October 28, 2007

Finding the stories only she could tell

Grace Talusan  was a little girl when she read Maxine Hong Kingston’s book The Woman Warrior . 

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this exists? A book about a Chinese family that looks like me?’”

And, although Talusan had assumed she would become a doctor like her parents, she found the pull to writing impossible to ignore. Now she is the author of short stories and essays that, following that early inspiration, are often rooted in her Filipino background.  And now people tell her how much they appreciate seeing the stories that don’t always get told, with details only a writer immersed in the culture would know.

“Little things like people pointing with their lips,” she says.  “These are details my relatives would never be able to see in print unless I wrote it.” 

Talusan’s stories usually grow out of an image--some detail, maybe sensory, or an event or scrap of dialogue--along with a pinch of self-deception.

“I don’t say I’m writing a story.  When I just ‘play’ and don’t imagine the end product I do a lot better than when I think about the outcome,” she says.  “Even at the lowest moments when I felt despair and didn’t know if I’d ever see one of my stories published,” she says, “I would have a story in my head and would want to write it.  That’s what makes me want to get up in the morning.” 

The recipient of an Artist Grant in Fiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, she teaches writing at Tufts University and a course called “Jump-start Your Writing” at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston.  She encourages her students to think of writing as something to practice, to put time into, get comfortable with, and build up muscle for like sports. 

“I tell my students a draft is like a rehearsal.  It’s not the final performance.

“I used to think I needed to be inspired.  But then I found myself waiting.  Now I write a little every day. I like to think I can do something every day to improve my work.  I’m trying to work on being more compassionate for myself, ‘paying myself first’ by working on my own writing first.  If I don’t spend time on myself, I don’t give other things my best self.”

Talusan’s drive to work also comes from her family history of cancer.  In her award-winning essay Foreign Bodies, which appears in the anthology Silence Kills, to be published in November, she writes:

“As the first grandchild in our family, Joli  was the most photographed child in our family’s history.  That night, after hearing about Joli’s diagnosis, my father studied hundreds of photos of her.  “I didn’t see it,’” my father said. “How could I not see it?”

Talusan says, “I know time is a limited reality.  I would like to write books that people love in my lifetime.”

From the essay, Foreign Bodies, published in Silence Kills

My brother Jon was almost two when he fell from the bed, hitting his eye on the corner of the wooden headboard and falling to the floor. It's taken decades for me to learn the details: How my father carried Jon through the Emergency Room of the hospital he worked at, past the waiting room and nurses' station. He sat my screaming brother on a bed and pulled the yellow curtain around them. My father didn't trust the resident on call; apparently didn't trust anyone but himself to hold the sharp points of the syringe, the threaded needle, and surgical scissors close to Jon's eye. My mother helped hold my brother down. My father sobbed as he sewed the stitches, but his hand was steady and careful. He understood how important the face is to human interactions, how a scarred and disfigured eye could impact his son's future. The pink scar drawn underneath Jon's left eyebrow is a faded testament to close calls and my father's expert hands.


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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

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