Self-Exploration Rather Than Explanation: An Interview with Meredith Talusan
Meredith Talusan is a Filipino-American author and journalist. Her memoir, Fairest, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and she’s the recipient of awards from GLAAD, the Association of LGBTQ Journalists, and The Society of Professional Journalists. She’s the founding editor of them., an award-winning platform covering what LGBTQ+ means today, where she continues to work as a contributing editor. She’s also a contributing editor to the literary magazine Catapult and sits on the board of Electric Literature. Their journalism has been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Nation, among other publications. They belong to the queer, trans, disabled, albino, Asian, and immigrant communities and currently teach at Sarah Lawrence and Antioch University’s MFA programs.
I met with Meredith via Zoom in March 2022 the night before she was heading to the Hambidge Center for a two-week writer’s residency. We spoke about queer temporality, teaching philosophies, cultivating community, the promising future of publishing, the joys of translating, and much more.
Kirby Chen Mages: Was writing a memoir something that you always knew you wanted to do, or did it come as a surprise to you at some point?
Meredith Talusan: Because of the fact that I did my MFA in fiction, I actually hadn’t read that many memoirs. But then I started as a staff writer for Buzzfeed News in the fall of 2015, and one of the first pieces that I wrote for them was a genre review of trans women’s memoirs. That was when I became interested. I think the main thing was feeling like, first of all, Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness, was the only memoir written by a trans woman of color in print at the time, so that really affected my perception of the genre. Then, also, the feeling that I wanted to write something that wasn’t framed as explaining what being trans is like to cis people, which I think has been the mode of trans memoirs for a long time—kind of out of necessity. I wanted to write a memoir that positioned cis people not as the people that I’m explaining myself to, but as observers in my life and as people who are witness to my experiences but are not people that I am in any way accountable to. That was something that felt important and still feels important. And I still write that way.
…I wanted to write something that wasn’t framed as explaining what being trans is like to cis people, which I think has been the mode of trans memoirs for a long time…
KCM: I really loved in your Paris Review interview how you said you approached the memoir as “explaining myself to myself.”
MT: It’s such a classic memoir mode, and yet, trans people, up until recently, have not been allowed to engage in it by the publishing industry. It’s been really gratifying to be able to be part of this movement towards trans personal writing that is in this mode of self-exploration rather than explanation to other people or to the majority.
KCM: The first time I read Fairest, I had just finished reading Torrey Peter’s Detransition, Baby, and in that book there’s a part on queer temporality that really stuck with me. Peter’s writes, “The flow of time and the epochs that add up to a queer life won’t correspond to the timeline or even sequence of straight lives.” It certainly feels like you’ve lived many lives, and I kept thinking about that in relation to queer time. But also, the second time I read Fairest, I noticed you mention that, growing up in the Philippines, there isn’t an emphasis on upward mobility, and how you’ve never felt the need to follow that type of trajectory.
MT: I do think that, in a lot of ways, both queer temporality and non-industrial Filipino temporality have really affected my life, in the sense that, in the Philippines, there isn’t as much of an emphasis on precocity. There isn’t as much of an emphasis on achievement at a particular age or staying on one track in order to get to some sort of pinnacle. That has certainly affected the trajectory of the way I work. I tend to do things because I like it. I move in artistic and intellectual directions because I’m being pulled. Over the past seven years or so, all of a sudden my interests have coalesced into something that externally resembles a successful career to people. It’s been really fascinating to shift from a person who other people perceived as having a ton of potential but not really following through, to a person who is perceived as having all of these interests and being able to speak to all of these different issues.
I do find it to be a puzzling aspect of American culture. It’s just part of the fabric of America. I tend to operate in a different system, which can be difficult sometimes because people have expectations of me that I don’t necessarily want to meet or follow. Although, for the past few years I have managed to focus on writing, which was very difficult. Even as a writer, I publish in multiple genres all the time. That’s always been my practice, but it also used to include dancing for a dance company and doing a photography project at the same time. Now I’ve actually managed to specialize to at least that degree.
I think, in terms of queer temporality, it’s true there are a bunch of factors: one of them is the expectations around marriage and children. Also, for trans people who undergo medical transition, we often end up mentoring people who are chronologically older than us. I transitioned in my early twenties, so I’m a veteran as a trans person, but at the same time, in one sense I’m a young person who is old trans, or a youngish person who definitely helped guide people who are significantly older than I am chronologically. Being judged through a white lens as an Asian has also meant that people often think that I’m a lot younger than I actually am, which has a ton of effects that we don’t necessarily think about, because in America, we judge aging by a default white standard. Just a week ago, I went out with my Sarah Lawrence students for drinks at a bar after class. Some of my students ended up talking to some couples outside of the bar. They were probably in their sixties, and they were like, “Oh, wonderful! Students at Sarah Lawrence…” And then one of my students was like, “Oh, no, she’s actually our professor.” And of course, it was just like, “You’re a professor? You’re so young.”
KCM: I can relate to that. Not the being a professor part, but definitely the age thing. Can you talk about the online writing community you started called Fairest Writer?
MT: Fairest Writer was a project that began spontaneously in March of 2020, during the height of the pandemic. Like a lot of people during that period, I was doing things like redistributing funds and funneling donations in various ways. It caused me to think about the fact that there needs to be this match between the causes that one wants to advocate for and one’s own personal passions and talents. For a long time, my activism took the form of writing about the trans community as a columnist and essayist. As my work has moved more towards memoir and fiction, my writing isn’t as explicitly political as it used to be. When the pandemic came along, I was thinking about what things I’m most passionate about, and one of those things is access to knowledge, because it’s one of the biggest barriers that prevents writers from disadvantaged backgrounds from being able to enter these rarefied spaces of media and publishing.
As my work has moved more towards memoir and fiction, my writing isn’t as explicitly political as it used to be.
I woke up one day being like, it’s so weird that I’ve spent so much time feeling like I’m on the outside looking in, and now I’m in the middle. At the time, I was an executive editor at Conde Nast, who was just about to publish a book through Penguin Random House. And it was like, this is as middle as it gets. That was when I realized I have all of this knowledge that I’ve coalesced, and I started teaching Zoom workshops for free. That evolved organically into a community. Volunteers other than me organized a Facebook group that now numbers about 500 people, which is such a perfect number. We have 500 people in the Facebook group, we have a couple of thousand people on the email list, and I love that about it. I love that it’s a project that doesn’t aim to conquer the world. It doesn’t have a venture capital “we have to disrupt everything” mentality. It’s just an intimate group of people talking about writing and sharing information with each other. Over time, I’ve invited friends and colleagues to do workshops. We usually do a workshop series twice a year that covers everything from editor panels, the process of getting a book deal, pitching, and getting an agent. It’s been really wonderful that it’s all open and free, and there’s no barrier to access as long as you have Zoom and the internet.
KCM: Maybe I’ll drop out of Antioch and I can just join that group. [Laughter.]
MT: Well, the problem, however, is it’s very hard for me to give one-on-one feedback, which I was really missing. I hadn’t taught for a few years, except for residencies. When the publication period for Fairest had died down, it was really great timing that the wonderful Victoria Chang out of the blue said, “Hey, are you interested in teaching?” And I was like, “Why, yes. I am interested in teaching.” It’s been really wonderful being able to spend significant amounts of time working with students one-on-one.
KCM: Compared to other teaching experiences, does Antioch stand out in any way?
MT: One of the things that’s been really heartening for me has been seeing how structurally committed Antioch is to social justice, because I have had a lot of experiences where institutions have certainly espoused social justice on paper, but when confronted with issues surrounding social justice have not necessarily lived up to their own principles. For me, it’s very important to promote an environment that does not repeat the toxic dynamics that I was exposed to earlier in my career when I wasn’t on the powerful end of the institutional ladder.
KCM: In Minor Feelings—which we read together as a group under your mentorship this semester—Cathy Park Hong wrote about the differences between her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where there was this obsession with modernism, and post-Iowa when the multicultural trend of the nineties emerged, and then how that disappeared and went back to modernism in the early 2000s. I feel like, when I was an undergrad from 2004 to 2009, it was very much a modernist experience, where we were not supposed to talk about our identities or anything like that. I wonder how to maintain what’s happening now, or what’s only beginning to happen in some institutions, in terms of conversations around social justice and within that: gender, racial constructs, and class.
MT: It’ll be pretty fascinating to see how those conversations evolve. I think one aspect that’s promising is that publishing is certainly increasingly less white and less straight, as is the country. It being less white also means that, not only are there more minority voices, but there’s much more of an emphasis on plurality. There isn’t this overarching assumed aesthetic that everybody is supposed to follow. I did a fiction MFA at Cornell, after having done a visual art MFA at California College of the Arts. Actually, the only reason I started writing fiction was because I moved to New York but didn’t have an art studio or a job yet and I wanted an artistic outlet. It was one of those things where one thing led to another. I was taking a beginning fiction class, and the professor encouraged me to apply for scholarships to writing conferences. I ended up at Sewanee where my mentor there, Alice McDermott, said, “What you’re writing is really a novel, and you should give yourself time to write it, so apply to MFA programs.”
When I entered my MFA program, I submitted stories that corresponded to a particular kind of aesthetic. I was expecting to enter the program and then do a bunch of other experiments, because this was what my visual art MFA experience was like. I had been doing a bunch of really random, crazy things, so it was interesting to then be told, “Oh, wait, no. You entered writing a particular kind of short story, and that’s the kind of short story that we’re expecting from you.” At the time, that was very shocking and difficult for me. One of the things I hope and I see for myself as a professor is an openness—that if somebody is working in a vein that I’m not necessarily as familiar with, or is not necessarily an aesthetic that I personally practice, that doesn’t mean that I would try to steer them towards my own aesthetic interests. I feel like meeting students on their own terms is something that is very important for me as a professor.
KCM: I also saw on your website that you do translation. Is that something you’re actively doing now?
MT: I want to do more of it. When I was a grad student I did a reasonable amount of poetry translation. I was translating modern Filipino poetry into English. I would certainly love to do more of it, I just haven’t had time.
KCM: Add it to the list.
MT: Add it to the list of things that Meredith wants to do but doesn’t have time to do. As somebody who speaks Filipino and English equally well, there’s something really satisfying about being like, there’s this knowledge that an English speaking public doesn’t have and in the course of a couple of hours, I can transmit it to an English speaking public. Because of the fact that I’m a little bit removed from academic environments, or I have been since I shifted to editorial, it became harder to go to the library and go to the Philippines to familiarize myself with the modern poetry scene there, because these books, they’re not available at your local library. You have to be part of an institution that can order them, etc, etc. So since I stopped being a literature graduate student, it’s become harder, but I do want to get back to it.
KCM: I look forward to that in the future.
MT: One of the proudest translations I did was a Tagalog poem in rhyming verse into English, also in rhyming verse. I love doing stuff like that. And for the author to be like, “Ah, this is wonderful.” It’s really satisfying.
KCM: Are you still editing for them.?
MT: I’m still editing but not nearly as much as I used to. I’m still a contributing editor at them. and for Catapult. I also do some pinch behind the scenes editing for Electric Literature. I’m a board member, and we recently had an editor-in-chief change, so during that period I did editing for them. Part of the reason why I love editing for those literary journals is they both emphasize publishing new writers, which I feel really passionate about. It’s been really fun bringing new writers into this circle of publication. That’s something I hope to continue doing, even though it can sometimes feel a bit chaotic.
KCM: As someone who’s actively writing yourself, how do you make the time for your own writing and feel like you’re giving equal time to what you’re editing?
MT: Thankfully, I’m a very early riser. I usually write early in the morning before anybody’s up, so I usually have the bulk of my personal writing done before anybody expects me to do any editing. It’s early enough in the morning that I get it done. I write from about seven in the morning until eleven, sometimes earlier. In the afternoons, I do whatever it is that happens to be on my plate on that particular day. Sometimes it’s editing, sometimes it’s doing interviews, or giving talks, etc, etc. It doesn’t feel particularly disruptive. The only time I get really protective of my whole day is when I’m finishing up a project, because I need two sessions. I need a drafting session, and I need an editing session, so usually, that takes up my whole day. When I’m in that phase of a project, I try to protect a bit more of my time, which tends to involve either going to a residency or going abroad. Somehow, when you tell people that you’re not in the country, they don’t expect as much.
KCM: In Fairest, you wrote, “This is the story of my body, I hope that you can one day tell yours.” What’s your relationship between the body and writing?
MT: I am constantly thinking of ways to inhabit my body more fully. That has always been really integrated into my sense of writing and how I deal with texts and the products of my mind. I think they tend to work in complement with each other. One of the main ways that embodied practice helps me is it actually allows me to spend time not thinking about text, because it’s often the case that even when I know that it’s not healthy for me to be thinking about words all of the time, it’s very hard for me to prevent myself from doing that until I’m in the middle of an embodied practice. I do think that, because so much of my work deals with the way that my body interacts with the world, that sensibility then comes into my writing—especially my writing around disability and trans issues, and also race, as a white passing Asian person.
I do think that, because so much of my work deals with the way that my body interacts with the world, that sensibility then comes into my writing…
I grew up in a rural part of the Philippines where I feel like life is so much closer to the body. People are always running around. There isn’t standard furniture, so we’re all sitting on the floor, squatting everywhere, spending afternoons and early evenings climbing trees, and moving in this way that is not as prevalent in the United States, especially for adults. For me, embodiment has always been a really important part of my process as a writer. In some ways, that idea resists this trope of trans people hating or feeling trapped in our bodies. The world would like to label me as disabled because of my albinism, and I’m also trans, and yet, I absolutely relish my body. I love my body. I love doing things with it.
Kirby Chen Mages is a writer and interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. They currently attend Antioch University’s Low-Residency MFA program, where they are pursuing a dual concentration in poetry and creative nonfiction while serving as Lead Editor in Translation for Antioch’s literary journal, Lunch Ticket. They are the recipient of the Elizabeth Kray Poetry Prize, and their poems have been published in Prolit.