Meredith Talusan Has Seen White Male Privilege From Both Sides

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Meredith Talusan’s coming-of-age memoir, Fairest, is about her life as an albino Filipino child assigned male at birth. Talusan grows up in a rural village, then immigrates to America where she’s perceived as white. In America, she is able to navigate spaces like Harvard and the queer community with privilege. After reflecting on her ability to navigate life with ease and realizing she no longer wants to be restricted to a prescribed role of a man, Talusan embarks on a gender transition, with the threat of losing her lover looming. Fairest interrogates what it means to live honestly in the shadows of privilege, and what it means to let that all go. 

Meredith Talusan is an award-winning author and journalist. She has received awards from GLAAD, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. She is also the founding executive editor and a contributing editor of them—and, full disclosure, a board member of Electric Literature.

I chatted with Talusan about imagining herself into being, navigating complicated family dynamics, and her relationship to the idea of desirability. 

Arriel Vinson: At the beginning of Fairest, you’re reckoning with your appearance as a woman—how others say you haven’t changed much. You also discuss being fair-skinned in your Filipino family and how you’re noticed in your hometown. When did you realize your skin gave you privilege?

Meredith Talusan: The privilege of having white skin is so embedded in my consciousness that it feels like I knew about its effects even before I had any concrete memories. My awareness that I was favored, that my family considered me special, that people in my village paid a lot more attention to me than other kids, precedes any specific incident or event. But my first absolutely clear memory of how special I was perceived was when I went to the village haircutter as a really young child, maybe 4 or 5, and I remember her finding an envelope afterward and putting my blond hair inside, then hugging the envelope against her chest like it was a valued keepsake. Somehow I’ll always remember that, how where I’m from, something that just grows out of my head is precious to other people.

AV: Mirrors appear in Fairest as a portal to the self, used for talking about your blurry vision in relation to your albinism, as well as your skin tone and body. Tell me more about that. 

It was important for me to write a book that shows the entire span of my life, not just the period where I’m in transition.

MT: I had some hesitations about relying too much on the mirror because of the stereotype that trans women are always looking at ourselves, but as I came to investigate the role mirrors have played in my life, I came to realize that the problem wasn’t that trans women are looking at mirrors all the time, because it’s entirely understandable that we look at mirrors a lot while we’re undergoing major changes in our appearance and self-perception. The real problem is that mainstream media at least until very recently only represented us as we’re transitioning, and just to shout out that HBO’s Euphoria does an amazing job of not doing that, aside from the fact that Hunter Schafer is brilliant. That’s why it was important for me to write a book that shows the entire span of my life, not just the period where I’m in transition, which really only occupies a third of the book, if that. Fairest also discusses how I went through a similar process of looking at myself in the mirror a lot as a kid, during a period when I was trying to reconcile how different I looked compared to other people with my family’s anticipation that we would live in the States someday and that I would be perceived as white. So I hope that people who read Fairest can come to understand that the mirror isn’t just an object vanity, but one of deep self-reflection.

AV: Fairest touches on imagination often, such as imagining that you were a white American. Why was the theme of imagination so important?

MT: Imagination is a key part of my emotional makeup because I am literally a product of my imagination, someone who no one would have anticipated becoming who I am except that I imagined myself into being, whether as a trans woman or a person who came from poverty and ended up graduating from America’s most prestigious school then becoming successful in the eyes of others. But what I also challenge readers of my book to imagine are the many sacrifices it took to bring myself into being, and what I’ve lost along the way, because as much as I’ve gained having imagined then actualized my current existence, that experience also entailed a lot more loss than someone who didn’t have to engage the deepest resources of their imagination to become who they wanted to be.

AV: You’re interrogating your privilege in Fairest–how you learned English, were a childhood celebrity, attended Harvard, had access to dating an upper-class white man. Tell me about your decision to work through your own privilege, and how Fairest became a vehicle for that.

I am literally a product of my imagination. I imagined myself into being.

MT: It wasn’t really a conscious decision as much as an outgrowth of my need to be completely honest with myself about my life as I rendered it on the page. As hero’s journeys go, I wasn’t interested in turning myself into someone who doesn’t have major flaws or got to where I am purely because of my personal qualities. I may be a constitutionally hardworking (some would say obsessive) person who has a certain amount of innate intelligence, which, by the way, is also assigned through birth lottery. So it’s not like so it’s not something I deserve as much as something I’m just lucky enough to have, but it’s self-evident that I would have run into many more obstacles had I been born dark and if I wasn’t consistently mistaken for cisgender after I transitioned. To somehow avoid the extent of my privilege would have just meant being dishonest about my life in a fundamental way, and maybe there are memoirists who have done that but I cannot imagine it for myself.

AV: We see the differences in the relationships between you and your grandmother and you  with your mother, who was abusive and struggled with addiction. Why was it important to showcase these two relationships side by side?

MT: So many narratives both fictional and nonfictional feature singular parental figures and cast them as either good or bad. In part because we as people often end up thinking of our parents as summations of the many actions they’ve performed throughout our lives. As a person who is estranged from both my parents I have certainly done that in my lived experience. But on the page, it was important for me to be precise and honest with myself in terms of the ways my grandmother’s unconditional love ballasted me as a child, and how much having an abusive and addicted mother damaged me, but that both of those people were complicated figures. As good as my grandmother was, I knew she was better to me than her other grandchildren because she was brainwashed by colorism, and she became obsessed with money as a way of symbolizing her power. And as terrible as my mom was, she was forced to have me when she didn’t want to in a country where divorce is illegal even now. So I wanted to portray the complications of having such wildly divergent parental influences, but also the further complication that the “good” one wasn’t as good as I had initially thought as a child, just as the “bad” one had understandable reasons for why she couldn’t be a mother to me.

AV: During your time at Harvard, you learn more about your sexuality and gender, both inside and outside of the classroom. How did learning about desirability help you understand yourself and who you’d be most happy being?

MT: Desirability is so fascinating to me because I so rarely see people, whether in life or art, being really frank about their degree of desirability unless they’re being (often falsely) modest, because it risks them being accused of arrogance and vanity, which people have accused me of both in life and in reader reviews of the book. And yes, maybe I’m being vain when I say that I discovered I was desirable as a young gay man, or that seeing myself as a beautiful woman catalyzed and propelled my transition. But maybe in part because I also spent time at an MIT cognitive science lab studying physical beauty, I just think it’s important to query one’s own relationship to desirability because it is such a fundamental part of so many of our interactions, whether or not we want to admit it. It’s clear to me that I wouldn’t have transitioned if I hadn’t been beautiful, and it’s important to say and unpack that because it’s just true even if it’s an inconvenient thing to say. I’m tired of having to sanitize my life according to cisgender expectations of the kind of person a trans person should be, someone who felt trapped in her body, which I never have, and someone who is ugly and unhappy either before or after transition, or both, which I was not and am not, even if I’ve gone through periods of crisis like every other human being.

I’m tired of having to sanitize my life according to cisgender expectations of the kind of person a trans person should be.

AV: After going to your hometown in the Philippines once more, you notice that you spent a lot of your time as a “white, gay man.” How did interrogating your privilege in the queer community make you more honest with yourself in Fairest?

MT: I just feel like intersectional queer experience is so rarely represented whether in memoir or fiction. In terms of gay male writers, for every Samuel Delany or Alexander Chee, then more recently Ocean Vuong and Brandon Taylor and Matt Ortile, you have a slew of white gay authors and characters, which is not the fault of the authors themselves but is perhaps the fault of a publishing industry and American public that still prioritizes white experience over others. I feel like my own experiences around being seen as a white gay man even though I wasn’t actually white (or a man, as it turned out) can illuminate how stratified the gay community is. The “gay experience” looks vastly different if you’re not white, even though I’ve been in so many situations where “gay man” is used as a marker for opulence, sophistication, and excess wealth. This is so much more likely to be true if you’re white, while I as the queer Filipino first-gen immigrant gay man only got access to those cultural circles because of my proximity to whiteness.

AV: In Fairest, you’re also navigating what you want as far as your gender and gender expression are concerned. There’s a moment where you ask yourself what you want here. Tell me more about that. 

MT: One of the hardest parts about being trans is that for the most part, no one in your life actively wants you to be trans even if that’s what you want. They might tolerate you being trans but it’s rare for me to see families and friends be actively happy when someone transitions, except maybe for the trans person’s queer and trans friends. So as a result, transition is so often framed as selfishness, as you prioritizing your wants over [others]. But gender is such a fundamental part of how we move through the world, which I wish weren’t true but it unfortunately is, so I realized over time that even if I didn’t need to be a woman in the sense that I wasn’t suicidal or I couldn’t envision the possibility of me not transitioning, I realized how unfair it would be to me to sacrifice myself and my desires over other people’s expectations, even the people in the world I love most. And yes, I still agonize over that decision because human consciousness is dynamic and ever-changing, but an overwhelming amount of the time, I know that sacrificing a special relationship with someone I deeply loved was what I needed to do so that I could grow to more fully love myself.

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