“How do we form bonds with each other? Maybe even unlikely friendships or bonds that feel like family?”
The COVID-19 crisis has put most communal experiences on hold, but this month, Bostonians are getting to share a good read: local author Grace Talusan’s “The Book of Life and Death,” the Boston Book Festival’s 10th annual One City One Story selection, available for free online and in 20,000 printed copies distributed at libraries and bookstores.
Talusan’s story is narrated by Marybelle, a live-in domestic worker who sends money she earns in Boston home to her mother and daughter in Manila. Her mother, in turn, mails Marybelle photos of newborns and photos of funerals—mementos for an album of family milestones happening 8,000 miles away. The story packs a lot into 23 pages, exploring issues of inequality, immigration, and the uneasy intimacies of professional caregiving.
Talusan, the Fannie Hurst writer-in-residence at Brandeis and author of the 2019 memoir The Body Papers, will take part in an online discussion of the story on Oct 16 as part of the month long festival. But first she answered a few questions for us.
I understand this story was published in a different form in 2007, but this version incorporates very recent events. Where did the story begin? And how did it evolve more recently?
The story came out of an exercise I did in a writing class where the teacher handed out old photographs. My photograph was a woman serving a platter of appetizers at a party, like from the ’50s or something. That’s the initial image that sparked the story. But then I was also thinking about all these Filipina women I’d known growing up who worked in Massachusetts and their families were in the Philippines. They were here living with families that I knew, working for their entire lives, their whole careers. Some were able to send for their kids, but by that time their kids were teenagers or in college. So I put those two thoughts together.
I’d done reading around this sort of labor, and somehow it came together and Marybelle came to me as a character. Then more recently, I found the call for the Boston Book Festival, and I looked at the story again. I wanted to weave just a little bit of the pandemic in. I thought it would underscore something I was thinking about in the story, which is intimacy and relationships and spending lots of time with each other, whether it’s through work or other ways. How do we form bonds with each other? Maybe even unlikely friendships or bonds that feel like family? We are spending time indoors, some people with their roommates and other people with their families. There’s much more focus on these relationships with whoever we’re living with or in a pod with, and I thought that was interesting to think about.
One City One Story seems to have special resonance this year. Do you have thoughts on having your story shared at a time when so many of our usual communal experiences aren’t possible?
I am incredibly honored. When I read that they’re printing 20,000 copies—I can’t even fathom it. We have communal experiences around, say, watching movies and TV, but even that is kind of splintered, depending on whether you have access to certain streaming services or whether you’re interested. When I was growing up, there were like three channels on TV, so whether you liked the show or not, chances are you knew what it was or watched it. With the story, it’s this other form of entertainment or this other communal thing that can happen.
I hope that people are interested in picking it up, whether it’s online or the actual booklet, and find a way to come together around a piece of writing. I know people will come to this story with their own experiences and their own way that they relate to it. Maybe they had a caretaker. Or there are always people who do invisible labor around us; maybe they’ll think about that. Or maybe they are the primary caregivers in their home and do a lot of work that feels like it’s done and undone all the time. But there’s also friendship and family and mother-daughter ties and other ways that people can connect to the work.
There are a lot of entry points in the story. And there are also topical issues and even statistics—like the fact that overseas workers contribute $33 billion to the economy of the Philippines. But these realities are woven into the story in a way that feels very organic. How did you approach that?
I designed the voice of the narrator to try to sound as real and authentic as possible. I have done some reporting on immigration, and that’s a journalistic sort of voice that I’ll sometimes take on as a narrator. But this is a fictional narrator, and she’s not a reporter. But I had an idea of her. She reads. And she not only reads books, but I imagine her keeping up with news about the Philippines online. There’s lots of wonderful news sites like Rappler. There’s a robust literary culture and journalistic culture in the Philippines. I imagined her checking in on that pretty regularly as a way to stay connected, so she would know these statistics, because it’s reported on. Every year there’s an update. They’ll report on how sometimes there’s a literal red carpet put out at the airport for overseas workers to walk down, because they do bring in so much income. Some administrations would celebrate them, and they are called the “new heroes,” at least in the last presidential administration. It started with Marcos in the ’70s. This was his plan for bringing in more money to the Philippines.
One City One Story has made stories available in several languages in the past, but this marks the first time a Tagalog translation is being offered. What was the translation process like?
Tagalog was my first language, but because I came to this country when I was still acquiring language, I lost it. Once I left the Philippines and came here, my parents deliberately only spoke to me in English because they didn’t want me to have an accent. People in their generation believed the same thing, so children around my age had the same experience. They thought it would be better for us to only learn English and not hold on to Tagalog. So I have no language skills in Tagalog, but I did advocate and then even fundraise to have a Tagalog translation. The community was very supportive, and we raised the funds really quickly. I actually just finished looking at the translator and the proofreader’s final drafts. I was relying on Google Scholar to help me check over final questions, but I have no expertise at all, so it’s a really odd experience to see my own words be translated. But I’m excited because I think it’s an opportunity for people who are teaching Tagalog or literature in Tagalog to use a translated story, and maybe for people who are newer immigrants and read in Tagalog, maybe people in the Philippines and other places where there are Filipinos, like in Hong Kong and all over the word.
I’d read that soon after the start of the Trump administration, you started carrying your US passport with you, though you’ve been a US citizen for many years and lived in this country since you were a toddler. Can you speak a bit about navigating life in a time of anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric and how that may have shaped your thinking about Marybelle’s story?
I carried my passport around probably until the end of the school year, so for a few months I kept it in my back pocket. Sometime around the summer I think I felt more comfortable and started leaving it at home. But I felt suddenly visible again as an immigrant in a way that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid—in a bad way, like at any point someone could question me, as if an American only equals someone who’s white.
I have students, I know people, who are in the DACA program, and that offers them some protection. I’ve had contact with some people who are not, who don’t even have that protection. So I was thinking about Marybelle’s story and how, especially during the pandemic, she’s inside. And there’s a way that being inside feels safe. She works in a home, and her employers, at least the way I’ve written them, seem very protective of her. But that doesn’t seem stable. What if they weren’t? What if they changed their minds or what if something happened? It doesn’t seem like we should rely on the kindness, the generosity, of people, as opposed to having larger protections like laws and policy.
I grew up in the Reagan era, and when I looked back and did research, it was sort of shocking to look at the policies and how it was a Republican administration. Reagan came out with the program called IRCA, which saved my family. It gave my family a pathway to stay in this country.
Your first book, the memoir The Body Papers, was published last year and won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. What’s it been like seeing the book go out into the world and getting responses from readers?
I tell people it’s like my birthday every day. It’s a weird thing to say, but that’s what it feels like. I get an unexpected note every day, or a message, or something really generous and nice in response to my book. I’m like, Oh my gosh, wow, that’s amazing that someone was so moved by my work to write to me and tell me. So I love that. And it was a lifelong dream.
I sort of gave up hope after a while that I would ever publish a book. I still participated in the literary community—I teach writing, I’m a part of GrubStreet—but I just thought, Oh well, I guess it’s not going to happen to me, because I try and I’m not really making any progress. But then I was really lucky, and this particular prize was looking for immigrant writers. I’m incredibly grateful for that, because I’d had a hard time and heard really discouraging messages about not having enough of a readership or whatever it was. But Restless Books is a nonprofit publisher, and they were more interested in supporting and putting out a quality book. They mostly do books in translation, but with this prize, they wanted to put out a book by an immigrant writer. It’s incredible. Former students will send me a picture of my book in a bookstore window, and it’s still stunning to me to see that.
What are you working on now? And how has work been for you during this weird time?
I had to adjust. Writing is so solitary, except for with my writing groups, so I would write in cafes. There are so many cafes near me. I live near Tufts University, and I could go to three or four different cafes in a day. I’d do two hours at one place and then walk and do two hours at another place. I really loved feeling like I was alone and working and yet there was life happening around me.
So of course all that’s changed. I’ve figured out a way to work at my desk in my home. I do have more time because I’m not hanging out with friends and family and driving anywhere, so I’m doing a lot of reading. I started working on a novel based on a short story that I just had published in VIDA. It’s fiction but it’s loosely based on my growing up in a small town in New England in the ’80s. And I contributed some essays to some COVID anthologies [Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19 and And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic]. They raise money for indie bookstores in need. I was really honored to be able to contribute essays to that, but those were hard to write. I was like, Why does anyone want to read a COVID anthology? But my friends convinced me: Look, it’s like a time capsule. It’s like this slice of how you were thinking at the moment. And now I’m really glad I did, and I’m really glad that those books exist.
What have you been reading lately?
My friend Jennifer De Leon, who was a One City One Story author, just came out with a book called Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, so I’m super into that. It’s about a girl, Liliana, in high school. What I’m working on is not a YA novel, and this is, but it’s getting me into that mindset of being in high school again. And then I’m reading an adult memoir by Maureen Stanton called Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood. Maureen grew up a generation ahead of me, but she grew up in a town near me, in Walpole. It’s a wonderful memoir, but it’s also really interesting to hear these very regional reminders of that time period, like lady’s slippers, these rare flowers in the woods that we weren’t supposed to pick, otherwise there’d be a fine. There are all these references to that time period and place that I really appreciate. Both are local authors, and the books take place in this area.
Jacqueline Houton is an editor and writer who's currently copyediting kids' books by day and writing by night. She lives in Cambridge with her musician-turned-techie husband and two Rubenesque cats.