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New memoir explores race, gender and albinism

In "Fairest," journalist Meredith Talusan recounts immigrating from the Philippines to the U.S. and gender transition.
Author Meredith Talusan.
Author Meredith Talusan.Albrica Tierra

Things were different in the United States.

Meredith Talusan explained to her distressed grandmother over the phone that while it was acceptable for men to wear women's clothing and makeup in the Philippines, doing so in America could get people beaten up or killed.

"Why can't you just dress like a girl sometimes?" her grandmother asked. "Why do you have to change your name?"

It was difficult for Talusan's grandmother to understand that her grandson was becoming a woman.

"I loved you so much," her grandmother said in tears.

The memory is one of many that Talusan recounts in her memoir, "Fairest," which was released Tuesday.

"Fairest" by Meredith Talusan.Viking

The woman "who promised me she would always love me was talking about that love as though it were in the past," she wrote. "The rejection rippled through me, and I had to get off the phone for fear that she would say something else we would both regret."

Talusan, a journalist who is executive editor of Condé Nast's LGBTQ site, "them," said the idea of writing a memoir came after she had wrapped up writing multiple investigative stories about Jennifer Laude, a Filipina trans woman who was killed by a U.S. Marine. She said reporting on Laude so intensely for so long prompted her to reflect on her own experiences as a Filipina trans woman and made her want to tell her own story.

"Fairest" is divided into three parts, which focus on Talusan's life in the Philippines as an albino and migration to the United States, her time as a man at Harvard University and her transition to womanhood.

Talusan lived in the Philippines until she moved to California at 15 with her family. Growing up with fair skin and blond hair in a country where colorism remains because of Spanish colonialism, she was always the center of attention. It was a sharp contrast to her experience with albinism when she moved to the U.S., where those physical attributes weren't unique.

She described herself as a fresh-off-the-boat stereotype during her high school years, because she had a thick Filipino accent and imperfect grammar and wore the wrong clothes.

"Over the span of those years was really when I, as a coping mechanism, studied as much as I could what it meant to be American. And to me that meant being white," she told NBC Asian America. "I was supposed to take extra math and science classes, but instead I took all English and journalism classes, because I was just not going to allow myself to be treated as inferior."

While she knew she was white-passing because of her albinism, Talusan wrote in her book that at times she also imagined herself as white. She relied on that perception to strengthen her belief that she could do well in America.

"I've had the flexibility, as somebody who is perceived as white, to be able to behave in whatever ways I want, without people necessarily stereotyping me and judging my behavior," she said.

The ideas of whiteness and feminine beauty, along with fairness and justice in how each person lives with a different set of privileges — all of which are explored throughout the book — helped shape the title of Talusan's memoir.

"I'm in a really unique position as somebody who has a really unexpected set of advantages and disadvantages," she said. "I am albino and therefore partially blind, but I'm also white-passing. I am a first-generation immigrant who went to Harvard. So I felt like that became the third side of the triangle of concerns that 'Fairest' ended up becoming."

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Talusan said she credits having successfully navigated the intersection of her identities as an immigrant, an albino and a gender-nonconforming person to a confidence rooted in her childhood, partly because of the praise she got for her appearance and intelligence.

"I didn't grow up with a sense that there weren't things that I couldn't do in the world, despite all of these disadvantages," she said. "Despite the fact that I couldn't see very well and despite the fact that other people perceived me as freakish."

That confidence, she said, was unshakable even after she arrived in the United States and encountered what she described as a more virulent and toxic bullying culture.

Talusan said she hopes her memoir can help other young Filipino Americans who may be struggling to navigate their identities.

"I'm definitely hoping that in some way my story, having a more direct relationship to their experience, can allow them to feel a certain kind of identification that they wouldn't otherwise feel," she said.

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