Alex Tizon and Speaking for the Subaltern

This past week, The Atlantic published the late Alex Tizon’s long-form essay about Lola, the domestic help his family kept for decades. It was a compelling, controversial essay bannered by the title, “My Family’s Slave.” It provoked a fiery response, first a wave of heartbreak and admiration, and second, a wave of recrimination that has become a kind of a cultural war about the significations of culture, slavery in history, and complicity in human trafficking.

It has also spawned a different battleground: American critics insisting on reading the nuances of Filipino culture in strictly America paradigms, which Marck Ronald Rimorin has recently termed “Westjacking.”

I found the piece of creative nonfiction to be one beautiful — if f*cked up — confessional by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino-American writer journalist who died last March. It is unflinchingly honest. And it provides a necessary spotlight on one aspect of Filipino culture we rarely talk about, or problematize: the “atsay,” the maid, the “kasambahay.” In detailing his family’s complicity in the decades-long suffering of one woman, Pulido, Tizon opened the Pandora’s box.

I love the piece. Even if I do have an issue about making “art” out of the misery of other people. But I also know it’s not as simple as that. Years and years ago, a well-meaning Korean photographer put up an exhibit of his works in Dumaguete. His subject was the people of the city’s slums: photos and photos of people mired in such miserable circumstances, but in scenes made so beautiful through the photographic devices of angling, composing, contrasting. It didn’t sit well with me, and I had to tell him, “You can’t just snap scenes of poor people’s lives and make them the unwitting participant for your art!” He didn’t know what to say to me. And I didn’t exactly know what troubled me about his works. Did he do something wrong? If not, why did I find his beautiful photos distasteful?

Years later, my discomfort finally found some form of expression when I discovered the musical Rent. In a scene where Mark films a couple of homeless people in New York for his documentary, one of them turns to him with such anger, and barks:

Who the f*ck do you think you are?

I don’t need any goddamn help

From some bleeding heart cameraman

My life’s not for you to

Make a name for yourself on!

“My life’s not for you to make a name for yourself on.” Was this the root of my discomfort? But I knew it was also not as simple as that. Do artists have to surrender the privilege — and it is a privilege — of depicting the pain of others in their works? But what is socially relevant artistry except being a vessel to express this very pain? Can artists speak for those who are silenced, and are without voice? But as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously asked in a pathbreaking essay, “Can the subaltern speak?” And the answer is no. So does volunteering to be their voice a service to them, or a disservice? If it’s a service, can it truly be authentic? And if it’s a disservice, should their being mute become something we have to learn to accept?

Can Alex Tizon write about Lola?

I ask that question because a writer friend, Louie Jon A. Sánchez, had opined about the article: “Prose is pristine, but I really don’t know. The subject of the Alex Tizon article is not something to be celebrated at all. God bless the souls of Mr. Tizon and Lola, but the essay is a great misuse of art. It’s being considered perfect Maalaala Mo Kaya material is nothing but reification of migrant suffering and domestic abuse. It also reified everything totally wrong about this culture of domestic help. Its self-orientalizing gaze was whitewashed by its compelling confessio n — but what for? I read from the FB page of Mr. Tizon’s daughter that the author thought he was born to write this story. My God, bless his soul! And bless the soul of the nanny who is still being abused after her death by way of this narrative being peddled as a familial and cultural laundry drying. It was painful to read, and so were the praises. As a student of Teleseryes, I wanted to puke.”

Another friend, the writer Kate Osias, tells me: “I think he never tried to frame it as Lola’s story. Rather, he framed it as his family’s story, with the victim/protagonist being Lola. In your previous experience, the Korean photographer had nothing to do with the people in the slums, except take their picture. In Rent, the same. But Alex Tizon was writing about his experience — his guilt, his shame, his love, his not so subtle begging for forgiveness — and the readers all become, to some extent, his priest. Like a last confession, the story has monstrous elements, but with Alex’s craft, he was able to make the monstrous beautiful as well. While people can disagree whether he was a compassionate / good character himself, I’m glad that this story got told. And I think, in the end, the world will be better for reading it, if only because it shows a complex issue, which then forces us to see the world in shades of gray.

And yet another friend, Dean Francis Alfar, wrote: “The question [‘Can Alex write about Lola?’] exists because there is an angle that he has exploited Lola, valorizing his situation (a redemption arc spanning the course of powerless-to-affect-change-vs-mom to taking Lola in/attempting to empower her), taking over her narrative, and thus painting himself in a heroic light. To me, yes he can write about her. Because he’s actually writing about himself. A memoirist looks back and engages in self-reflection, as the memoir by nature is selfish, self-observing, and limited in perspective. It is flawed, and ultimately colored by memory, introspection, and personal analysis of people met, things that happened, and how the memoirist felt/feels or was/is affected — personal truths. Life with Lola — growing up with her, how her plight affected him, changed him, made him guilty and ashamed, how he loved her — was Alex’s story as well. And he can write it. How we receive his text is another thing.”

“It’s the job of artists to reflect and discuss the world around them and the world inside of themselves,” Filipino-Canadian writer James Neish responded to me. “It is also the job of artists to deal with reactions to their work. Not all artists are equally skilled at either. If the work is moving and provokes thought, conversation, and action, then it’s already successful. Tizon did good work. Lola’s work on Tizon’s family was even better. Lola wasn’t mute. She spoke through Tizon. She set the tone of Tizon’s work. In part, Alex Tizon was one of her creations, a man she raised and influenced to become her voice. There is no disservice here, just a beautiful flow of creative energy, now manifesting even more ripples of inspiration.”

Maybe the ongoing cultural, trans-Pacific disagreement that has resulted is really a problem of translation? Conflating slave/alipin together may have been the problem, because one is not the same as the other, nuance-wise, culture-wise. “Slave” is the closest translation of “alipin,” and we do use it — but I think most of us in the Philippines who speak more than one language know the slippery dimensions of translation. If I were American, I will carry with me my own loaded understanding of the word “slave.” The Filipino on the other hand will insist on difference while not exactly denying there is a shared element of darkness, of human exploitation in both. Perhaps The Atlantic should have just titled it “My Family’s Alipin,” and thus give a nod to cultural difference.

Then again, that title will certainly not sell magazines.

Interpreter of hamsters. Author of Beautiful Accidents: Stories and Heartbreak & Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror