The transgender life story, whether fiction or nonfiction, is something of a genre unto itself, with its own lineage, traditions, and time-honored conventions. These include a preoccupation with a kind of fairy tale narrative told through the lens of literary realism. Within this storytelling framework, trans childhoods and comings-of-age are often marked by unhappiness or even abuse, as well as the dream of a better life in a different body and a distant land (or at least, a cosmopolitan urban center). Physicians and surgeons stand in for fairy godmothers or wicked witches, while cisgender lovers often play the part of Prince Charming.
In the mainstream cultural imagination, trans women’s heroic resilience in the face of adversity supposedly leads to either a happier, more authentic existence, or else a tragic, unfulfilled life. Reality, of course, is infinitely more complex, as award-winning journalist and editor Meredith Talusan reveals in her debut memoir, “Fairest.” An Ivy League-educated scholar of literature, Talusan deftly evokes the themes and motifs of “traditional” trans narratives, all the while refusing to settle for easy answers to the questions raised by a life lived beyond the conventions of gender, race, and class identity.
Though “Fairest” is Talusan’s debut book-length work, the author is well-known for her contributions to the growing canon of queer and trans literature, with bylines in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Buzzfeed, among others. She is also the cofounder of the Condé Nast publication them, a magazine entirely devoted to trans and gender diverse content.
It’s unsurprising, therefore, that “Fairest” pays homage in both style and structure to Talusan’s predecessors in the trans memoir genre. Shades of Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness” and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders,” as well as others, come through in the sharp, journalistic voice with which Talusan captures and studies her own life. Like the two aforementioned works, “Fairest” opens with an “inciting incident” that provokes the author to tell the reader her story — Talusan’s arrival at Harvard, her alma mater, for an alumnae reunion reception.
From there, the book proceeds to leap gracefully through time, sketching out what can only be described as an extraordinary life, even by transgender standards. Crisp, lucid prose belies the fairy-tale quality of Talusan’s lived experiences, which begin with her birth as an albino child in the Philippines, or as Talusan writes, “anak araw, a sun child, the strangest creature whose skin was so pale it glowed, and who couldn’t open its eyes except to squint, destined to be almost blind, an affront against nature.”
From there, Talusan’s story proceeds to become ever more larger-than-life, including a stint as a child star on a Filipino television show, undergraduate years spent as an activist and performance artist at Harvard, and a star-crossed romance with a British aristocrat (not to mention gender transition!). Yet like the best of trans memoirists, Talusan refuses the call to sensationalism and political proselytizing that so often characterizes writing about “different” or “exceptional” people.
Instead, Talusan spends much of the book focusing on the sensory, emotional, and relationship details that give texture to any life: The foods her doting grandmother makes for her, an embarrassing incident in a bathroom in middle school, the many flavors of love and sexual desire that blossom in adolescence and young adulthood. In such moments, Talusan’s spare, journalistic prose blossoms into a lyrical poeticism that further distinguishes “Fairest” as a work of literary nonfiction. Of saying farewell to her teenage crush before migrating to America, Talusan writes: “It was the last time I ever touched his flesh, smelled his skin, and I wondered if I would ever feel this kind of love, with someone who loved me the same way.”
Over the course of the book, Talusan sheds layer after metaphorical layer, excavating the landscape of her emotional life through the interwoven narratives of migration, love, sexual awakening, and transition. She resists any urge to glamorize herself or paint over unflattering details, as when she writes of her jealousy over her best friend’s partner:
“Once I started dressing as a woman, and as I confirmed my beauty through encounters with men, I developed a plan to take Richard away from Lenora and make him mine. I convinced myself that Richard and I would make the better couple, because we had so much more in common, as logically driven spirits who longed for creativity.”
By painting her life in such exquisite detail, Talusan breathes new life into the well-worn body of the transgender life story, showing the reader deep wells of complexity where, in a less truthful or less talented writer’s hands, oversimplification and cliché might reign. Talusan leans into the pain and heartbreak — as well as the beauty and hope — that have emerged from each of her choices, allowing her full humanity to shine through.
One of the historic restraints placed on transgender memoir is the imperative to explain or defend our lives to the non-trans population. Many trans writers have therefore played the part of educator, painstakingly explaining the “transgender condition,” or of the political agitator stirring up passion for the cause of trans liberation. Yet while Talusan is certainly politically aware, she is neither pedagogue nor polemicist. In “Fairest,” she grants herself the freedom to tell her story on her terms, which is a kind of magic all its own.
By Meredith Talusan
Viking, 320 pp., $27
Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, and community worker in Toronto. She is the author of several award-winning books, including the novel “Fierce Femmes and “Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir” and the essay collection “I Hope We Choose Love.”