BORN AN ALBINO BOY in the Philippines, Meredith Talusan always had a knotty relationship with gender, race, and sexuality. Her debut memoir, Fairest, recounts her experience as white-passing and transgender in the Philippines and the United States, her movement from a turbulent family life to an arrival in the United States permeated by the power of whiteness to the unveiling of a gender-bending emotional landscape.
A founding editor of them. — Condé Nast’s LGBTQ+ publication — and an award-winning journalist, Meredith Talusan structures her memoir into loosely chronological sections: childhood, Harvard, romance, and independence. At the book’s outset, Talusan goes back to Harvard for an undergraduate reunion, an experience that makes clear the whiteness of the Harvard community and how the institutional structure of that whiteness hovered even on the outskirts of the social sphere. Now fully transitioned and comfortable in herself, Talusan engages with the people who knew her under a different name:
The words “you look the same” lingered in my mind, and I wondered whether I could imagine myself with a man’s face, knowing that for many years now, I only saw a woman’s face when I looked in the mirror, and it had taken so much sacrifice to bring that reflection into being.
She’ll come back to this mirror, and each time the mirror would tell her something new about herself. The mirror, stand-in for the gaze of others and the gaze she places onto herself, orbits Talusan’s experience of difference. The author is well versed in juggling competing feelings of sameness and difference. In her first memories of life in the Philippines, Talusan tactfully examines her experience growing up with white skin and blond hair in a place where such an appearance made her stand out as a Western ideal. “Those other kids aren’t white like you,” says her Nanay Coro. “And when she said white, puti, I could tell she also meant beautiful, intelligent, better, more special.” Born anak araw — the Tagalog word for albino, which the author translates as “sun child” — Talusan’s whiteness set her up for greatness abroad while fixing her in a comforting and unsettled displacement in her hometown. As a young boy, Talusan knew she was meant to go overseas to the United States and make a life there: “Nanay Coro told me that as soon as she held me in her arms, she was sure I was a blessing. She refused to allow anyone to talk to me any other way, especially because I was destined to live in America, the richest of countries.”
It’s this whiteness that enabled Talusan to become a child star cast on a prominent television show. She spent countless hours watching television shows where she learned to mimic white masculinity and perform a racial identity that differed from hers, but that appeared natural to the unknowing observer. Performing whiteness was a full-time job and was the form through which Talusan could imagine herself as not merely different, but as exceptional.
It took years to convince myself that I was not the aberration other people wanted me to be, but was instead practically the same as the Americans I watched on TV. […] America began to form itself on the other side of my mirror with a version of me inside it. I began to see a white American boy in my reflection, even as I was a Filipino anak araw in my daily life. […] The mirror became a bridge toward the wondrous place I was destined to inhabit, a fantasy that my white skin made real.
But it isn’t until Talusan’s family decides to make the move to the United States that the author truly realizes her place within the American imaginary she had spent years creating. When she moves to Los Angeles in 1990, Talusan begins to negotiate the gap between expectation and reality. In the city that produces the global vision of American identity, Talusan comes to understand the gap between the image of life in the United States and its reality, realizing that she’d left behind the variety of the Philippines for a place where everything was more and more the same.
I came from a place with varied shapes, patterns, and colors wherever I looked, a culture and history I knew. But this place seemed devoid of distinctiveness; everything looked so similar, a variation of the same mold, be it the roads or houses, even the cloudless sky.
Unfortunately, these are the scant moments that address Talusan’s adjustment to life in Los Angeles, as the book quickly skips over those three years. However, the author gives readers a sense of how the above complications would inform a new relationship to whiteness and sexuality at Harvard.
At university, Talusan picks up her story at her discovery, among countless other things, of the possibilities of gay and lesbian studies, the advent of queer theory in academia, and the liberatory textures of homoerotic language. In class with D. A. Miller, Talusan grapples with the stakes of coming out of the closet as a gay man. “I had promised myself I would come out of the closet as soon as I got to college,” Talusan explains, “but there was still a gigantic part of me that was invested in being seen as someone whose life was unassailable.” At the same time, Talusan sees early 1990s AIDS activism firsthand, participating in kiss-ins and protests for rights and justice. As these two realities fuel her studies, she also enjoys what her white-passing skin makes available for her in sexual encounters and friendships. “[F]or someone like me, whose whiteness was literally skin deep, who did not have any actual European ancestry, to be perceived as white could only mean that whiteness is nothing more than an illusion,” Talusan reflects.
Thinking whiteness as illusion, Talusan plays with what passing means as subversion and limit. How far can she assimilate in a white-dominated space? In a queer space? And, on the flip side, how far can she reclaim her Filipino identity? “[W]herever I was, I was only a shell of myself. I was already a shell when people thought I was white,” she observes, “but even if someone could tell I was Asian, they couldn’t see the life I led, the struggle it took to come to America and be the person I became. What they saw was a fetish in the most basic sense.” Neither at home in the white space of academia nor in her own body, Talusan must grapple with a fear of being discovered and discredited for her complexity.
I submitted myself so completely to Harvard’s norms, ones that were defined by centuries of white elitism, that over time, the distinction between who I was — a Filipino person who looked, sounded, and acted white — and a person who was actually white became more and more uncertain, even to myself. Yet my difference continued to burn inside me, as I wondered constantly whether people could tell I wasn’t white and whether they’d judge me inferior if they found out I was Filipino.
The fear of discovery propels the narrative of Talusan’s journey and her search for love and safety. It’s in Ralph Wedgwood, a British baronet-turned-philosopher who introduces her to academia’s high ranks at the time, that Talusan “finds home.” Talusan writes of their deep passion for one another, their mutual love of philosophical questions, and the experience of building an open relationship. But despite such passion, Talusan feels something else at the precipice of expression. As she develops feelings for Richard, a man who works in the building where she is taking a photography class, she realizes that these feelings came from the woman inside her; that she loves Richard as a woman even as she loves Ralph as a man. “I didn’t notice the moment when, for the first time, I fantasized about being a woman with a man who was real. I wasn’t in love with two people. I was in love as two people.”
Once Talusan realizes this, she begins to experiment with gender. As part of a photography project, she decides to only wear women’s clothes and hone her ability to pass in almost all social situations as a woman. This experiment revealed itself as the manifestation of a personal truth and beauty that she had never previously allowed to surface. She writes, “I didn’t always feel that the woman’s voice inside of me was benevolent. Released after a lifetime of hibernation, she could be selfish and rapacious, able to justify any action through the sheer enormity of her desires.” Upon realizing the force of her newfound identity, Talusan engages in an unapologetic discovery of the self that sees no limits.
As it plunges into the complexities of how race is woven into sexuality and gender, Fairest attests to an inexhaustible performativity of identity. Talusan masterfully traces the narrative of her life, from the departure from and sporadic return to her homeland to the myth of an American Dream that only requires dreamers to sustain its false reality, to the heartbreaks that let her revel in her idiosyncratic uniqueness, to the transgressive and gender-bending art practices she developed at Harvard and beyond.
I’d read that each snowflake had a crystalline pattern all its own, but to me it just looked like a delicate white circle tinted blue, in contrast to the pinkish hue of my skin. […] I felt a tinge of self-pity for being blind to the uniqueness of snowflakes but consoled myself with my singular perspective, how snow to me could only mean a gathering of entities that were all alike.
Ultimately, Fairest rejects the prescriptive qualities of the gender/sex system and functions as a rallying cry for whiteness to be rethought of as a blank canvas, as a snowflake.
Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014.