Fairest, Meredith Talusan

(Buy it HERE.)

Although I did my official Pride Month wrap-up a few days ago, I didn’t mention one of the LGBTQIA+ themed books I read, simply because I’ve had such a hard time deciding what to say about it.

Is there a word for a book that everyone else seems to like, but you don’t? Part of my difficulty with deciding what to say about Meredith Talusan’s Fairest is that the book is so highly and critically acclaimed, yet I still didn’t like it much. Taste is subjective, of course, but it’s further complicated by the fact that I really wanted to like this book. Talusan’s Slate interview intrigued me and I was fascinated by the overwhelming singularity of her life experience–albino, child star, immigrant, trans woman, Harvard graduate. I was expecting to be immersed in her life, to truly see the world through a pair of eyes entirely unlike my own and thereby sharpen my own vision of the world a little bit.

But, I got none of that, and therefore–I didn’t like this book. I give it a smooth two stars–maybe three, if you push me. This book and its author are enormously complex and my feelings and thoughts about it only slightly less so–I didn’t hate the book, and there were some things I liked about it, so let’s start there.

The Good Stuff…

  1. Talusan’s life and experiences are entirely unique. While there are more than a few people in the Philippines born with albinism, and some of them are undoubtedly gay, transgender, or both, how many of them go to Harvard? How many of them have long, loving relationships with members of the British peerage? How many were child stars in the Philippines and came to the US to live in relative poverty not due to lack of earning power or opportunity but parental irresponsibility? How many of them are interns at the British library? And how many of them revel fully in experiences of life and sexuality as both a man and a woman? Meredith Talusan is extremely unique. This book was an complete and unexpected departure from my own life and I appreciated that quite a bit.
  2. Fairest avoids annoying trans and immigrant tropes. There are things we have been conditioned to expect from immigrant stories; slavish devotion to family, soppy gratitude for even the smallest American-style material comforts(“Let me tell you about my first taste of Wonder Bread!”), and awkward fish-out-of-water mishaps with culture and language and education. There are other things we’ve been taught to expect from transgender stories, like crippling body dysmorphia, gender confusion, revelatory physical transformations, and a host of other difficulties. Talusan’s experience remains singular in that if she did experience any of those things, she makes the bold choice to not talk about them much, if at all. When she does, she approaches from atypical angles. Immigration is almost a non-event in the book–the narrative skips from her first day in the US in her early teens to her arrival at Harvard with little mention of the years in between. Similar time skips are made around her gender confirmation process–it’s not so much an event as an inevitability. Instead, Talusan focuses more on her own internal life and perceptions of the world and as a result, writes herself as her own steadfast normal in a way that I really respect and want to see more of from writers of all types. She isn’t self-conscious at all, and I like that.
  3. The narrative is honest. Talusan has said in interviews that she has no interest in portraying herself as a lily-white (ha), flawless protagonist triumphing over a hostile world. I definitely respect the honesty–Talusan presents herself very vulnerably and openly, warts and all. But while I respect her refusal to lionize herself, I didn’t enjoy the results much. I suppose that brings me to…

The Not-So-Good…

  1. Meredith Talusan sounds like terrible company Some memoirists are able to write about themselves in a way that makes the reader even more intrigued about who they are despite their flaws. (Think Samantha Irby, Marcus Samuelsson, Holly Madison, even Arnold Schwarzenegger). Talusan does the opposite, writing herself as unrepentantly vapid, venomous, self-absorbed and mean. The weird thing is that she doesn’t seem particularly aware that that’s how she’s coming across–she seems to be under the impression that she’s genuinely beautiful and special, an attractive, magnetic Harvard blonde among Harvard blondes. But her page persona is someone I’d ignore entirely in real life–mean girls are boring. Instead of wanting to take her for a drink and get the stories behind her story, I mostly just felt sorry for the friends, family and lovers she writes about, for having to put up with her. I felt the same way about Eat, Pray, Love. Despite the book’s popularity, Elisabeth Gilbert wrote herself as a vacuous, selfish person who only saw other people as functionaries in her journey to become whatever she wanted to be, and that ultimately turned me off of the book–that’s not a fundamentally interesting story, for me. Selfish people who talk about themselves a lot are a dime a dozen. Talusan does the same, and while it may not be true to her in reality (and to be fair, I doubt it is ) it’s still not a joy to read. I can go to my local bar and listen to somebody tell tales of staring at themselves in mirrors and trying to steal their best friend’s boyfriend but I don’t. Why give that person an audience unless they’re a really great story-teller? But that brings me to…
  2. The writing could be better. I’m aware that Meredith Talusan is a Harvard-educated journalist, photographer, and bonafide member of the literati. I’m also aware that I am a largely unpublished nobody writing this on a blog only a few people read but look, let me keep it real. The writing of this memoir is underwhelming. From the reviews I was expecting some truly toothsome prose, some delicious craft I could really savor and immerse myself in. Instead,I got some flat, dry, competent but ultimately empty-seeming words that I can barely chew, let alone swallow. If I hadn’t been reading folks like Ocean Vuong, Rakesh Satyal and Bernardine Evaristo so much this year perhaps I’d have been less underwhelmed, but I was expecting PROSE and got prose instead. I read books for the writing(duh) and aside from some clever tricks of narrative, Fairest is largely functional. It’s serviceable but not up to the standard of what I was expecting. And speaking of what I was expecting…
  3. This book is far too complicit with the things it claims to be interrogating. There’s an anecdote shared in this book that made me extremely uncomfortable in a way that was perhaps not intended. Talusan, pre-transition, on one of her rare trips home to the Philippines, decides to hire a young sex worker and pretends to be a rich white American during the encounter. Talusan recounts how impressed the boy is by her physical whiteness, her relative wealth, and how desperate he is to please her. The entire encounter seems meant to revel in Talusan’s earned power and explore the difference in station imbued by skin color privilege, nationality and education. It does that, but it also comes across as cruel, full of projection and frankly–delusional. Large portions of the book rely on Talusan’s claim that she passes, first as a white man, then as a white cis woman. Girl, I guess so. I have to say that when I first saw Talusan in an interview, long before I knew who she was or her story, she appeared undeniably Asian and transgender to me despite her albinism. Are we really supposed to believe that she travels through the world entirely unclockable, a perfectly created white woman reaping the benefits of such? Nobody perceives anything but her literal skin color? I don’t buy it. (Although it’s perhaps worth pointing out that I’m Black, and Talusan notes in the book that Black people she encountered in real life generally saw through whatever social projections she attempted. She also assumes that they experience the world as hollowly as she does, which is problematic, to say the least.) Yet the book is full of comments on the author’s pretensions of whiteness and cisgenderedness, and there’s a pervasive sense of superiority in her assumed ability to pass. The interviews and reviews that piqued my interest in this book make much out of the idea that Talusan is interrogating her privilege and difference by telling her story in this way. If by “interrogating” we actually mean complying with harmful and oppressive ideas out of a desire to assimilate with whiteness and gender norms to the point of self-delusion, then I guess Fairest succeeds. But from my own critical perspective, I’m honestly creeped out by Talusan’s largely unexamined assumptions that whiteness, straightness, “conventional” beauty and wealth are synonymous with desirability and success. There is never a point where Talusan seems to enjoy and accept herself outside of how she is externally perceived,and it’s rather sad. Colorism and complict prejudice in Asian contexts has been whopping me over the head in books lately, most recently in Whiter and The Poppy War, but it’s taken to a new extreme here simply because it isn’t interrogated enough. Talusan’s self-characterization lacks depth and so do her attempts to explore how colorism and other issues of privilege and power really affect her life and the lives of others around her, despite that being a stated theme of the book. Instead of being revelatory, her experience largely comes across as compliant and complicit–and that complicity renders the singularity of her experience dull and useless, for literary purposes. I’m also a bit bothered at how Talusan’s career seems to depend at least partly upon the language of minoritization, oppression and struggle but her experience seems to be one that benefits from buddying up and reinforcing oppressive structures of privilege. Instead of interrogating privilege and power, Talusan is simply trying to co-opt them for herself, sometimes in ways that seem dishonest and two-faced. Some people might find that brave, realistic and analytical. I simply find it unpalatable.

Two stars and a heavy dose of truth serum to Meredith Talusan’s Fairest.

(Thanks for reading, beautiful people. If you want to see a list of memoirs I did enjoy, check out this Bookshop list. Also,now is the perfect time to tell you that this blog is an affiliate of Bookshop and if you click and purchase anything from a link you find here, I earn a commission. Peace!)

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