Writing, Trans Identity, Race, and All the Poetry: An Interview With Meredith Talusan -The Toast

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I learned about Meredith Talusan’s fascinating life and trajectory through none other than the wonderful world of Twitter. Not only are we both Comparative Literature nerds, but we also are deeply involved in thinking about selfhood and all that it entails. 

Tell me a little about yourself. You have such a rich history, both personally and educationally. Considering your background, what drew you to the visual arts as well as literature?

unnamedI grew up mostly with my grandparents in a small province in the Philippines, though I ended up spending some time in Manila partly because I worked as a child actor there for a few years. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Philippines is a really sunny place and I was born with partial albinism so I spent a lot more time indoors than most kids, and I entertained myself by reading any book I could get my hands on, and watching Filipino telenovelas or Jeopardy! from the grainy UHF station at the nearby U.S. Army base, and tumbling from one end of our old bamboo house to the other pretending to be Mary Lou Retton. All in all, it was an awesome childhood.

I was actually mostly a math and science kid growing up. I was especially into astronomy and physics. But when my family immigrated to the States when I was a sophomore in high school, I ended up becoming obsessed with mastering English and figuring out American culture, so the literary side of me really took hold at that point. As for visual art, I was interested mostly in design until I took a photography class in college and fell in love with the medium because it gave me a tangible means to represent my version of the world. I don’t know if you know this but one cool effect of albinism is that my eyes track independently. This means my depth perception isn’t great but I also see everything as a two-dimensional image like a camera.

What types of books are you reading at the moment and who would you say are your favorite writers?

Lately I’ve become obsessed with thinking about trans-related questions through the experiences of other marginalized groups and more specifically I’ve been thinking about passing quite a bit, since it’s a big issue in the trans community as it continues to be for racial minorities. The ways in which trans people are so overtly discriminated against, threatened, and excluded from certain spaces has got me thinking about our awful segregation-era past, so I’ve been reading literature from that period to think about the complexities of passing as cis in our current society. So I’ve just finished re-reading Nella Larsen’s Passing and just read James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man for the first time.

I’ve also been thinking about the AIDS crisis and the gay rights movement in relation to the current climate around trans, so I finally got to the last book of essays by Paul Monette, one of my favorite writers from that period, Last Watch of the Night. He also wrote the AIDS memoir Borrowed Time, which I’m planning to re-read soon. But before that I’m planning to re-read a collection of Tagalog poems by Alejandro Abadilla for my dissertation; he’s one of the fathers of modern Filipino poetry.

In terms of favorite writers, eep, I have too many and they tend to shift over time. With contemporary authors I love Helen DeWitt (both Lightning Rods and The Last Samurai are feminist must-reads for different reasons), and I immediately read anything Alan Hollinghurst publishes. I’ll also be in line for Alexander Chee’s new book The Queen of the Night. Favorites from the past include Nathalie Sarraute and Aimé Césaire (who I’m still trying to understand in French), and of course Virginia Woolf. I once dressed up in full Renaissance costume for a presentation on Orlando, and the professor was so impressed that he exempted me from my mid-term paper for the class!

How do you feel about this newfound visibility, especially as a trans woman of color?

It’s still strange to be honest. I published my first trans-related piece for The American Prospect less than a year ago, and before then I was mostly living life as an obscure academic, so the idea of having an article of mine read by more than a couple dozen people is still jarring. In certain ways my visibility as a trans woman of color is less arresting to me given the amazing trail that has been blazed by trans women of color like Laverne Cox, Geena Rocero, and especially Janet Mock since she’s proven that it’s possible for women like us to be widely read.

Though all in all, I’ve come to prefer being the girl in the library rather than under the glaring lights. That said, being recognized for my writing is really gratifying, and it feels amazing when I hear from people who tell me they appreciate my work.

Has there been any backlash to your investigative reporting and personal essays? If so, how do you respond to it?

The only major backlash to my writing specifically has, disappointingly, come from trans-exclusionary radical feminists, which is particularly bizarre for me because I was feminist-identified way before I was trans-identified. So it’s galling when I was so encouraged to fight for women’s rights and talk about women’s issues when I presented as a man, then all of a sudden be accused of co-opting women’s spaces now.

There has been more of a negative response to my advocacy work for trans and women’s rights, the usual stuff from straight men deeming me unsuitable for sex, which is frankly more hilarious than hurtful, but the comments that probably affect me most are from the transmisogynist faction of the gay and lesbian community, which is not often talked about but is rampant and scary. Seeing marginalized people replicate oppression is deeply disappointing to me, especially when I was a member of that group for such a long time. Also, I’ve lost a fair number of friends, some of them close, because of my advocacy so I can’t pretend that doesn’t hurt.

At a personal level, I remind myself when things hurt emotionally that I’ve been publicly disclosed so recently and haven’t had time to adjust, so things will get better with time. I’m also fortunate to have amazing friends and loved ones so I don’t lack emotional support when I need it. And it’s a lot easier to whitstand the negativity when you know that you’re fighting for principles that are just, and that your work can potentially affect people’s lives in a positive way.

You’ve been pretty quiet about your life for a while. What inspired you to start telling your story and how does it relate to your survival?

I was really not expecting to be so private about being trans, but in my experience it’s an all or nothing proposition with gossip and Google so I resisted talking about it for a while. But I have a friend from grad school, Gabriel Arana, who became an editor for the Prospect and encouraged me to write about trans issues. I was actually emotionally ready way before I figured out what I wanted to say, because as much as other trans women have used the surprise of coming out as a platform, I didn’t feel comfortable with that for myself. It’s not really the fault of trans women but the media for continuing to advance this, “Oh my goodness she’s confident and attractive, can you believe she’s trans?” line of thinking, without acknowledging the transphobia behind the surprise, which goes something like: “Trans people in general are not confident and attractive.” So I wanted to publicly disclose in a context where my being trans is relevant, but where I had more to say than the spectacle or shock value of it, which took a little while to figure out.

Now that it’s happened it feels strange that I had to wait so long to feel like I have things to say, because I can’t seem to stop talking and I don’t have time to say all the things I would like. I’ve ended up writing personal essays, opinion articles, and investigative pieces, partly because I feel like there just aren’t nearly enough people to do the necessary work of representing trans people from our own perspective, maybe because so many of us are still too busy figuring ourselves out. I’m fortunate to have transitioned early enough to have the fortitude and perspective to represent our lives and I do feel a keen responsibility, as someone who survived the difficult experience of transition, to represent us so that I can contribute to making the world a more hospitable place for trans people and other marginalized groups.

We’ve seen quite a few hate crimes against trans women of color, and the media often isolates these reports from women’s issues. To me, this is a form of discursive violence. Have you ever come across these sorts of issues whether through microaggressions or incorrect labeling?

It’s definitely a major problem that trans women who have fought in life to be thought of as women are regularly represented in ways that isolate them from other women after they’re victims of such awful violence. One of the amazing things about working on the Jennifer Laude case in the Philippines for me (I wrote an article for VICE magazine) has been the degree to which women’s groups there have so strongly supported her and her specific identity as a woman, not seeing this as compromising but strengthening the movement for Filipina women’s rights. I don’t see enough of this among feminist groups in the United States especially given the violence that trans women of color are experiencing right now.

It disappoints me to see established feminists in major liberal publications with large readerships like Monica Potts defending the rights of women’s colleges to be trans-exclusionary, or Katha Pollitt objecting to expanding abortion-related organization language to be respectful to those who don’t identify as women, but are completely silent about the ways that trans women of color especially are regularly subjected to discrimination and violence in our culture. I feel like both of these perspectives are fueled by a myopic view that wants to protect cis women from trans people, when in fact trans people in our very existence challenges the patriarchy that cis women are working so hard to dismantle. We are not enemies but are rather strong allies and collaborators. And sure, it will take time to figure out how to fully incorporate trans women into larger feminist conversations and women’s spaces, but it’s so worthwhile for cis women as much as trans women, just like it’s worthwhile for women of other varied backgrounds to work together.

Do you see or foresee any type of shift in the ways in which cisgender and transgender people can interact through writing and art?

I feel like I’m in a good position to answer that question because so far, I’ve written only for venues that are neither trans nor LGBT-specific. I don’t object to writing for LGBT venues and wouldn’t hesitate to write for them in the future, but I’m also deeply invested in arguing for the mutual benefit of trans and cisgender people working together, and cis people learning from trans experience as much as trans people are fighting for our rights. You know in pre-colonial Filipino culture (before Europeans came and fucked it all up), trans women used to play the role of babaylan, who are spiritual leaders that facilitate between genders and members of communities. Not to be too romantic but I do recognize the spirit of that legacy in myself and the way I think about wanting to communicate across boundaries of identity.

That’s part of why I’m really motivated not just for cis people to view our lives as fascinating, but also as giving insight into the lives of all people, especially since gender is such an embedded assumption in our culture. I care deeply about feminism because, guess what, I know exactly and viscerally what it feels like to have opinions and ideas be automatically assumed to be sound as a man, but seen as inferior because they come from a woman.

There was this one time when the author George Saunders came to Cornell my first year of grad school and I asked him what his advice would be for writers who are just starting out. And he said something like, “You have to believe in yourself, especially a woman writer like you because people are less likely to take you seriously.” That’s a reality every woman feels, but try to imagine what that’s like when you know what it feels like to live the other reality, when you know from direct experience how people are *more* likely to take you seriously *just* because you’re a man. That moment didn’t cause me to miss my male privilege. It made me more determined to hone my perspective to help people become more aware of how gender inequality hurts everyone.

As a literary scholar, which texts would you recommend for those who would like to be more well versed in gender and body politics and why?

Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl is a must-read; it’s super-accessible and makes a ton of political sense so it’s basically just an overall wonderful work. I’ve also been deeply influenced by Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, which is not a trans text per se but nonetheless is so emotionally smart about what it means to grow up not conforming to established gender roles. There’s also this wonderful movie, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, which is available online and is about this transfeminine kid in the Philippines, and shows how radically different the culture is there about allowing male-assigned children to express femininity.

I also have to confess that I’ve been deeply and inexorably influenced by feminist and queer theory despite the fact that it’s not accessible to a lot of people. In a lot of ways, I see part of my job as writing about the lived experience that some of these theorists represent, in order to allow more people to be familiar with their ideas. So I’m ambivalent about the fact that it took a ton of academic work for me to gain insight from people like Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, and Hélène Cixous, but I also feel like abosrbing their writing has provided me with really strong critical tools to think and write about gender. And really, they’re not *so* inaccessible. For example, Cixous’ “Castration or Decapitation?” is so wonderful about specifying how women are forced into silence for fear of losing their heads. It’s especially relevant now becuase the essay has such a strong relationship to how men on the Internet so consistently try to intimidate women into shutting up. I have to confess that after I wrote the previous sentence I looked for examples of accessible writing by Haraway and Butler and couldn’t find any. This is the best I could come up with.

I’m most intrigued by your musings about the complexity of selfhood and identity. What does womanhood mean to you?

Womanhood to me is whatever we make it, how ever we as a collective society choose to invest in the differences in our bodies and what they’re supposed to mean about us. One of the blessings and curses of growing up in a different culture is that I am keenly aware of how so much of what we invest in gender is relative. And the way I navigate as a person who doesn’t believe in the inherent fixity of gender is to see how I would most feel comfortable in that social structure.

I’m not the type of woman who believes that there is something unchanging about me that makes me a woman. Mainly, I’m a woman because there are huge parts of me that have come to be coded in this culture as feminine, and that this culture makes so difficult to express unless I identify as a woman. Even when I identified as a gay man, I felt so much pressure to be masculine (no fats, no femmes, as the old gay adage goes), and I was only allowed to be feminine as a parody, which never felt right to me because I’ve never been interested in making fun of femininity. So to be the kind of feminine I wanted to be in this culture, I felt the need to identity as a woman and I don’t regret that decision because women are awesome.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

My PhD advisor might be reading this so I will say that I am planning to submit my dissertation on modern Philippine poetry in May, and will be trying to stay out of so many of the trans issues that are going on right now in the meantime (though I’m publishing pieces in the Guardian and Matter because I can’t help myself). Over the summer I’m going back to the Philippines to write a long feature for Buzzfeed, and am planning to finish a book of personal essays I’m working on that came out of a piece called “I Didn’t Know I Was a Boy” in Medium, which got read partly because the wonderful people at The Toast picked it up.  But I have to say that it’s *really* hard to write about the distant past when the present is happening to me and other trans people, so I’m really hoping things slow down a bit so I can catch up. Otherwise I may have to set aside the distant past for a while in favor of writing about the near past now. There’s a Proust reference in there somewhere probably, which is nice because it makes me seem all sophisticated and stuff. Now if I can only re-write A la recherche du temps perdu in the voice of Ayn Rand…

Morgan Jerkins graduated from Princeton with an AB in Comparative Literature. When she's not learning how to ballroom dance, she's working on an MFA in Fiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars.

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