Book description from the publisher:
Born in the Philippines, young Grace Talusan moves with her family to a New England suburb in the 1970s. At school, she confronts racism as one of the few kids with a brown face. At home, the confusion is worse: her grandfather’s nightly visits to her room leave her hurt and terrified, and she learns to build a protective wall of silence that maps onto the larger silence practiced by her Catholic Filipino family. Talusan learns as a teenager that her family’s legal status in the country has always hung by a thread—for a time, they were “illegal.” Family, she’s told, must be put first.
The abuse and trauma Talusan suffers as a child affects all her relationships, her mental health, and her relationship with her own body. Later, she learns that her family history is threaded with violence and abuse. And she discovers another devastating family thread: cancer. In her thirties, Talusan must decide whether to undergo preventive surgeries to remove her breasts and ovaries. Despite all this, she finds love, and success as a teacher. On a fellowship, Talusan and her husband return to the Philippines, where she revisits her family’s ancestral home and tries to reclaim a lost piece of herself.
Not every family legacy is destructive. From her parents, Talusan has learned to tell stories in order to continue. The generosity of spirit and literary acuity of this debut memoir are a testament to her determination and resilience. In excavating and documenting such abuse and trauma, Talusan gives voice to unspeakable experience, and shines a light of hope into the darkness.
“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.”
“Such commentary, while righteous and earned, is not the point of this indelible book. Talusan has the instincts of a storyteller, teasing out her narrative through images and allusion.”
Grace Talusan’s finely-wrought and eloquent memoir, “The Body Papers,” out April 9, was the winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. The book is visceral, bodily, and throbs with pain and trauma — sexual abuse by a family member, cancer, the phantom-limb ache of an outsider in a foreign land, and later, as an outsider in the homeland.
“Moving and eloquent, Talusan’s book is a testament not only to one woman’s fierce will to live, but also to the healing power of speaking the unspeakable. A candidly courageous memoir.”
Awarded the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, Talusan bravely alchemizes unbearable traumas into a potent memoir remarkably devoid of self-pity, replete with fortitude and grace.
There is never a moment of self-indulgence in Talusan’s memoir. While she rarely, if ever, judges those around her—even as she notices, and gently notes, their privilege, careless language, or violence—there is the occasional hint of self-recrimination, marking just how difficult it is for her to tell this story. The book examines many more facets of Talusan’s life and observations than those I’ve focused on here, which are only the outermost and innermost sections, and it isn’t only her own story, as she writes in her author’s note: “While everyone has the right to report their own lives, I know that telling my secrets impacts other people.” Yet ultimately, she concludes that she wrote the book for herself, “and for you, the living, and for those who come after [her].” For that, we the living are grateful.
That sense of big-heartedness permeates The Body Papers. And it is through the gift of prose that Talusan embraces such generosity. When she was a child, her grandmother, Mama Lola, told her that she was becoming just like her nephew, Alfrredo Navarro Salanga, a journalist, poet, fiction writer, playwright, and critic. Talusan took this as a compliment of the highest order. Mama Lola gave her Tito Freddie’s book, which was the first she had ever read by a Filipino writer. Talusan looked up to her Tito Freddie, and indeed, followed his footsteps. Talusan writes, “Tito Freddie died before we could meet in person, but his conviction taught me that a writer sets words down, one after the other, which offer new, expansive possibilities.” Like the baby steps she had initially taken to free herself from the years of trauma, Talusan began to write, one word after the other. While she has given herself a life of new expansive possibilities, so, too, has she given us a book of hope.
In The Body Papers, Grace Talusan positions her memoir as a series of bodies: the body of the family, the body of a city, the body of a culture and a heritage, and all link inextricably back to the personal body that Talusan inhabits. The topics she explores are numerous, which could become overwhelming if not for her undaunted prose, the connections drawn between images. The memoir itself becomes a body—many parts cooperating, an alliance of movement.
It would be too simple to say this is a brave book. Talusan guides us, so we see what must be seen about how a body survives, the danger from within and without.
“In this moving, clear-eyed memoir, which won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, she probes the events of her life, documenting them with photographs and official papers. She involves the reader in her quest to make sense of who she has become by charting where she’s been. “Immigration is a kind of death,” she writes. “You leave one life for another one with no guarantee of seeing your loved ones or home again.” The portrait Talusan creates of her father, Totoy, is one of the most complex and beautiful parts of the book.”
“Grace Talusan makes use of immigration papers, legal certificates, and medical test results in her memoir about immigration, trauma, and illness. The winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for Nonfiction, The Body Papers is timely and compelling.”
“Grace Talusan writes eloquently about the most unsayable things: the deep gravitational pull of family, the complexity of navigating identity as an immigrant, and the ways we move forward even as we carry our traumas with us. Equal parts compassion and confession, The Body Papers is a stunning work by a powerful new writer who—like the best memoirists—transcends the personal to speak on a universal level.”
“The Body Papers is an extraordinary portrait of the artist as survivor. From a legacy of trauma and secrecy spanning oceans and generations, Grace Talusan has crafted a wise, lucid, and big-hearted stand against silence—a literary lifeline for all who have endured profound pain and hope to be seen and loved through it.”
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author of Somebody’s Daughter and The Evening Hero (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster)
“In The Body Papers, Grace Talusan takes us to the space between what official documents say and what the body’s cells know—the understated prose startles with its beauty, the insights it provides are priceless.”
“There is so much to admire in this brave and fierce and deeply intimate memoir. By taking such an unsentimental and plainspoken approach to her material, Talusan simply demands that the reader pay attention. The Body Papers is told in thematic sequences in which the author and the family come continually to light, in flashes that get brighter as we read, and by the end we see everyone in their full humanity and comprehend the depths of both despair and love at their core. As a child of immigrants, I found much to relate to in the family dynamics—alternately laughing and shuddering with recognition.”
“Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers is one of the fiercest and most intimate books I have ever read. It is a memoir of immigration, of multiculturalism, of family betrayals and loving binds, and deeply a memoir of the body: about the documents and silences that regulate it, and the memories and emotions that live inside it. Talusan has written an urgent and necessary testament for our time. Reading it left me raw. Reading it will change you.”