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.

Critical Pinayisms: Panel of Pinay Artists and Writers at SFSU

Critical Pinayisms. Photo by Valerie Francisco-Menchavez.

Thank you to Maria Vallarta for curating this fantastic panel of Pinay/Pilipinx writers and artists for the National Association for Ethnic Studies Conference at SFSU.

My co-panelists were Angela Peñaredondo, Melissa Sipin, and Karen Villa, and all of us discussed our processes of critical thinking, about practice and praxis in our respective genres. There is so much here, so rather than rehash the amazing and important work each of us is doing, I wanted to talk about a question from Professor Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, about the burden of representation, the reticence and difficulty in telling stories of Pinays — lives and bodies — that have endured trauma, some that have not survived. If you look closely at Valerie’s photo above, you will see in the bottom panel, a list of names that I wrote on the white board:

Jennifer Laude

Izabel Laxamana

Norife Herrera Jones

Julieta Yang

Mary Jane Veloso

I told the attendees/audience to Google these names. And I said a few things about each of them. These are some of the Pinays who inhabit the pages of Invocation to Daughters.

Some background: when I was in college in the 1990s, the names were Flor Contemplacion, and Sarah Balabagan. Filipino women who had fought back against their abusive employers and suffered the consequences of doing so. I told the attendees that when I was an aspiring writer, there were so few Pinays publishing; a full length book authored by a single author who was Pinay was so rare, and so when Jessica Hagedorn became known to me, her very existence made my career as a Pinay author possible. And then some years later, Catalina Cariaga’s book Cultural Evidence was published. Her poem, “Excerpts from Bahala Na!” had Flor Contemplacion at the center, as the speaker sifted through media sound bytes, advertising, emails, and ethnographic text, for any tiny bit of information about Flor’s fate.

I am part of this continuity of Pinay authors, artists, and scholars, working to sift through both the noise of mass media, and its sensationalized and biased reporting of these Pinay lives and/or deaths. If they are reported at all.

To the list of the Pinays I provided, we may add the two Pinays who were central to Karen Villa’s work:

Jacqueline Toves

Abigail Tapia

The challenge is always going to be in the telling. There will probably always be disagreement about how. But it is always necessary that telling happens. This is a point I will not negotiate.

Valerie’s question ultimately came down to how we tell these stories without perpetuating the victim narrative, the suffering Pinay stereotype. In response, Angela talked about complexity and nuance, we all agreed it was about honoring their humanity in our work. I discussed the stereotype being that of erasure, silence, and invisibility. Are these Pinays’ stories ever even told in the first place? I said also it becomes about perspective, and direct address. Asking, addressing. Placing these Pinays in the center of the narrative not as objects to be examined and spoken about, but as people to be asked, to be spoken to as humans are spoken to.

I think this is something we can “get away with” in creative work. We can speak to our “subjects,” cast them as heroines, open space for them to speak.

I am thinking of Valerie’s question some more, and am troubled by the assumptions of thesis and dissertation advisors to caution our Pinay scholars about perpetuating victim narrative, especially when there’s so much erasure and invisibility, and young scholars really trying to figure out how to do right by these Pinays. There’s the horrible truth of their experiences that must be spoken, and we must get past our fear of, aversion to unpleasantness — here, I would like to add the discussion of the ugliness that was a common thread in all our presentations. And as we hone our skills as writers, as we become much more adept at craft, we can better handle this terribleness with compassion and sensitivity — otherwise the work becomes suffering porn and cliché.

Do we own these stories? I don’t think I do. Their stories don’t belong to anyone but them. We are all just doing our part in their telling.

#AswangPoetics, Redux

I’d had this wonderful vision in my head, of a cadre of fierce Pinay writers and authors taking this #AswangPoetics thing, and running with it. Where? Well, wherever they needed to go. That all these fierce Pinay voices would unleash themselves fearlessly into curses and prayers. That so much amazing and necessary work would be written, published, and shared.

Lots of things have ended up taking a backseat to the constant outrage of this administration and its nonsense, shenanigans, and corruption. Lots of folks have ended up publicly shutting down, because social media has made these times unbearable to be connected.

That was something I was hoping would not happen.

I am a poet, I am a citizen, and I am a witness. I am an educator, and I am a mentor. I am a worker. My work consists of asking questions. My work consists of questioning convention and institution, social standards and expectations, and power. I am thinking about “problem.” I am thinking about complexity. What is explicit and implicit in language.

I am looking inside most of all. I am examining my work. Why I work. What I work for. What do I believe. This is one of my only remedies to clickbait, disinformation, and internet outrage.

This is what I believe. That our power as Pinay writers and authors is in our bravery to write what needs to be written, how it needs to be written, free of apology and pander. And if it is scary, that’s because it’s supposed to be scary. It has always been scary to speak, to voice the unpopular viewpoint, and to fight for its space. People ignore you, and so you must amplify. People want to be obstructive and destructive (thereby wholly bypassing constructive and instructive), and so you must either find another way — your own way, or you must move that shit right out of your path.

This is what I have tried my best to do. This is what I will continue doing.

 

Success and Failure in Po-Biz: What I am talking about

Invocation to Daughters, City Lights Spotlight No. 16.

I just posted two things on Facebook the other day. The first was about “success” in this industry: My idea of success is to write and publish what I want, where and how I want. To teach what I want, where and how I want. To live comfortably (not struggle to barely make ends meet), to have my own time and space, to have family who – for the most part – get it, and respect my space and aspirations, and who – for the most part – share my political values. To have my motivations be my own.

The second was about “failure.” Yesterday, I verbalized for the first time that I believe To Love as Aswang is/was ultimately a failure.

Some background. It took me an uncharacteristically long time to write Aswang.

A large part of this long time was about a kind of paralysis. A few years ago, I got myself confused. Whereas my idea of success had always been as I’ve written above, writing and publishing what I want, where and how I want, a few years ago, I found myself in a weird rut. I found myself writing in anticipation of editorial and reader rejection or acceptance. I found myself outside of myself, and it was a weak point, if not the weakest point at which I had ever found myself, taking a backseat to industry expectations totally outside of my control.

Poeta en San Francisco and Diwata, I had deemed as “successes” — Award-winning or award-contending work. And/or. Published by “prestigious” publishers of American Poetry. I found myself passively careening in that direction. The awarding. The prestige. I found myself suppressing and second-guessing what and how I wanted to write.

Here’s the thing though. I knew I wanted to write a Pinay-centric work. I did not know of anywhere in the industry that a Pinay-centric work could exist. I did not know any Pinay-centric spaces existed in the industry. There weren’t any. So then I didn’t know what to do with the work. In the revision and editing process, Aswang went through so many failed iterations.

I kept mitigating the intensity of my own poems. I kept smoothing out its jagged edges. I kept trying to make it “beautiful,” in service of others’ ideas of beauty. And lest you think this is about racism here, I also mean the kind of Filipino American reader who recoils at unflattering depictions of our own, and who subsequently reprimands me for being so angry, and for not focusing on the inherent beauty of our people.

In hindsight, it would be more apropos to say that Aswang went through a rather normal if not robust revision and editing process. But at the time, I was so uncertain. Of course, I put on a brave, stoic public face. Of course. I believed people believed I was “set,” in the industry.

Manuscript rejections happened in a way I had never before experienced. And mind you, I don’t submit any of my manuscripts to a lot of places. I’m not a manuscript submissions blitzer. If you want a ballpark figure for what “a lot,” means for me and my work, it means barely in the double digits. Seven to ten queries is a lot for me.

I reiterate: Pinay-centric spaces in the industry did not exist.

As a Pinay in the industry, it is implicit that you conform to industry standards.

And then Edwin Lozada at PAWA approached me and made a very generous offer. He said that when I got tired of the grind, of the rejections, if I wanted to just get Aswang published already, if I wanted Aswang to exist on my own terms, that PAWA was there for me.

I resisted for a short time, and then I finally said, Fuck it. Yes.

This is Pinay-centric space.

As production began on this work, I began seriously and rabidly writing Invocation to Daughters. I could never have written Invocation without the purge of Aswang.

All of this work coincided with my father’s rapid decline in health, and ultimately, his passing, and my grieving. I could not bring myself to make events happen. I could not bring myself to get myself “out there.”

Aswang sales are not shooting through the roof. Industry people barely acknowledge its existence; there is no literary prestige in this kind of Filipino American, West Coast, home grown operation. And the stereotypical non-book-buying Filipino American is still not buying this book. None of this is news.

It is my series of failures that brought this book into the world. It is my insistence on Pinay-centricity, #Allpinayeverything Poetics, #AswangPoetics, which the industry will never give a shit about, that made this book happen, and that made me write the poems in Invocation to Daughters — poems I wrote on my own terms. These are poems focused on Pinays that the world does not give a shit about, as long as these Pinays clean your fucking house, or pleasure you. As long as Pinays obey. These are, and have always been, my motivations for writing and publishing. I can’t compromise this. Not one fucking inch.

In the meantime, Invocation to Daughters is not some kind of endpoint for me. I’m not “done” yet. I do know I hit one of my longtime major markers; before I knew anything about anything in the industry, when I was a suburban Bay Area teenager who was secretly an aspiring writer, who would have rather died than shown anyone anything I had ever written, I wanted to be a part of City Lights Publishers.

They published Howl.

This really does mean something to me. So already, a success.

*

What I am getting at. Something Oscar and I have talked a lot about is the kind of failure one must allow oneself to experience, in order to get to success. I am not boo-hoo-ing, as much as I am tracing a trajectory. Thinking also about the distinct lives of each of my books. Is it possible that Aswang is a bridge, a structure you take for granted even as you are stepping all over it to get to where you need to get to. And then a storm obliterates it, and then you are fucking stuck. And then that bridge becomes everything. The book has a lot of life ahead of it still. And so.

I am reaffirming that I am doing exactly what I mean to be doing. Failing my way towards the next success.

On Teaching Filipina Literature

Texts pictured above are this course’s required readings: [top row, L-R] M. Evelina Galang, One Tribe. Erin Entrada Kelly, The Land of Forgotten Girls. Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!  [bottom row, L-R] Angeles Monrayo, Tomorrow’s Memories. Barbara Jane Reyes, Invocation to Daughters. Janice Sapigao, microchips for millions.

On Teaching Filipina Literature. On Curriculum Development.

Janice Sapigao’s microchips for millions, and my forthcoming volume, Invocation to Daughters are additions to this 2017 syllabus. I had originally included Diwata, but I think, even though we do begin the semester discussing women’s pre-literacy and where these women’s narratives reside and thrive, the poetics of Diwata were a lot more than I could handle teaching this time around. This may have been the first time I’d brought this book into a lower division course. By contrast, I was teaching To Love as Aswang at SFSU, for upper division Filipino Literature class there. The response was energetic, and I believe this has to do with the book’s accessible poetic lines.

So then, Invocation to Daughters, I believe, will be the better alternative, because its lines are similarly clean and tight. Although, I would love folks’ input: is Invocation “accessible,” do the lines “help” with/for an undergraduate (lower division) reader who is not a literature major?

I think once the discussion of poetic line is in effect, once discussion of relevant languages/languages utilized is also in effect, then we can read microchips for millions, and discuss Janice Sapigao’s use of binary code, in poems set in the belly of Silicon Valley’s tech industries. And continue with discussions of women and labor, consistent throughout the course.

So these poetics discussions, and discussions about the lyric “I,” the lyric “we,” the Pinay lyric “we,” I always reserve for the end of the semester, once we’ve gotten the hang of more accessible narrative structures. Narrative, period. After spending the semester immersed in Pinay prose narrative “I,” in Filipino Core Values, Pinay bildungsroman, Pinay hero(ine)’s journey. We discuss Pinay graphic narrative and visual self-representation. We discuss Pinay YA literature, and then in general, how many young, liminal Pinay protagonists populate these works. The cultural and historical significance of this. Young Pinays speaking, telling their own stories, some in secrecy, some risking social consequences.

I believe I under-assigned the last time I taught this class! That’s a first for me, though it was timely, since we were experiencing the collective trauma of the last presidential election. I had some space for adjustments and accommodations to the class discussions.

One of the major adjustments I made was to jump into “decolonization,” “patriarchy,” “white supremacy,” and “intersectionality,” a lot more abruptly than I normally do. What can literature and art do? What can we do now that we don’t live in an Obama “paradise.” How can we take what we learn in university classrooms, and take action in our own personal lives? As one of my students wrote, “Who is Pinayism accessible to?” In other words, outside of our university communities, can we truly practice Pinayism, including pedagogical work, mentorship, teaching folks about what it is, why it’s important to discuss critically.

So it’s an intense class. it’s unapologetically feminist and Pinayist. I know a lot of students enroll in these classes because they claim to know little about being Filipino, and think of literature as a “way in.” Perhaps it is. Perhaps the “way in,” must always be intense like this.