Author pre-publication notes on Anxiety and Reticence

Friends, we’re getting close! Invocation to Daughters is due for release November 14. It’s going to come fast.

I’ve just proofread the galleys, and sent my feedback back to the editor. It looks really great, very simple, which is my usual preference. It’s clean. Add this super clean design to the vibrancy of the cover and its colors. I am so pleased. This book is exactly what I want it to be — the publisher I want (and the chillest, most polite editor ever), the content I want, the aesthetics of the design that I love. (Does this ever happen? I’m not sure.)

Maybe the more relevant question though, is why I’m feeling really anxious about this. Specifically, why I’m feeling anxious about this book being released into the world.

Well, readers don’t always love your work. I’ve been raked over the coals before, especially for Poeta en San Francisco, which had some readers not enjoying my “reverse racism,” and “anti-whiteness.” Other readers have gotten catty and bitchy about my work just being published (presumably, in place of theirs — hello, scarcity model) in the first place. Other readers have gotten catty and bitchy about critical acclaim my work has received. Other readers are Filipino Americans who claim I have gotten Filipino-ness wrong, that my work “does not properly represent them,” and especially “the beauty of our culture.” These are things to which I have grown much accustomed.

Some thoughts.

I think part of my pre-publication anxiety has to do with timing. I’ve recently blogged about Lola Eudocia Tomas Pulido, as we’ve read through the narrative/narration of Alex Tizon. So many of my questions and concerns about this story — perhaps they are solely or primarily “writerly” concerns — have to do with Tizon’s narration, versus Lola Eudocio’s narration.

These are not new issues to me or my fellow Pinay writers. We discussed this at our Critical Pinayisms panel a few months ago. How do you tell the stories of these women, and not perpetuate/further the victim narrative. What does it mean to “humanize” a person via your writing. How do you do this. How do you tell these stories, and not appropriate them.

I’ve been thinking and talking about a lot of these things. I was recently interviewed for the NEA Art Works Blog, and one thing we talked about there was my assertion that there is no singular narrative that encompasses our ethnic experience. The same can be said of any individual person. Does/can a single narrative ever do justice to a human being’s entire life lived? My students and I talked about this at the end of the semester — how even a trail of official documents does not sum up the human being’s life. There are so many gaps, so much substance beneath the surface of a label or official status. There are different points of view. There is translation. And so then, how can one book speak for us all, and get it all right. What about the dissent, what about the contradictions, what about the silences and secrets. What about the non-verbal clues and cues.

I return to the discussions I have with my Pinay Lit students about the many ways in which women tell their own stories. That we must ask. That we must listen. Even when we hear something we don’t want to hear.

There is narration, and there is dialogue.

We do not own these stories, so do we have the right to tell them — this is a question that comes up a lot. One response — if we do not tell them, then who will ever know. Alex Tizon told a story (in an enormous venue), and because of this, Lola Eudocia becomes known to us.

I am still chafing from the terrible stuff our community has been processing in the wake of her story. I am overwhelmed with it, the responsibility to “get it right,” in which “right” means what exactly?

I think a large part of it has to do with position in relation to the subject. Are we speaking too much, too loudly, drowning out the voices of others. Have we left space for others to speak their piece. And have we opened up space for others to speak.

There’s this other story at the Philippines-based The Rappler, in which the writer interviews the surviving family members of Cosiang, which is what they called Lola Eudocia. Many things about this story are making me think. There is so much more in this story, including the fact that the writer of The Rappler article gives space for the surviving family members to speak for themselves, in their own native language — printed in Ilocano, with English translation in parentheses. Perhaps for The Atlantic that would not be an option, I don’t know. So I go back to “getting it right.” We get to read the questions they are asking, and the stories they know. There are so many other stories of Cosiang. We can only hope for even more stories, more points of view, more voices. And perhaps that will contribute to a larger picture, with more depth and dimension.

So I am thinking about how to go about “getting it right” in our own writings in/about our community. And for myself, for Invocation to Daughters, I am hoping I am getting my poems right. I can only say I am doing my best to make space for other voices. Which, of course, you may point out is a contradiction, given that this is a work of my authorship. I hope I have asked enough, and I hope I have listened enough. I hope it contributes to a larger picture of “us.”

I also understand why so many writers I know are so reticent, why their writings never leave their notebooks and their closest circles. The blow back is so painful. But we do have to try. Even if we fail spectacularly.

 

 

 

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.