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‘Stories have the power to create change': Grace Talusan reads from her memoir 'The Body Papers'

By Emily Rosenberg

Editorial Board

As a Filipina-American author, Grace Talusan said she’d never read a book with a protagonist similar to her until she read Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Warrior Woman.”

She said the books she consumed, which consisted of mainly white protagonists, made her see herself as unworthy of attention in literature and rare appearances of Asian “caricatures” inflicted great shame and embarrassment.

“I didn’t even realize my profound absence and invisibility from literature until I saw myself appear,” Talusan said. “Because of Kingston’s work, I felt a space open up in my own imagination and my idea of what was possible in writing.”

Winner of the Non-Fiction Massachusetts Book Award and The Restless Book Prize for New Immigrant Writing, as well as a former university writing professor, she is only beginning her journey to show the world what is possible in storytelling.

Talusan shared sections of “The Body Papers” as a guest reader for the Miriam Levine Reading, April 6.

Prior to reading, Talusan said she writes because she loves following her curiosities and hearing others’ stories, but also knows that “stories have the power to create change outwardly [...] in both positive and negative ways.”

She read an excerpt about her visit to St. Louis, Missouri.

Talusan said Rudyard Kippling’s “The White Man’s Burden” encouraged the United States to become an imperial power. This burden was a “euphemism” for imperialism.

“It’s a silly thing to think, but before I met my husband and had only white boyfriends, I could not get the thought out of my head that I was the white man’s burden,” she read.

Talusan said that in college, she was constantly “refracting” herself and wondering how the world saw her, as well as how she saw herself. It wasn’t until she learned about double consciousness that she realized she was not the only person who felt that way.

She added that growing up, the joke she heard most about Filipinos was that they ate dogs.

“No insult felt worse than being called a dog eater. Even though I had never done this, I felt the shame of this practice tied to my body,” she read. “Perhaps this way of characterizing Filipinos began when they were displayed in living exhibits in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. These human zoos were evidence in support of the U.S. colonization.”

Talusan said when she visited the Missouri state archives, she found a scrapbook which included a photo of her great grandfather who immigrated to America in 1904. Unlike other Filipinos who were confined to the exhibit, her great grandfather walked around the fair freely and was a captain who marched in the Filipino Constabulary band.

“He was the ideal outcome of U.S. Colonization. Christianized, educated, military – the embodiment of colonial success,” she read.

Yet, despite the higher level of respect her great grandfather may have been expected to receive, Talusan said the American mind could not move past the misrepresentations of Filipinos and what they did to dogs.

She added that when she went to the St. Louis Museum gift shop, someone whispered in her ear “big dogs.”

“Over 100 years later, this is the story about us that persists,” Talusan said.

After finishing the piece, Talusan said she had never learned about the 1904 World’s Fair in school and believes America wants to remain blind to colonialism, but its people are also “strong enough” to be honest about it.

“Some of what I try to do in my work is challenge the silences that I’ve been encouraged to keep,” she added.

Talusan then read an excerpt titled “Yellow Children.”

In the piece, Talusan began by detailing the special college acceptance programs for students of color that she was invited to in her senior year of high school.

She said that when she visited Harvard, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot gave a speech, which left her in awe, because she had only ever met or saw white male professors. Lightfoot gave Talusan hope that she could attend a diverse university.

She added the only teacher of color she had in her elementary or secondary education was an Asian American guidance counselor.

“The big joke – before he married one of the science teachers – was that I was going to marry him,” Talusan read.

“Sometimes I could forget who I was – that I wasn’t white. I acted like I was the same as my girlfriend. I wore the same bright blue eyeshadow and sprayed [hairspray] over my black hair as I tanned at the beach which bleached my hair the color of a mushy pumpkin instead of the sun-kissed blonde my friends idealized,” she read.

“I was like everyone else until I walked by a plate glass window or a bathroom mirror or saw a photo of myself with my friends. Who – in that image – became my white friends.”

She said that during college admissions season, her white friends called her lucky for being a minority, and claimed it was “too bad” she wasn’t Hispanic or Black because that would ensure her spot at one of the elite schools she had applied to.

“The subtext was that we did not deserve these spots that we were taking from white students who worked so much harder and earned it more,” she read. “I got the message.”

She added after she started to recognize how these racially charged offenses affected her, she began using the term person of color to describe herself. Shortly after, a school administrator showed Talusan his tan and told her he was no more a person of color than she was.

“Maybe I wanted him to be right. I also wanted to believe my life would not be negatively impacted by race. Even now, I wish this was true,” she read.

Another time, she discovered women questioning what she and her white boyfriend’s babies would look like. She said they asked her, “What is a half-yellow, and half-white anyway?

“These women had watched me grow up in our small town, a place I felt I belonged to. And perhaps, all along, I had only been a foreign exchange student,” she read.

Talusan wished at the time, she could have said, “Ladies, if I had children, they’d be human – just like yours.”

Talusan said she “surprised herself” at a graduation party when her best friend referred to Asian Americans as “Orientals” and Talusan asked her to stop using that word. She said that despite feeling she would lose her that night, they stayed friends throughout college and their early adult life.

She said after her friend got a job as a waitress, she could relate to Talusan’s feeling of invisibility.

“When I waited in line, sometimes cashiers looked behind me to find the next customer,” Talusan said. “Police officers and other authorities would ask if I could speak English if I paused too long before responding.”

She added her friend had also casually complained about Black customers not tipping well. “Did she see me as an honorary white person? Did she forget that the man I was going to marry was African American? Or did she feel a thrill to remember this fact and say it anyway?” she read.

The passage revealed more about the microaggressions and hate her husband has endured as a Black man. Talusan said people cross the street to avoid him, unless he has a dog with him. When he has a dog, it’s a “different world” – people will wave, and sometimes kids come up to pet it.

She added that when he was little, her husband was the target of racial bullying encased with the n-word, and one time two white men on the street attacked and beat him so badly, he was unrecognizable in the hospital.

Talusan said after her friend made that comment about Black customers, she felt hopeless about their dying friendship and abilities to overcome “obstacles in the conversation about race.

“I don’t believe my friend is a bad person. Nor do I think the school administrator, or the women gossiping about the so-called ‘yellow children’ or the many people I hear casually drop insinuating comments about race would believe it if I told them they harbored racist beliefs,” she read. “This is not about bad people. This is about a system of white supremacy that decent people, unaware of their power and privilege, enact and uphold.”

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