If You Read One Book This Month, Make It Fairest
I’m willing to bet you’ve never read a memoir like Fairest.
The book follows writer Meredith Talusan through her childhood in the Philippines (where, um, she was briefly a child star), her adolescence in America, and the years she spent studying at Harvard, when she was known by a different name.
It’s the story of a gay man coming of age in the ‘90s, a transgender woman coming to terms with her truest self in the early aughts, and an albino Filipino person reckoning with the privilege of their perceived whiteness.
“I have done a reasonable amount of personal essay writing, but it's usually writing that's been tied to a moment,” Talusan says. “At a certain point, I just sort of felt like I should really talk about my story on my own terms. Like, what does it mean for me to actually engage with my personal experience beyond anything that's happening in the news? And what does it mean for me to set my own agenda for the story that I want to tell?”
Fairest is essentially a memoir in four parts: “Bridges of Light,” a prologue reflecting on the formative experiences that precipitated Talusan’s attendance at a reunion for queer Harvard grads in 2017; “Sun Child,” a return to her childhood in the Philippines highlighting the close bond she shared with her grandmother; “Harvard Man,” a look at Talusan’s college years and early dating life; and “Lady Wedgwood,” a meditation on the beginning stages of Talusan’s transition and her relationships at the time. But despite what seems like a rigid narrative structure, there’s cohesion as Talusan shares anecdotes from different periods of her life. Of course, distilling 40-some years into 300 pages isn’t a simple task, but the book’s focus became clearer once Talusan settled on the title.
“I was just thinking, ‘What are my major concerns in the book?’ Way before I was identified as different because I'm trans, I grew up feeling and being treated as different because I'm albino. And so I knew that those two major concerns were going to be the organizing principle of the book,” she explained. “It took me a really, really long time to figure out what the book's title would be. The [other] titles I had never felt right, until I actually just concentrated on this question for like two or three days. And that was when I was like, ‘Wow, there is actually this word, ‘fairest’ that combines both the idea of feminine beauty, and this idea of whiteness.’” And there’s another meaning too: “Fairness, the idea of justice, the idea of what we owe ourselves and others in the world. The idea of how certain people get to have more resources, and get to have more attention or whatever kind of privileges they have, just because of the way that they were born.”
Talusan details her story with care, honoring not just the person she ultimately became, but the iterations, however flawed, that existed before. She writes vividly of her time as a child star in a Filipino sitcom called Bisoy: Ang Daddy Kong Baduy, in which she modeled her performance after a childhood idol of sorts, Ricky [played by Ricky Stratton] on Silver Spoons. She dedicates pages to describing the first time she ever wore women’s clothing, a formative experience on a sartorial as well as social level — cat calls trigger both excitement that she might pass as a woman, and fear of the consequences were the men who objectified her to learn of her identity.
“For a long time, I was super obsessed with essentially acting like a white person because that's how I was perceived,” Talusan tells me. “And I got all of these privileges out of it. And over time I sort of realized how much A) that isolated me from my own communities, but also B) that it wasn't actually reflective of the complexities of my identity and my emotional makeup. And I feel the same way about being trans. For a long time, I was really, really concerned that people would misgender me. Or that I didn't look like a ‘typical woman.’ And I think over time I was able to then just set aside those constraints and say, I have to define all of these identities for myself.”
Talusan and I both attended a Viking Press party ahead of Fairest’s launch back in February, a time when gathering bore no taboo. The release isn’t exactly the occasion that Talusan had anticipated, but she’s found a silver lining. “Because so many of my family members and friends are abroad in the Philippines, the fact that my events are going to be virtual is actually good for them. More people are able to access the events that I'm going to be at. Compared to if I were doing them in real life,” she explained. “I think it's a very Filipino habit, [to] think of the positive sides of all situations, just because in the Philippines we have typhoons several times a year and have had a lot of political unrest. So I think it's just part of my DNA."
Pride is going to look a little different this year too, and for Talusan, that’s OK. “It's going to be a quieter Pride this year,” she tells me over the phone. “Obviously the pandemic is horrible and terrible in all of the ways that it is, but I also don't necessarily feel like a quieter Pride is a worse Pride. It might be a good time for the queer community to introspect and take stock and think about who we are as a community. I think there's more of an opportunity for that when there isn’t music blaring and big parades and lights all over the place.”
Fairest is now available at booksellers nationwide.