Processing through Alex Tizon’s story about “Lola” Eudocia Tomas Pulido

By now, everyone is talking about the late Alex Tizon’s story, “Our Family’s Slave,” which was just published yesterday, posthumously (Tizon passed away in March) over at The Atlantic.

I won’t plot summarize; it’s a lengthy story and well worth the read. It’s a difficult read. Folks are feeling defensive, indignant, triggered, confused. Folks are quarreling, shaming, name-calling, weeping and straight up ugly crying, but yes, they are (for the most part) reading this.

I am not writing this to chastise anyone for their response to Lola’s story.

First, yes. Lola has a name. Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Say her name.

I want to think through a couple of points of view here. I am a teacher of Pinay Literature. The core of my work is to center Pinay narrative, lyric, and epistemology. I am an author, and as Carlos Bulosan wrote in “The Writer As Worker,” “the writer must participate with his fellow man in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life.”

I am struggling with Tizon’s story, and I start with language.

“Lola,” means grandmother in Tagalog. Eudocia Tomas Pulido was not the writer’s grandmother, though her role was to mother, and to serve. Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s story is a story of uncompensated reproductive labor, and it exists within the Philippine historical context of colonialism, feudalism, and patriarchy.

I had not heard the term “utusan,” to describe human beings. I know the word, “katulong,” who work in the homes of the wealthy and the middle-class. I admit my naivete, in not knowing of the “utusan.” I admit also, that I know little about the “katulong,” except that my extended family in the Philippines has always had “katulong” in their homes.

If you are reading this, you might want to shout at me; you may be judging me for “giving Tizon a pass.” I am not giving him a pass. I am trying to work through a lot of complex emotions and responses I am having to this story. If the kind of dialogues happening right now are an indication of a story’s success, then this story is a success.

I want to be clear on this: One thing that is apparent to me is that this story is Tizon’s story. I also believe Tizon could only write Tizon’s story, from his own point of view. This is not to say there is no possibility of honoring Eudocia Tomas Pulido, though I use the word, “honoring,” with some amount of reticence.

Does this story honor her? I am not sure. I think this story was Tizon’s way of working through the shame and guilt of owning a human being. There are readers who are saying Tizon did not do enough, and did not do it soon enough. There are readers saying he glorifies his own position as a master, paints himself as a benevolent master.

As a writer, I will say that we back away from writing because it is hard. Stories like this must be told. In my world, Eudocia Tomas Pulido would be able to tell her own story. But also in my world, we come to resent writers for not doing what we expect them to do, make the difficult understandable. We come to resent writers, not knowing exactly how difficult it is to do this. Some writers stop trying; the anticipated backlash already being a deterrent to even getting started. And then some writers try their best.

I believe Tizon tried. Did he fail?  If his reason for writing this story was to humanize Eudocia Tomas Pulido, maybe he failed. In my world, Eudocia Tomas Pulido would be able to tell her own story as a human being with a voice.

But as writers, should we then not attempt to write these stories?

I do not want to valorize Tizon; I will not say he is brave for coming forward with this story of modern day slavery in his own home. I do not want to valorize the master; to do so would be to valorize generations of class-based and gender-based institutional violences. I do want to give him credit as a writer, for attempting to tell this story.

As a teacher of Pinay Literature, in which we center Pinay voices which have been silenced, or squelched before the Pinay can even take a breath and think of the first words she may say on her own behalf, I want to think about whether there are any places in which Eudocia Tomas Pulido tells her own story, even if in flickers and small moments. If these exist, then they are not so small.

Alice Walker wrote in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” of the many places women tell their stories, when they have been systematically denied access to literacy and education, much less any kind of autonomy, ability to make decisions for their own lives and destinies. I have been combing through this story for those places where Eudocia Tomas Pulido conveys her own narrative — which, of course, is filtered through Tizon’s narration. Tizon did not own Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s narrative, but it is through his filter that her narrative becomes known to us.

Eudocia Tomas Pulido was a human being who never had the opportunity to narrate her own story. Eudocia Tomas Pulido was a human being who never had the opportunity to choose her own path. I do not absolve Tizon and his family, for they were the central beneficiaries of her servitude. My sadness, the kind of mourning I seem to be experiencing stems from knowing Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s voice, her narrative will always be filtered through others with more power than she ever had.

I think also of Tizon’s mother, who, for lack of a better term, is the “villain,” of this story. I want to think about the relationship between Tizon’s mother and Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Did the mother ever experience the kind of guilt that Tizon appeared to experience? With my students, we discuss Pinayism, and the social, historical, and cultural barriers which prevent Pinays from connecting with one another. In this world, we are bred, conditioned to take one another down. What does it take to subvert this? A lot of work of seeing and understanding that the patriarchy needs us to never form solidarities with one another.

As a counterpoint, I have been thinking of the narratives I do present and discuss with my Pinay Literature students — those of Whang Od and Lang Dulay. I am thinking of the narratives of Mary Jane Veloso, Jennifer Laude, Izabel Laxamana, Norife Herrera Jones.

I think of the work so many have attempted, as journalists, activists, advocates, artists, and writers so that these Pinays’ narratives are centered, and may speak on their own behalf. I am thinking of Yay Panlilio Marking, Angeles Monrayo, Helen Rillera. I am thinking of Sister Mary John Mananzan, Marjorie Evasco, Xyza Cruz Bacani, Ninotchka Rosca, M. Evelina Galang, Jean Vengua, Melissa Roxas.

I think of myself as one Pinay advocate among these Pinay advocates, and as a work in progress in centering Pinay narrative, lyric, epistemologies. I think this work is hard. I think if we attempt it as we do, we will experience failure. I think this failure should not deter us from this work.

So this is what I am thinking this morning.

For #APIAHeritageMonth, Drafting My Keynote Address for UC Berkeley Pilipinx Graduation

Image: Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and writer Courtney E. Martin.

The theme for this coming Sunday’s UC Berkeley’s Pilipinx American commencement ceremony is, “araw,” which means both sun, and day. I admit, I have been at a loss for a “message,” I may impart upon young Pilipinx American college graduates. Part of it is my exhaustion from teaching and working, but a larger part of it has to do with the need for quality time with young people for exchange, and for dialogue. And a larger part of it has to do with a certain cynicism that the current political moment has got me in. How do you tell young people to fight for what they believe in, when we are living in the now that we are living in. What longterm good are inspirational memes and their vapid clichés.

I am combing through my own essays and interviews for glimmers of sunlight. I am clicking through so many literary websites to see what others are saying. I found the above image over at Brain Pickings, and this is helping me tremendously.

Perhaps I start by recounting this experience to the new graduates. It is challenging to find these moments, these glimmers of light during such cynical and corrupt times. We lose our faith. We want to crawl inside of ourselves and into our own darkness, at first to escape, and then, to heal, and then to incubate. These moments, these rites of passage are acknowledging that we now enter society as grown-ups, and decide how we are going to work. We have to reaffirm our belief systems; do we really believe what we have been saying we believe, in the vacuum of the academic institution, in which consequence is intellectual. How do we become thinkers and doers in the real world, and can we become agents of social change in that real world?

The work is day-to-day, and we can fall into the drudgery of the longest days. It is more often unromantic, bureaucratic, and it feels the obstacles and setbacks are more frequent than the successes. This is where we must put our work ethic to the test. Changing the world, changing our communities, changing our families, is a glacial, incremental process, every day a new setback, another closed mind we must attempt to open, another person sitting in darkness, to whom we must bring that light. People will resist, they will dismiss you. They will tell you, you are young and so what do you know — you with your fancy new college ideas, what place do they have in the real world, where people struggle, go hungry, become homeless, lose their loved ones, and so they have no time for your ideas. Or they may not recognize that they have been sitting in darkness (they’ve been there for so long); they’re just fine where they are.

So that’s where I am this morning. Contemplating light, and change.

For #APIAHeritageMonth, Considering my Fil Am Immigrant Family History

It feels more than appropriate to begin this #APIAHeritageMonth post by saying, “Yes, my parents were right.” Of course they were right. I was too young and stubborn to listen to them, until I wasn’t.

By “right,” this is what I mean. When I was in college, I was floundering. UC Berkeley was challenging, and though I was as academically prepared as I could be, having been on the honors and AP track in my private high school, I wasn’t emotionally ready, and I wasn’t mature enough yet to be self-motivated, and I wasn’t disciplined enough yet to be on my own.

I resented my parents for stressing their hard work ethic, their grind, and their ideas of success. I was a dreamer and a rebel. I saw what my American classmates had, conversational, casual, chummy relationships with their apparently easy-going and permissive parents. My classmates seemed to have what I saw as leisure time and super chill parents who would ask them how they were doing.

I had a perpetually stressed out mother, who worked full time and managed to raise four of us, and a father so uptight, I thought he’d bust an aneurysm when he was in his 40s. They didn’t seem to want to understand “American” ways, all the things I thought were cool about how my friends could behave and speak in their parents’ homes. They talked about their feelings; my parents didn’t have time for that. My father would get so indignant at our uses of American slang/idiom when directly addressing him. When I was young, I could never imagine ever telling him to chill out, or not to have a cow. Answering back always erupted into WWIII; he wasn’t into my American sass mouth one bit.

I felt like nothing I ever did was good enough. They always wanted me to do more. I hated this. Sometimes I rebelled. Sometimes I tried. I failed a lot. I hated this. I always thought American parents were more understanding of failure. That they would just say, it’s OK, honey. Just try again.

And when I was in college, living far enough away from my parents for the first time ever, I was a freak out in a skinny girl’s body. I couldn’t discipline myself to get to an 11 am class on time. I got a D in calculus (why the hell was I even taking calculus anyway). I had the worst GPA ever. I stopped showing up to class altogether. I wasted a ton of time and money. I couch surfed a lot, having no desire to move back home, nor the means to pay rent. I wrote poetry. And some of my friends thought I was pretty bad ass. It was romantic. And it was unsustainable.

My parents finally left me alone, and it was cool, because then I could just work my crappy part time job, write, party, smoke, and drink. And I thought it was such an edgy, rebellious life of struggling to pay rent, being an artist, and scraping up nickels with my friends to afford to split $2 nachos in the student union. And my parents let me be, until they could no longer bear it.

They wanted to know what the hell I was doing with my life. I evaded them, wouldn’t come home for weeks at a time. When I did see them, I could see the disappointment in their body language. I was kind of a failure to them. I was always broke. I was a dropout. But I was writing poems! And I was so cool on the mic! And I was living according to my own rules! Fuck the Man! Fuck the Establishment! This life of glorified, self-imposed artist poverty, screwing the system!

And I thought they were so rude, so rigid, so old school, for thinking I was a failure, for thinking my ass should go back to college. I wanted to yell at them; I was following my dream! What the fuck did they know about dreams and romance!


Here’s where the gift of age, experience, and hindsight kick in.

What did my parents know about dreaming and romance? Didn’t they leave everything behind, when they were in their early 20s. Didn’t they get on an airplane, to come and live in a foreign country, on another continent. Didn’t they know there were no guarantees. Didn’t they know coming here to work, and to raise their children was a gamble, probably the riskiest thing they had ever done, weren’t they throwing caution to the wind as they did. Didn’t all they have was an idea, a dream of what it might be like.

I am thinking of this old photograph, not the one above, but a colored photo of my young parents, with me and my older sister. I must have been about four. My sister would have been six. My parents would have been in their mid-20s. We are in Reno, at a motel, posed by the motel swimming pool. We are on a road trip. We are on a family vacation. This would have been two years after my sister and I immigrated. My parents had already come before us, found employment, saved money, and so by the time my sister and I were here, we moved from a Daly City one room apartment into our first home in Fremont, and my sister was enrolled in a private school.

Imagine the kind of grind that takes. My mother used to tell us that we had to work twice as hard as American kids did. I resented this; I also knew it was true.

My younger sister, who is now an executive in a media company that turns these homemade snapshots into enormous, lasting historical documents, tells it like this (though she wasn’t born yet), when she presents this image to company shareholders and clients: this image is important and historical because it documents the persistence of these two young immigrants, to make something out of nothing. To make a life here, for themselves and their children. How precious is this kind of vacation time. It’s almost like a celebration of their “making it” here.

So then, yes, my parents did dream. They dreamed of a life. They made it happen. And here we are.

I thought about this a lot, during my father’s last days. What kind of life did he lead here. Was it a meaningful life. Did he accomplish what he meant to accomplish in his life. A life full of travel, and art, always surrounded by friends and loved ones, always sharing what you had, always celebrating something in the most lively manner possible — this kind of wealth. While I miss him like crazy, what keeps me going is that, while our family has never been perfect, while we’ve all had our share of disappointments, and while we fought like hell, almost everything he and my mother wanted for us, we got, and we have.

At his wake, people I didn’t know well at all, were coming up to me and my sisters, nodding with approval. To me, they would say, “Ah, so you’re the professor,” or “Ah, so you’re the poet.” This is how my father talked about us to his friends and relatives. And rather than make this about status (which I know some of you will want to do), let me just say that this is how proud he was of us. This is how he talked about us; he approved highly of the people we became after each of us found our own way — this was so important to him, that everybody knew it.

All of this to say — I have something in my eye — what my parents gave us transcend material things. My sisters and I work our asses off because this is the wealth we inherited from them. Most of all though, I think the best part of all of this is thinking about change, and malleability. That it happens in ways you can’t always detect, but before you know it, you are doing things your way, and your traditional parents aren’t so traditional anymore, and not having a cow about you being a poet, about being tattooed, about being a smart mouth. Or maybe they are still traditional, but now, because you are determined, doing things your way, the resulting successes, and the fact that you are happy with your work and your life — these are what become most important to your traditional parents.

My first Invocation to Daughters event will take place on his two-year death anniversary, and it’s bittersweet as all hell. Because this book is exactly what I wanted, and exactly what I worked for. And because of this, he would have approved. And I also didn’t know that his approval meant as much to me as it does.

For #APIAHeritageMonth, Ongoing Thoughts on Teaching Filipino American Literature

Reminder. Never, ever underestimate what our predominantly Filipino American students are capable of. They are young, resilient minds, in a place of critical and intellectual inquiry. Give it to them. Open up the space for them to do this, to ask questions, to grapple with ideas and concepts with which they may not have any previous exposure. Facilitate their inquiry. Ask them questions. Coax and push, bit by bit, past their social, political, historical, cultural comfort zones.

I always start with what they claim to know. I ask where and how they came to that knowledge. I go from there, excavating, examining pieces very closely, proposing alternative points of view, presenting other existing knowledges. (One of the things that I appreciated most in this semester’s recent weeks was how my students said of Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural Disasters, that the poetry affirmed, solidified what they already suspected or thought they knew.)

I discuss concepts, always doing my best to discuss them in real life contexts. After it’s clear they are understanding what’s being discussed, after they have contributed themselves to that understanding, then I offer them the terminology. We all contribute to meaning making, to defining.

We read. We read critically. We hone in and pull way back. Here, Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s figurative tesserae and mosaic in her multigenre work, Marilyn, are useful. Examine the individual pieces closely, reflect upon their “fit,” with/among one another. To what larger picture is each tessera contributing.

I am saying all this, because I am tired of our community underestimating our young people’s capacity for literary, poetic rigor. I think we resort to what is most simple when studying our community’s literary work, because we are compartmentalized — we believe intellectual work belongs only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy, and then we resent that intellectual work exists only in singular form, only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy.

We want to be passive and just watch a performance. We want to be entertained. We want meaning spoon fed, glossed over, and given to us in memes. We don’t want to engage what we don’t already know. We don’t think we want to expend the energy or invest the time. We dismiss complexity in literature as “colonized,” as literature for “white people,” and in doing so, we dumb down some pretty amazing work that folks in our community are creating.

The obvious problem is that the above logic is saying, only white people write and read complex literature; we are saying to others that our own people are not capable of literary complexity. So when others come and treat us in a simplistic, reductive, and imposing manner, why be offended? This is the message we’ve put out there, that we are incapable, that we are passive.

We think of reading literature as a “bourgeois” activity and pastime — “Filipinos don’t read,” remember? But seriously, even the most so-called “street” or “everyman” poets and authors in our community are avid and sophisticated readers of literature.

When I was very young as a writer, back around the year 2000, I remember arguing on a listserv with a fellow aspiring APIA writer, about “straight forward,” “narrative” poetry, versus “experimental,” “inaccessible” poetry. This person chided me about my being so influenced by “experimental” poetics, telling me no one would read or “get” APIA authored work that was “experimental,” because it was “irrelevant” to “The APIA Experience.”

I wonder where this person is now. I haven’t heard from them or heard their name in 17 years.

(In the meantime, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is canon in Asian American Literature.)

I want to say that suspicion of those who wield English is legitimate. This is part of our colonial legacy. I also want to say that as we collectively work towards decolonization, we have to look very closely at our use of English. Nothing of what I am saying is new or revolutionary, by any means.

Do be critical of our mastery of it, the language and its literary forms. But yes, strive towards mastery of it. Not to be in its thrall, and not to oppress our own, but to complicate it, to hybridize/mongrelize it, to transform it.

And yes, rather than replicating those same oppressive systems, rather than perpetuating inequality among our own, let’s wield our Englishes to communicate well our complexities, use it in our everyday liberatory practices.

I believe the finer we communicate our complexities, the more painstaking work we invest in our literature, the much more long term its effects. Cheap and easy = disposable culture. I do not want my poetry to become a victim of forgettable, throwaway culture.

Ultimately, I come back to the reasons why I chose to dedicate myself to the arts. Art opens us. Art makes dialogue happen. Art and literature stay with(in) us, having entered through our pores, our hearts, our brains, our ears, our eyes, all at once. They reside in our memories, as if they reside in our cells. We feel and experience their effects for years to come. We pass these down to the next generation, that they would in turn, do the same.


For #APIAHeritageMonth, A List #3

This is an ongoing list of APIA poetry collections which have informed my own poetics, my ideas of what gets to be called poetry. It’s been a while since I’ve read a lot of these books, so I am going on memory for a lot of this.

Here is List 1 | List 2. And below is List 3.

Linh Dinh, Borderless Bodies. Oh man, Linh Dinh. Human bodies and meat. This is what I think of. It’s grotesque, but true, and that’s something a lot of us don’t know how to talk about or want to talk about. As a poet, how do you go there, but still keep it reined in just barely enough so as not to go over the top with outrage for sake of outrage, victim and suffering porn, emotional coercion of your reader, knowing your poetry must move, stir, elicit complex emotion from your reader.

Russell Leong, The Country of Dreams and Dust. I love Leong’s poetic lines. They are so clean in this collection, so well-managed, if you will. So, as I’ve just said about keeping it barely reined in, he definitely does this here, balancing historical sweep of Asian migration and diaspora, so many small details, objects, textures, historical narrative in persona, and some lovely lyrical language. This whole collection is so well organized, and that is so appealing to me.

Nick Carbó, El Grupo McDonalds. This is one of the first poetry collections I’d ever read that centered what I think of as a contemporary transnational Filipino voice. I had first read some of this collection’s very thoughtfully crafted individual poems as an editor of Maganda magazine at UC Berkeley, and as an aspiring (proto-emerging) writer. You might say, it was the poetry I needed to read when I needed to read it. “Clean,” is a word I keep returning to. By clean, I mean no excess, just an apparent matter-of-fact tone that feels like it should be simple, but then, upon further thinking, you realize contains so many layers.

Genny Lim, Winter Place. Every time I see Lim perform, I think, damn, she is legit. In performance, her poems are a lion. On the page, it’s something different. So then, what I appreciate is that Lim’s poems translate well “from page to stage.” But more importantly, each venue (page, stage) brings forth an aspect or element of the work. On the page, lines that allow a slow unfold, something meditative, a quiet contemplation. Then on the stage, that roar.

Alan Chong Lau, Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker’s Journal. Yes, the grocery store! Specifically, as Asian one located in the International District of Seattle, where Lau apparently works (or worked). The beauty of a place like the Asian produce market in an American city is intersection and collision. As the worker, you are a witness to these intersections and collisions, so many brief encounters that bring forth some kind of possibly profound realization on the daily. Or not so profound. That our profound as poets and artists is someone’s everyday, or routine, or mundanity.

Laswon Fusao Inada, Drawing the Line. Inada reminds me so much of Manong Al Robles. The jazz cadence, the refrains and repetitions, the cultural and historical memory of a place and its people, or citizens. Poetry that is rooted in Americana, if you expand your ideas of Americana to include all its people’s voices and stories, its Mini Marts and Kwickie Lubes, its Japanese internment camps.

OK, more to come!