Arts story review

Boston Book Festival and ‘The Book of Life and Death’

The Boston Book Festival comes through in the pandemic from Oct. 5–25 to bring people together with stories

9488 grace talusan author photo   erika yang
Grace Talusan won the festival's One City One Story event with her short story ‘The Book of Life and Death.’
Alonso Nichols

Stories have always had the power to bring us together; they push humankind to create and tell, to write and speak. Now, we need that power more than ever. The Boston Book Festival is an organization that celebrates words and stories year-round, as well as in a large annual festival (also called The Boston Book Festival, or BBF) that encourages reading and cultural exchange in Boston. Events inspire book enthusiasts across Boston to get involved with the community of readers and thinkers — and with literature — in a more creative way. This year, the annual festival is being held Oct. 5–25. The festival consists of interviews and panels with a diverse set of writers and creators. This year, the events will all take place virtually via Crowdcast live streams.

As part of their initiative, BBF hosts One City One Story, a short-story writing competition. Each year, BBF selects, prints, and distributes one story across the city for free. This year, they have chosen The Book of Life and Death by Grace Talusan. The Book of Life and Death follows Marybelle, a Filipino woman who works as a live-in helper for families across the world. Talusan spends much of the story delving deeply into the relationship between Marybelle and Jing, Marybelle’s employer. I had the opportunity to have a phone call with the author. In our discussion, she noted that it’s a messy, intimate relationship. It is very unequal. “You are inviting this person to work in your home, which requires a lot of trust, yet the employer always has the upper hand. It’s an extreme example of what I see throughout my working life. Where are these boundaries between employees and employers, and what is our relationship to work?” This question of the boundary between employer and employee, work and life, is something that resonates with Talusan, especially given the further blurring of the lines between work and home in the current pandemic. Reflecting on this balance, she said, “There’s this way that work and home life have blended together. The more devoted we are to our work, the better workers we are. So what happens if you’re working in someone’s home? The relationships get even more intimate.”

In Talusan’s short story, we see the protagonist Marybelle leave her daughter behind to take care of other people’s babies. We see her grapple with living in a world where she exists to be invisible. We watch as people discuss her existence, her experience, while she stands in the room, unnoticed. Talusan drew from her own life to create these moments. “I’ve had the experience of being talked about as if I wasn’t right there,” she said. “People don’t know me, that at one point I was undocumented. People debate things without knowing about my personal tie, and I hear them talk theoretically about something that I’m living. What a disconcerting experience that is.”

Marybelle’s story asks the reader what it means to be a good mother. It asks us to grapple with the realities of freedom in America for many immigrants. It asks us to see the world as extending farther than the sphere of our own existence, to see the people beside us for whom they are rather than the roles they play in our lives.

To get your own copy of The Book of Life and Death (which I’d highly recommend), visit

For more information about how to participate, the schedule of events, and the people involved, check out