Grace Talusan’s powerhouse memoir The Body Papers is an intimate, explosive account of a life marked by migration, trauma, and survival. Her recurrent themes of identity in the in-between space of American vs. Filipino, girl vs. woman, victim vs. survivor, woman as mother vs. infertility, all tie in to the landscape of the body on which a multifaceted life is built. The corporeal economics of migration, family, and survival resounds in the way her body is negotiated, acted upon, and called into question by fellow Americans and Filipinos. From girlhood to present, her body has endured the scrutiny of its skin color, the sexual abuse by her grandfather, political tensions of citizenship, the lingering and silencing fears from Marcos’ dictatorship, and the physical betrayal of cancerous cell mutations and infertility. The Body Papers, her first book, gives voice to her experience as immigrant and survivor.
As an immigrant, the body is anything but apolitical. “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” (174). This begins with the physical removal from their family compound in Manila, years framed with joy and marked with innocence: shards of glass on the walls that “kept the danger out” (39); “small children glowed white with talcum powder after their baths, and the older cousins told stories until the babies’ clean hair dried” (40). Talusan describes her halcyon youth disrupted by the intrusion of Martial Law, which forces her family to migrate to the United States.
Thus follows the first of many sacrifices as they exchange one country for another. In a chapter called “Little Bud” (a translation of Talusan’s childhood nickname, Bubut), she recalls a dentist extracting all of her father’s teeth, advising him, “It is better to lose your teeth in the Philippines ... than to lose all of your money in America” (43). The loss of his teeth parallels the loss of her native tongue, as Talusan and her siblings were required to speak only English upon entering the States. As an adult, upon returning to Manila on a Fulbright, Talusan must rely on her visiting parents to navigate, as she no longer speaks Tagalog, “which meant being on the outside of the party” (139). Talusan writes, “I’m here to learn what it means to be Filipino, but somehow I’ve only become more American” (233).
She writes that “this is the danger of change: you never know what else will shift” (43). In America, Talusan abandons her childhood name, which sounds like an insult in English—her identity as a Filipino becomes lost in translation in an American context. She reminds visiting family members from Manila that she is American, though, when she describes Trump’s travel ban: “I felt the tectonic plates of identity shift. I started carrying my U.S. passport with me whenever I left the house. I was not really welcome in America. At a moment’s notice, I might be forced to prove that I had a right to walk these streets and teach in my classroom” (73).
As an American in Manila, she struggles to find a foothold for her shifting identity. She says she has to check her privilege in Manila (25), but at the same time, her race plays against her, even in her native country. Strangers mistake her for her white friend’s hired help (29), and she wryly notes that even deodorant comes with a skin-whitener (30). “Crossing the Street,” a chapter recounting the literal perils of the pedestrian in busy Manila intersections, figuratively places Talusan in the middle of intersecting identities, none of which fully welcome her. In Manila, she must literally leap out of the way of traffic and shout, “I am a person!” (23). Likewise, in America, she feels that she must “remind myself that I have a right to be in spaces where everyone else is white” (27), as white neighbors who watched her grow to adulthood question when she dates white boys and critique what form of otherness her half-yellow children would be, or when a white man places his darker tanned arm next to hers and asserts that he is “no more a person of color than you are” (164), thus dismissing her otherness altogether.
One of the first stories Talusan shares in her memoir is the painful conversation with a Filipino taxi driver in Manila, baffled because she has no children. At first, Talusan tries to explain the demands of education, a high cost of living—western concerns and reasons that the driver readily dismisses. Finally, Talusan is forced to reveal her genetic predisposition to cancer as the reason for the missing link between womanhood and motherhood.
Yet it is this very link that ultimately saved her. She endured years of rape by her grandfather in silence, due to the politics of storytelling, both as a Filipino and as a family member. Talusan explains, “[my parents] knew a story could destroy you. They had fled the Marcos dictatorship, where a petty grievance or accusation could get you assassinated. Even now, my father is still afraid of people finding out our secrets” (127), and emphasizes later on, “A story could get you killed, whether you were the person the story was about or the storyteller” (145). Perhaps this background is how Talusan makes sense of “the silences and secrets we keep around trauma” (19), but another part of this is due to the loyalties to the family, again, stemmed in her cultural background. “Vast kinship networks were crucial to survival during brutal times of poverty, wars, and colonization. Sometimes you must sacrifice yourself for the good of the family” (152). As a child in Manila, she heard stories about a late grandfather, who came to haunt his feuding progeny until reconciliation could be met. What, then, was the cost of speak against a living grandfather, especially one who was of the generation that raised children to do as they were told?
Her body, humiliated and violated, is empowered when she assumes a new identity as woman. Beginning menstruation, Talusan learns from a friend that this means she has entered womanhood, because she “can be a mother. And a mother is a woman” (133). Resolved, she stands up to her grandfather. Later, she finds the courage to tell her father what his father had done. Like Talusan, he struggles initially with where to relocate the trauma. He shares her fears of storytelling and discovery and is prone to shroud secrets with silence.
Ultimately, he writes his father to ex-communicate him. “With that piece of paper, he killed his own father” (151), and in this act of support for his daughter, he irrevocably severed what Talusan identifies as a Filipino family alliance. Perhaps it was a sign of his becoming more American to abandon filial duties, or perhaps it was his own way of negotiating his Filipino values by extending familial loyalty—to his daughter. This is the father who will write loving letters to her in college, who will shed tears at the euthanizing of a beloved family pet or stand in the street and watch the old family car being towed, who will fly to Manila with his wife to share in his daughter’s experience of returning home. It is during such a visit that she thanks him for bringing her to America. “I’m not saying that I would have had a bad life in the Philippines,” she tells him. “Just a different one” (245).
The testament to the immigrant, the key to survival, is a fierce and unrelenting optimism. Talusan considers, “Perhaps my father’s nature is what drove him to emigrate. He is that special kind of person who would leave everything he knew to brave the unknown with the certainty that he was moving toward a better life. My father believes everything will work out. And after all, didn’t it?” (74). For Talusan, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. The Body Papers chronicles monumental life events, marked with struggle and yet intertwined with courageous joy. From the ashes of infertility, she embraces her role as a second mother to her nephews and nieces. She is rediscovering her native country with her husband, for whom the Philippines holds no stigma toward his Blackness. She opens up her narrative with a chapter on making homemade yogurt in Manila, perhaps because she finds that “life still delights and surprises me. People come together to rescue those who need help. People still fall in love. ... I talk to [my niece] about yogurt because I want her to believe in wonder and magic, in alchemy, in something invisible and alive that can transform liquid into solid” (20-21). Her book recounts a similar alchemy of identity, of suffering and healing, and of the ever-shifting boundaries of where we call home.