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Meredith Talusan On Her New Memoir, Life As A Child Star, Relationship With Parents

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Meredith Talusan is the founding executive editor of them., a Conde Nast digital platform, a former child star in the Philippines, an Asian who grew up with the pale skin of albinism, went to Harvard and became what she's referred to in an essay as a gender-nonconforming transfeminine person. She's written a distinctly personal memoir, "Fairest." Meredith Talusan joins us from Barryville, N.Y. Thanks so much for being with us.

MEREDITH TALUSAN: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us about that little boy you were growing up in the Philippines.

TALUSAN: I was a little boy who had pale skin and light blond hair in a really rural area of the Philippines. And so I was the only blond-haired, fair-skinned person for miles around. And so from my very earliest memories of childhood, I have always stood out. And I've always been different. And that was a defining feature of my childhood.

SIMON: Tell us about being a child star, Redford White.

TALUSAN: Well, when I was around 7, I got taken to this audition that I just thought was a game that I could play. And the director realized that I can memorize scripts really well really fast. And so I ended up being in one of the top-rated sitcoms in the Philippines for a few years from the time I was 7 until around 10. And then I continued acting until maybe, like, I was, like, 12 or 13. Now that - looking back, it's a really fascinating phase of my life because I find that a lot of people in America - you know, they want to be famous or well-known. Or, you know, they want to experience celebrity. But I've actually had that in my life. And so it's not something that I really crave in the same way.

SIMON: You got away, eventually went to Harvard on an academic scholarship.

TALUSAN: Yes.

SIMON: And you say at some point, I was a novelty, not much else - is how you felt at Harvard. Help us explain that.

TALUSAN: I think that especially among young gay men during that period of time - like, that culture, specifically, it was very difficult for me to not feel like I was only being evaluated purely for what I looked like. And so I felt as if I was constantly falling into this pattern where people would meet me and would be interested in having sex with me but only because, you know, it's sort of like, oh, like, this is, like, an Asian person who is white, you know? Like, they're just curious about me, finding me exotic and an object to fetish. But it was very rare for them to be interested after that initial encounter.

SIMON: You write at some length about the relationship between a good man who fell in love with you - if I might call him a good man - Ralph, professor, older man.

TALUSAN: Yes.

SIMON: How did you begin to feel that wasn't enough? And help us understand his reaction.

TALUSAN: You know, even to this day, it's very hard for me to frame that relationship as me feeling that wasn't enough. A lot of times when I think about that relationship, it's not that that relationship or Ralph or our love wasn't enough. It was more that I really needed to know whether - it was more important for me to know what possibilities are out there for me as a woman than to stay in a relationship in which I would never know what those possibilities are. That does continue to be the most difficult decision of my life, you know, because I very much love Ralph deeply. We're still really good friends. We see each other on a regular basis. And he is every bit as good as a person as I depict him in the book.

SIMON: Well, but it - you know, it wasn't who you were. I mean, you were just coming to that realization. And you're very impressed in the book by the degree to which he accepts that.

TALUSAN: I absolutely am. I'm simultaneously impressed by his acceptance, impressed that he actually helped me cover my transition-related costs...

SIMON: Yeah.

TALUSAN: ...Even when it meant the end of our relationship. But at the same time, I'm also so, I think, fundamentally puzzled by the way that our love could not transcend my shift in gender.

SIMON: There are some aspects of our nature, some aspects of our lives which are (laughter) beyond collective action and collective wisdom. It's listening to our own hearts and minds and beings. But as I don't have to tell you, you become some kind of public figure; it makes it more difficult to sometimes make a personal decision or understand, personally, what you are.

TALUSAN: Yeah, absolutely, you know? Like, I've definitely written articles where I feel like I'm representing a figure of a trans person or, like, a version of myself rather than, you know, like, as a political figure rather than as the person that I personally am - right? - including, you know, like, a really good example of that in the book is I very much advocate that trans people should not be referred to by their birth name - right? - because, politically, you know, our birth names are associated with trauma. It's - they're very fraught for a lot of trans people. And yet at the same time, personally, I've come to a point almost 20 years from the time that I transitioned where using my birth name in some context is a way for me to prove to myself that that legacy of trauma is something that I've been able to overcome.

SIMON: Meredith Talusan. Her new memoir, "Fairest." Thank you so much for being with us.

TALUSAN: Thank you so much. It's an incredible pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "ANOTHER DAY (REVISED)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.