The short review: Written with precision and deep consideration, Fairest expands on the conversation of identity and gives a language to those looking for a way to articulate their exploration of gender. This memoir is not only a gift, but a true work of art.
The Long Review: Last year, I made the decision to seek out more queer stories. I’d only read four queer books in my life, and realized that my idea of queerness—of myself—was so narrow because I’d had such limited exposure. With every book, I felt closer to an answer that I didn’t know I was searching for. There was some imaginary voice saying ‘warmer, warmer…you’re almost there’, and it wasn’t until I discovered Fairest that I realized what it was.
Fairest encompasses so much in its narrative, it’s hard to classify; it’s a coming-of-age story that explores Talusan’s time raised as a boy in the Philippines—including the experience of being a child actor, but it also explores her experience immigrating to the U.S. at fifteen, her time at Harvard, and her exploration of race, disability, and gender, eventually leading us to her finally living openly as a transgender woman. This book could be marketed as many different types of stories, but I think the reality is, this is just the story of a woman’s life in its entirety.
This all-encompassing narrative was one of my favorite parts about the book. So often, especially when reading memoirs, I feel like we’re only exposed to one aspect of a person, the part of their story that’s palatable to a general audience. Talusan demands the space to be a full person, and in doing so, has written a more authentic and human piece.
Talusan skillfully explores identity in all of its iterations, but it’s the moments when she looks at the intersections of identity, examining herself within this framework, that I found myself thinking about the most. She looks at what it means to be ‘white passing’, as a Filipinx with albinism, and the privilege that affords her—and through her examination, she reveals aspects of privilege that continue to be blind spots for white people (myself included). This parallels her experience of transitioning, looking at what it means to present as more stereotypically feminine, to figure out what expression of gender feels most comfortable and authentic. Talusan shows how these aspects of identity intertwine, writing:
“Barrett’s words kept playing in my head, ‘I don’t see you as trans,’ coupled with ‘I can’t tell you’re Asian.’ The way he looked at me was exactly what I’d honed over many years, this trick of perception, and it puzzled me that I was dissatisfied over having accomplished it, a state of being so many trans women sacrifice so much to achieve.”
All of these moments are well observed and written with nuance. I think it could’ve been easy for this book to neglect language, to focus on story alone, but because Talusan takes the time to not only examine these experiences but carefully craft the prose, it elevates the book as a whole.
I never highlight my books, but upon my second reading of Fairest, I couldn’t help but mark up every other page. While this is a beautiful book on its own, the exploration of gender identity struck a chord with me, personally. I’ve spent years feeling like an infant just learning to talk, babbling away as I tried to explain to people the feelings that I had but couldn’t articulate. There are dozens of passages that put to words exactly what I’d thought or felt at different points in my life—to not only have the language for it now, but to know someone else has had the same thoughts and feelings, it’s healing.
One of the many moments that I appreciated was this one:
“I was supposed to have it better because I was a man. I was supposed to make my way in the world unencumbered. Yet reading that poem, I realized how little of myself was really mine, when so much of me had been molded by my desire to be worthy of other people’s approval. I keenly felt what it meant to be trapped between with nowhere to go, to never truly be alone, to never be seen as yourself even by the people you know best.”
It’s hard to explain just how comforting it can be to see someone articulating a feeling or experience, and exploring it, when you’ve spent so much of your life working within the more familiar cisnormative framework to try and get people to understand you. Books give us a deeper understanding of our own personal narrative. Somehow, our mind crafts its own blueprints using the structures, themes, and wisdom of the words we read, and it shapes our story and the way we see ourselves. When you’re queer, when your gender and your sexuality don’t fit into the ideas of cis straight people, you find yourself having to contort yourself into these ideas in order to feel like you have a story at all. Fairest has offered a new blueprint for those who don’t fit into the narratives we’ve been forced to navigate the confines of for so long.
Even months later, I’m still trying to explain why Fairest is such a blessing of a book to have out in the world. It’s beautifully written and well structured, filled with insight. It’s easy to marvel at this work from a technical level. But more than that, this book is going to offer many people the words they’ve been searching for. If you’ve ever sat alone in your room, not knowing how to tell people what you’re feeling and experiencing and just wishing you had the words, you’ll know how important a book like this is.
Fairest: A Memoir
By Meredith Talusan
322 pages. 2020.