“Writing is power, but it is also a form of love:” A Q&A with Grace Talusan, the writer in the residence
Photo / Mike Lovett
3rd November 2020
Fannie Hurst Writer in Residence Grace Talusan’s stories seem made for this moment, and they are recognized for that.
Her memoir “The Body Papers” tells Talusan’s life story as an immigrant who came to Boston with her parents from the Philippines at the age of two. It records emotional and physical trauma, racism, and a return to their roots in the Philippines. Her fictional short story “The Book of Life and Death” is about a Filipino immigrant who is an essential helper through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Body Papers” is the winner of the 20th Massachusetts Book Awards’ non-fiction award, and “The Book of Life and Death” is this year’s One City, One Story selection from the Boston Books Festival and has been distributed for free across the country, both city and online .
Talusan took some time to answer questions with BrandeisNow:
Sections of “The Body Papers” are of different styles and come together in interesting, powerful ways. Did you know you were working on a treatise from the beginning?
I didn’t even think I was working on a book. I’ve worked on a variety of things – essays, even a little bit of magazine journalism. We started working on the book first as a collection of essays, then as memoir-in-essays. Finally, my editor was confident we could call it a memoir, but I didn’t do it the way you would do a traditional memoir.
I was interested in studying how there are different modes and purposes for writing. I saw that there might be a way to mirror these pieces to one another. Some of the pieces, like the travel writing, use different versions of my storytelling, highlighting different voices and personas, but I am all of those personas.
I didn’t do it on purpose from the start, but I hoped when we put it all together that it would feel like the same person writing all these things and you could feel the same person in all of them.
What does it mean to you to receive the recognition you get in Boston and Massachusetts as a black person who lives and grew up in the area? Boston is a racially-majority minority city, but these stories don’t often get a lot of attention.
I never expected to receive these two different awards for my writing, especially at the same time. When I saw the long list for the Massachusetts Book Awards, I was delighted that my book was on it, but I never thought my book would win. The same goes for One City, One Story from the Boston Book Festival. I read these free brochures from the start but never expected mine to be one of them.
And one reason I never expect to win is because of the lack of visibility and representation from writers and color artists. Yes, Boston is a majority minority in terms of population, but in terms of cultural visibility, one wouldn’t guess that.
I participate in the literary world in Boston and have found that reading events are often predominantly white, unless the event is purposely aimed at people of color.
So these honors were a wonderful, unexpected surprise. For One City One Story, my story will be distributed throughout the city for free and translated into multiple languages. I hope that someone, maybe an immigrant or someone of color who doesn’t read short stories regularly, will pick up the free booklet “The Book of Life and Death” and find something to relate to in the story of Marybelle, the Filipino domestic workers at the center of the narrative.
How does your work as an active writer affect your teaching with students?
When I work one on one with students or when I write feedback for them, I try to mimic the kind of relationships I have with my editors. I ask the students about their goals, then I help them or give them feedback on how my editors work with me.
Why do you write your passion?
There are pictures of me that I write before I can even read, although I’m sure that I was just pretending to have been drawn to writing for a long time. I prefer to write than speak. Writing is my way of expressing certain things that I could never say. Writing is power, but it’s also a form of love.