from a job she liked. Becca, on the other hand, was miserable working as a waitress at a pub. When Talusan visited, Becca made some off-hand comments about African American people; Talusan said that she couldn’t be friends with someone who could say something like that.
The next passage she chose to read was about the struggles within her family, the “intergenerational trauma.” She set the story up by talking about her grandparents’ childhood in the Philippines, their lack of education and how that lack of education led them to push the importance of learning on their children.
School was always the number one priority. While all of this is going on, the Philippines were fighting with Japan, causing fear to run rampant. She mentioned that her family all knew that it was “better to be killed than be caught alive by Japanese soldiers.” At the end of this passage, she hinted at some of her own trauma, caused by her grandfather who sexually assaulted her. This particular passage she read wasn’t graphic, though she did give a trigger warning before she started, encouraging anyone who wasn’t comfortable with this type of discussion to step out and take care of themselves.
After these readings, the floor was opened for a Q&A.
The first question was hard-hitting, asking about her decision to write the full truth about people and to publish their wrong-doings. Talusan said that writing about their misdeeds “expands the notion of who people are.” She also mentioned that for her it was more important to share the whole story with the new generation of her family than to try to please everyone in the older generation who was clinging to the past.
Answering a later question, Talusan discussed the joy of writing. She stated that the act of writing is the best payoff, that it’s not about the awards a novel wins or the number of copies sold but rather the pure satisfaction of putting her thoughts on paper.
Her advice for aspiring writers? “Read, read, read” and “write, write, write.”