Fairest: A Memoir. By Meredith Talusan (Viking 2020)
Reviewed by P.A Huff
Autobiography is the most personal genre and the most generous. By definition it favors the up-close gaze. It is the fruit of self-absorption but also the turning of self-centeredness to purposes far beyond narcissism. Ancient writers, who rarely saw their reflection, spoke of the first-person narrative as a kind of mirror for the reader. For centuries, we have been entranced by the near magical link between someone else’s self-disclosure and our own self-empowerment. The Latin for looking glass, speculum, is related to a broad family of intriguing spin-offs such as speculation and introspection but also respect and, charmingly, even spice. Meredith Talusan’s memoir, well seasoned with sharp intelligence and rare powers of awareness, is a courageous gift of self that delivers keen insight into the mystery of visualizing who we are and who we long to be.
Her story, though tapping perennial themes, is one that could occur only in the liminal zone where twentieth and twenty-first centuries meet. Its dramatic logic requires, among other things, sitcoms, pay phones, newspaper ads, clunky computer monitors, universities gradually learning to honor real diversity, and a global American colonial empire. It is especially a story that exemplifies intersection. Economic disparity, nationalism, immigration, gender, and a phenomenon called whiteness converge in Talusan’s experience to forge a narrative unforgettably unique. The book begins with a twenty-year Harvard reunion and ends with reunions of other kinds—an impromptu meeting with a former partner after decades of separation and an unscheduled rendezvous with the haunting question of happiness, its causes and measures. In between, Talusan offers exquisitely constructed reflections on her life as a child actor in the Philippines, a gay man and queer radical in the Ivy League, and a young professional crossing oceans and navigating gender transition.
Reflection, both psychological and optical, functions as the unifying device for the memoir. Talusan is a superb storyteller, and the people in her story, portrayed with expert precision, linger in the mind long after the last page is turned. But the book is much more than memories and episodes from a remarkable life. Fairest is an invitation to consider the dynamics of perception, seeing and being seen, at the heart of human self-understanding. Mirrors, in myth often the locus for riddles, appear throughout the text—in the bathroom of a childhood Filipino home, a dorm room in Harvard’s historic Adams House, a lover’s Beacon Street flat, a London men’s bath house. Each creates a bridge “made of light” for Talusan’s daring voyages into unscripted identity. The near-mystical images of the seer leaning into the shining plane are rendered even more compelling by the author’s lifelong myopia, a condition related to her albinism. For Talusan, recognized in her culture of origin as a “sun child” because of her fair hair and skin, ethnicity, gender, and social location are cognate dimensions of selfhood sometimes clear, sometimes unfocused, sometimes distorted, always evolving.
Talusan’s work is an unstinting venture in self-examination, worthy of serious attention. Her voice is magnetic and welcoming, her perspective at once intimate and universal. We see ourselves in her multiple mirrors. Laced with confidence and candor, the memoir reminds us just how fragile in composition and unpredictable in course every project of human selfhood really is. The book also underscores the importance of viewing all experience through the lens of what Kimberlé Crenshaw calls Intersectionality. But Fairest does not trade in academic theory. Readers seeking a tract on gender or race or cultural displacement will have to look elsewhere. Talusan’s account, like her life, is first and foremost a work of art. It is a rich contribution to a canon of writings redefining first-person literature. With liberal attention to fugitive images of identity and stunning control of her craft, Talusan’s Fairest illuminates uncertainties on both ends of the bridges of light.