This was the October selection for the Rad Roopa Book Club, a small, virtual gathering of educators founded by the very rad Roopa from Twitter! I suggested this book last year and was delighted to get to read it for book club. Fairest is a fair memoir. Meredith Talusan challenges us to dislike her, to judge her, to question her choices, and I really liked that.
Talusan was born in the Phillipines. Assigned male at birth, she has albinism, so her light skin marked her as different from the beginning. Talusan tells of her childhood, immigrating to the United States, and attending Harvard as (at the time) an out, gay man, passing as white. Eventually, after various attempts at relationships, Talusan makes the decision to transition. Along the way, she grapples with her racial identity, her relationship to her family members, and her obligations to her past.
I wanted to read this book because I want to read more memoirs by trans people whose experiences are quite different from mine. Talusan and I are both trans women, but she is a racialized immigrant to the US, and albino. While we both transitioned after finishing university, she spent her university days as a gay man, while I was (and remain) aromantic/asexual. So there’s a lot going on here that helped me see her experience of transition, contrast it with my own, and learn more about myself in the process.
Indeed, a lot of what Talusan says isn’t my experience of being trans—and that’s ok; we are not a monolith. But I really like how Talusan breaks down these questions. I like how she talks about facing the choice of transitioning—because being trans is not a choice, but transitioning is a choice, an action one undertakes. Talusan reflects on how she could have continued living as a gay man, married her longtime partner, and perhaps even be happy. I feel that, for I, too, probably could have continued being happy living as a man in my thirties—but something would have been off. And it’s for the same reason Talusan shares when she says, “Being a woman gave me access to an entire gamut of behaviours I never knew were inside me….” It isn’t about performing femininity in a stereotypical way but rather recognizing that presenting myself as a woman aligns my inner self with the actions and behaviors that are most comfortable for me. I didn’t want to be a man in a dress or a man who was “like one of the girls”; I wanted to be one of the girls—and now I am.
In other respects, as I said, it is more difficult to relate to Talusan and her transition, and that’s all right. Similarly, she’s also not the most likeable narrator. She has done things in her past that she regrets (or at least admits are regrettable) and dares us to judge her for it. I appreciate this candour in a memoir, where there is always the temptation to self-aggrandize. Talusan has not led an unimpeachable life, has hurt people and been hurt in return. Trans people are like anyone else—we are human, flawed, and deserve to show those flaws.
The ending of the memoir reminds me of My Real Children, by Jo Walton. Talusan reflects on what her life might have been had she made different choices. Her conclusion mirrors Walton’s work: we can never truly know how our other lives might have turned out, but it’s unlikely there is one, true, perfect life out there for us. It’s very hard to say whether we would have been happier, or more successful, or more content in another life, for it would have brought its own share of challenges and successes.
Fairest is an honest book that meditates upon race, gender, sexuality, privilege, and what it means to be honest with oneself and others. It isn’t revelatory in any big and explosive way. But it has a steady, inexorable beat to its story that will keep you reading and thinking about the ways our lives tug and pull at us in all sorts of directions.