Though I have never met Meredith Talusan in person, she seemed, one Tuesday in late April over Zoom, familiar to me, like we’d been in conversation already for a long time. Perhaps it’s because I’d just recently finished reading Fairest, her memoir. Perhaps it’s because Fairest is written with that kind of wrenching honesty and unflinching self-evaluation—often just embryonic or gestural in most other memoirs—that engenders a feeling of quiet intimacy with the writer. Perhaps it’s because her account of queer desire and trans longing felt adjacent to my own, as I am, like Talusan, a trans person who medically transitioned after graduating from Harvard. Her description of walking home, after a party, to her dorm down Mt. Auburn Street—wearing a dress in public for the first time—was a vertiginous aide-mémoire, returning me to the first time I wore boxers and a binder and a horrible pleather jacket, walking down Mt. Auburn Street, heading home by the same streets, a little more than a decade after Meredith did.
Fairest tracks transitions that aren’t visually perceptible, but are narratively indelible: transitioning from a boy to a nonbinary trans-feminine person; moving from a small village in the Philippines to Harvard; being mistakenly perceived as white because she is albino; unlearning overvaluations of whiteness and the desire to be perceived as white.
Over a quiet afternoon, we spoke about the tropes of trans memoir, recursive fantasy, the ethics of autobiographical representation, shame and narrative revision, and queer cruising.
Your memoir felt radically different from any other trans memoir I’ve encountered. Why did you choose the Proust epigraph about being imprisoned in the wrong body, which is a longstanding trope of these memoirs?
I was primarily interested in thinking about precedents, windows of existence around work that I’ve read before, with the understanding that different eras have had really different conceptions of gender. I was actually much more influenced, in certain ways, by James Baldwin, so I was looking for a Baldwin epigraph from Giovanni’s Room, but his work is even worse when it comes to portraying trans people. I felt that contextualizing the work of the present within the understanding of how people have seen gender in the past was important. Especially in Sodom and Gomorrah, how tortured that relationship to gender is, how during that period of time there was a much greater overlap in peoples’ conceptions of gender and sexuality. Where I come from, the Philippines, gender is contextualized in certain similar, though significantly less, phobic ways.
As soon as I asked that question I thought, well, you’re also working with familiar language, there’s rhetorical continuity in your work with mid- and late-century American trans-feminine memoir. I’m thinking of books like Christine Jorgensen’s A Personal Autobiography and Reneé Richards’s Second Serve, where language like “no longer a son,” or “the man I used to be” was used. I don’t see that anywhere now in contemporary memoir, other than in your book. What’s at stake for you in that move?