As a Filipino child growing up in a small Massachusetts town, Grace Talusan felt both scrutinized and unseen. Having arrived from the Philippines when she was 2, she rehearsed a Boston accent and prayed for a metamorphosis, pleading with God to turn her into a white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. But her transformation one morning at the age of 8 turned out to be less Barbie and more Kafka: “My lips had disappeared into a mass of swollen flesh, my earlobes were triple their usual size and my cheeks were throbbing hot.”
In “The Body Papers,” Talusan’s precise, delicately constructed memoir-in-essays, her brief turn as a “puffy pink monster,” inflamed with hives, was a sign that something monstrous was being done to her. Her father’s father, Tatang (Tagalog for “father” — Talusan uses the Filipino vocabulary for kinship ties throughout), would arrive from the Philippines for an extended visit every spring and enter Grace’s room at night, pulling her floral nightgown over her shoulders. The sexual abuse started when she was 7 and ended when she was 13, after she waited for Tatang one evening and shoved him into the bedroom wall. Seeing the look of humiliation on his face, she knew that one form of torment was over: “My rage turned to joy.”
“The Body Papers” doesn’t track a one-way march to triumph from adversity; Talusan’s essays loop in on themselves, as she retrieves old memories and finds unexpected points of connection. It was only a few years after the abuse stopped that she told her family about it. They were supportive but not surprised. Her grandfather, she learned, “was an unrelenting pedophile.” Her parents were compulsively secretive, having fled an authoritarian country where “a story could get you killed.” After her father’s student visa expired, the Talusans became undocumented immigrants; Grace and her older sister only found out about their vulnerable status when they had to miss school for the blood tests and fingerprinting that were part of the immigration application process.
“There is no paper trail to document what happened to my body,” Talusan writes, recalling what her grandfather did to her. But once an order for her deportation arrived, a paper trail controlled her fate. She later obtained her immigration file through a Freedom of Information Act request and reproduces some of the pages in this book, as if entering them into the public record. “With a shuffle of papers,” she writes, “life as I knew it could be lost.”
Talusan is now an American citizen, though soon after President Trump’s inauguration she started carrying her American passport with her whenever she left the house. Documents had once posed a threat; now they were a form of protection. When she took a genetic test at the age of 33, the slip of paper showing the results saved her life. Learning that she was genetically predisposed to the cancers that had killed a number of her female relatives, Talusan decided to have her breasts and ovaries removed.
These were radical interventions for a body that had suffered from years of neglect. “I once drew a picture of myself in which my head floats over my body like a balloon,” she writes. “That’s where I really live, my head; my body is just the vehicle.” She put on weight, trying to erect a protective barrier around herself. But the boundary between her and the world had a way of warping and dissolving.
Talusan describes such experiences with unadorned prose that conveys a startling specificity. As an anxious child, she would bite her nails “and line up the white slivers in the groove of the pencil holder, pretending my nails were sails for boats that would take me away.” After her double mastectomy, she imagined what would happen if she went jogging and her silicone implants burst out of her skin: “I saw myself stooping to collect the slippery implants, and quickly dusting off the black pebbles from the track before anyone saw.”
Her father, an ophthalmologist, was so preoccupied with external dangers to his loved ones’ eyesight (Grace learned to respect “the raw power of drinking straws, metal clothes hangers, baseballs, pencils and tree branches”) that he missed the signs that a young granddaughter, Grace’s niece, was developing a retinoblastoma — a cancer of the eye. His misplaced vigilance was also what led him to miss the signs that his own daughter was being abused inside the family home.
“Our house was American on the outside, but Filipino on the inside,” Talusan recalls. It was supposed to be a haven; a place where she could remove the mask that she had worn all day, as one of the few girls of color in her school. Decades later, when she temporarily moved with her husband to the Philippines for a fellowship, she wondered if returning to the land of her birth, a place where she could blend into the crowd, would alleviate the sense of loss that seemed to follow her wherever she went.
But even though she lived in a cosseted part of Manila, in a neighborhood with a Starbucks and a Lamborghini dealership, she knew that the poor were hauling garbage and scrounging for food on the other side of the wall. Visiting an orphanage, she met a teenage girl who had been found in a cemetery, having survived for years on the oranges and pastries that mourners left on the gravestones, in honor of the dead. “Every day here,” Talusan writes, “I am offended.”
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. She writes about her father with tenderness and empathy, recalling how he used to earn extra money in the Philippines by making prosthetic eyes that he boiled in a stockpot filled with water. “He thought it was beautiful, how the eyes bobbed and floated and rolled over — all those eyes that couldn’t see.”
The Body Papers
By Grace Talusan
Illustrated. 255 pages. Restless Books. $22.99.
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