MANILA, Philippines – Filipino American author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon died of natural causes in his home in Oregon on March 23, but not before leaving behind a story that's now become a hot conversation topic here and abroad.
Published by The Atlantic barely two months after his death, "My Family’s Slave" is an honest, poignant narration of Tizon’s own experience of growing up with "Lola," Eudocia Tomas Pulido, who, at the age of 18, was given to his mother as a gift.
The piece also talks about Tizon’s journey to bring Lola’s ashes back to her family in Tarlac, where Tizon's grandfather had once given her an offer of "food and shelter if she would commit to taking care of his daughter [Tizon’s mother], who had just turned 12."
Lola served their family loyally for more than half a century, even after moving to the United States and without getting paid. It was only when he was 11 that Tizon said he realized Lola’s harsh condition, which his brother Arthur summed up in the piece: "Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters."
Throughout the story, Tizon expressed disgust over his family’s treatment of Lola as well as his inability to do anything to help her. Eventually, when his mother died, Lola moved with Tizon who then strived to treat her better, giving her a weekly allowance and even letting her visit her family in Tarlac.
Tizon’s haunting tale quickly went viral online, drawing mixed reactions from readers. (READ: The Atlantic's 'My Family's Slave' should not end with a feast)
Many praised the author for his honesty and for "honoring" Lola with the story.
I am sobbing at the laundromat. Thank you for honoring her with this story. https://t.co/7qcyJwob2p — Juan Miguel Severo (@TheRainBro) May 16, 2017 What an intense personal brave story on so many levels ... https://t.co/frGpwBJean — Arwa Damon (@arwaCNN) May 16, 2017 But it was what it was. The article was for us to read and to make us aware of a life a lot of us are not really accustomed of. — Klariz Chen (@klariiiiiz_) May 17, 2017
But many readers also criticized the story for romanticizing slavery and Tizon for not working to free Lola sooner.
"The writer is able to talk about his mother's complicity – but not really grapple with his own. 20 years when he didn't act,” Twitter user Jay Owens said.
The writer is able to talk about his mother's complicity - but not really grapple with his own. 20 years when he didn't act. — Jay Owens (@hautepop) May 16, 2017 @Karnythia Exactly. It hurt to read it. I was appalled at how so many ppl tweeting about it this morning seemed to applaud it as, like, brave reporting — Decorno (@Decorno) May 17, 2017 Pls don't read "My Family's Slave" without considering its impact in a society deeply invested in benevolent master/happy slave narratives — Mark Tseng-Putterman (@tsengputterman) May 16, 2017
Philippine-based Scout Magazine responded to the backlash, saying that "a lot of the international outrage is coming from a place where they don’t fully understand the culture the story is set in."
The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, called the piece a "haunting, essential reading."
Alex's ultimate story
According to an editor’s note by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Tizon didn’t even know that they were going to put his piece as a cover story, as it was a decision made on the day he died.
"His interest in the lives of people situated far outside the mainstream was abiding and deep. When he came to us with the enthralling, vexing story of his immigrant family and its terrible secret, we recognized that this was the sort of journalism The Atlantic has practiced since its inception,” Goldberg said. The Atlantic was founded in 1857 by a group of New England abolitionists.
Tizon, who was born in Manila on October 30, 1959, earned degrees from the University of Orgeon and Stanford and worked as a reporter for the Seattle Times, where he shared a 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a series of articles on problems with a Department of Housing and Urban Development program for Native Americans.
He also became the Seattle bureau chief at the Los Angeles Times for 5 years then came back and stayed in Manila for two years on a Knight International Journalism Fellowship.
Tizon later on taught journalism at the University of Oregon, contributing to different publications including The Atlantic. In 2014, he published an award-winning memoir called "Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self,” where he shared his story as an Asian male growing up in the United States.
His wife Melissa Tizon, as quoted by The Atlantic, said that this was Alex’s "ultimate story.”
“He was trying to write it for five or six years. He struggled with it. But when he started writing it for The Atlantic, he stopped struggling. He wrote it with such ease,” she said. – Rappler.com