THE BODY PAPERS
By Grace Talusan
Much of Grace Talusan’s memoir, “The Body Papers,” will be familiar to any reader of immigrant narratives. But what renders the book memorable — perhaps what earned it the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing — is the author’s unstinting self-portrait. We see Talusan clearly in the present, warts and all, precisely through the stark, lucid representations of herself in the past. Having moved with her family from the Philippines to suburban America when she was 2 years old, Talusan recalls complex feelings of loss, displacement and adjustment.
The titular “body” is not only biological but also cultural and sexual. She all but forgets her native tongue, Tagalog. On visits to Manila, she looks as if she belongs, but once she opens her mouth it is immediately apparent that she’s from the United States. As she dryly notes, “This is what happens when assimilation brings erasure.” Luckily, however, she doesn’t have to worry about communicating: Thanks to United States colonization, English is one of the country’s official languages. But language isn’t the only marker of Talusan’s Americanness. In a humorous sequence set amid the chaotic traffic of Manila, where “about one pedestrian is killed every other day,” she orders drivers to stop so she can get to the other side in one piece. “As soon as I step into a Manila crosswalk,” she writes, “I distinguish myself by losing my cool.”
Then there’s the inevitable exposure to racism, as a brown-skinned girl growing up in a predominantly white Boston neighborhood. She is teased by a third grader who makes “ching-chong sounds while pulling back the corners of his eyes.” Later, when she dates white men from the military, she can’t help recalling how back home, Filipina bar girls were looked down upon for liaisons with Americans in uniform. The depth and virulence of racism is brought home to her when her African-American husband gets beaten up so badly she can hardly recognize him in the hospital.
Reading W. E. B. Du Bois, Talusan recognizes her own experience in his notion of “double consciousness.” She too knows what it is to be Othered: “I was constantly refracting myself through multiple mirrors, wondering who I was perceived to be by others, how I perceived myself.” Despite her and her family’s United States citizenship, the recent Muslim travel ban still engenders moments of paranoia. “Even though I had lived in America since I was 2 years old, I felt the tectonic plates of identity shift. I started carrying my U.S. passport with me whenever I left the house.”
The memoir’s social concerns, however, pale in comparison to the challenges Talusan confronts in the private sphere — within her own physical body. For seven years, starting when she’s only 7, she is sexually victimized by her paternal grandfather, who “entered my life like lava, incinerating everything in its path.” Menstruation awakens her to potential motherhood, spurring her to finally rebuff the sleazy patriarch, shoving him out of her room, upon which “my rage turned to joy.”
Her triumph is short-lived. The psychic pain worsens as she grows up, debilitated by depression. In college she fights the urge to self-mutilate. Informed of the sexual abuse, her father writes to his father, his ama, “You are dead to me now.” As it turns out, he too was regularly brutalized by the paterfamilias as a child.
Another physical challenge springs from Talusan’s heredity: She and her sisters have a genetic predisposition to breast and ovarian cancer. She opts for a pre-emptive double mastectomy and an oophorectomy. At the doctor’s office, she weeps for the children she will never have, assuaged only by the unshakable love between her and her husband. In such powerful, evocative scenes as this one, “The Body Papers” comes fully alive. Now a lecturer at Tufts University, Talusan chronicles that fraught passage from one world, one body, to another, marking with sensitivity how an American life can be both burden and benediction.
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