Skip to main content

Fairest: A Memoir


Fairest: A Memoir

Nothing of existence is binary, and Meredith Talusan excavates the complicated intersections of her own identity in this exquisite, unapologetic gem of a memoir.

FAIREST is close to linear, but shifts back and forth through time and place as Talusan explores the fluidity and construction of her experience. She was born in the Philippines and lived mainly in the small village of Talacsan as a child. Her parents sent her to be raised by her grandmother, because she was born “anak araw” --- a sun child, an albino. She details how she was chosen to act on a Philippine TV show as the child of Redford White, who was also albino. This experience and her exposure to American TV and media encouraged her, in tandem, to idolize America and whiteness while reckoning with the fact that her white skin and blond hair granted her privilege. As she reflects on her time in Manila, Talacsan, California and eventually Harvard, Talusan navigates her journey toward self-understanding and self-perception.

"Its complexity is rewarding, not only because of Talusan’s powerful, vibrant language, unique perspective and fresh, self-aware voice, but because of what she refuses to answer. Nothing of existence is binary, but this poignant book is wholly triumphant."

The Philippines was and is colorist, a direct product of its white colonialism under Spanish and then US rule. As white colonizers stripped the Philippines of its name and identities again and again, indigeneity became associated with inferiority. To this day, whiteness is desirable to the point that skin and hair lightening products are heavily prevalent. So the albinism that, as Talusan says, should have disabled her from birth instead gave her the experience of growing up in an all-brown country that idolizes proximity to whiteness --- and when she arrived in America, the experience of “passing” as a European or “exotic” white person, instead of the charged oppressions that come from walking this country as a brown person. Talusan also explores how, when she began to shift towards wanting to be perceived as a woman, her albinism allowed her to do so with greater ease than had she had the dark brown skin and eyes of the rest of her family.

Typically, race precludes sexuality in terms of immediate privilege, though it goes hand in hand with gender presentation. For example, a violent bigot can and will threaten a queer Black person just for being Black, without knowing their sexuality, and a queer nonwhite person who is overtly trans or gender nonconforming will be perceived differently from a cis-passing queer white person. But Talusan’s specific identity means that, though she is a Filipino immigrant, she is racialized as a white woman, with all the privileges that entails.

Talusan’s journey of gender is also not binary, or linear, and inextricable from her race and skin color. She reckons with the fact that, though she did not experience the specific traumas of girlhood that many women live through, her experiences as a young person who was not a boy, who experimented with gender expression, opened her up to much of the same dangers. In the Philippines, bakla --- people assigned male at birth who are gay or do not identify as male --- aren’t entirely uncommon, and their experience is different from trans womanhood in the US. Because of her fair skin and hair, Talusan found that she could be perceived as a beautiful woman, as opposed to the greater struggles she may have had were she dark.

She also evokes the painful, specific experiences she’s had with her loved ones along her journey. Her grandmother was accepting of the fact that she had a boyfriend, for example, but not of her name change. Her father wanted to make sure that if she was to be a woman, she’d be beautiful. A long-term partner who dated Talusan when she identified as a gay man no longer wanted to be with her as she transitioned --- though upon reflection, in the contact they’ve had since, she wonders if he still feels the same way, if he still believes it matters so much.

My experience with FAIREST is a unique one. I am Filipino and Jewish --- my father from Eastern Europe, and my mother from a village in the Philippines only a few hours from where Talusan was raised. Talusan emphasizes throughout that she typically passes as a white woman, but I immediately recognized her as a queer or trans Filipina --- because as a queer white Filipina myself, I spend so much of my life looking for others like me. She and I do not have the same identity, nor do we have the same relationship to race, but I know what it is to live with a racial identity that white people do not immediately know how to code.

Talusan describes how, even when they hear she’s Filipino, white people can make racist or prejudiced comments because her whiteness means that white people still feel a level of camaraderie and comfort with her, and I feel that experience in my marrow. To hear white people speak of your own people, your own family, your own blood, as if you don’t belong to it, because in their mind, you do not, and that’s all that matters to them. Conversely, to not look like you belong when among your own family --- when Talusan returns to the Philippines, she knows she is not only white but also, irretrievably, American. There is an overlapping privilege and grievous isolation that doesn’t fit neatly into our constructions of race. 

I read as many books by Filipino and Fil-Am writers as I can, and I’ve loved so many, but there are countless more stories to tell, and I’m so grateful that Talusan breaks this ground. Her intimate interrogation into race, sexuality, gender, desire and love is a fierce, vulnerable, refreshing narrative. She never positions herself as the hero. She leans into the intricacies of her truth, her mistakes and her hurts, the messy work of loving others and loving oneself. And as she writes from a place that defies so many labels, she evidences both the porous permeability and imposed impermeability of perception and expectation.

Please read FAIREST. Its complexity is rewarding, not only because of Talusan’s powerful, vibrant language, unique perspective and fresh, self-aware voice, but because of what she refuses to answer. Nothing of existence is binary, but this poignant book is wholly triumphant.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on May 29, 2020

Fairest: A Memoir
by Meredith Talusan

  • Publication Date: June 8, 2021
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0525561323
  • ISBN-13: 9780525561323