from Partial Views: On the Essay as a Genre in Philippine Literary Production
pre-pandemic work, forthcoming from DLSU, maybe this year
The lines of inquiry I pursued in writing this monograph on the essay as a literary enterprise were in no small part prompted by a controversial essay and the debates it stirred in circles well beyond the literary. In 2017, The Atlantic posthumously published Filipino-American journalist and author Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave,” which details the lifelong exploitation of Eudocia Tomas Pulido or “Lola” as a maid for the author’s family. Lola served the Tizons for more than half a century, beginning in the 1940s in Tarlac, when the author’s grandfather “acquired” the young Pulido as a “gift” for his motherless daughter, and continuing for decades in the United States, where, lured by the promise of an allowance that she could send back to her family, Lola agreed to move with Tizon’s mother and her young family. Throughout decades of service, however, Lola was overworked, unpaid, and physically and verbally abused. A veritable prisoner of the Tizons, she was cut off from her own family, whom she could neither support nor return to, and denied a life beyond her indenture, isolated from the country and culture to which she was forcibly taken. Without the financial means, without any social circle and possible source of support, and, soon enough, without the legal status to opt out of the Tizon household, Lola lived a life of enslavement. In his lengthy first-person account of what he recognized, even as a child, to be a shameful family secret, Tizon narrates his own lifelong struggle to apprehend and, eventually, make amends for the exploitation suffered by Lola in the hands of his family.
Available for free online, Tizon’s essay was so widely read that it earned the distinction of being “the most-engaged story on the internet in 2017.” Accounting for the essay’s popularity, The Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg invoked features often attributed to creative nonfiction, the go-to category for essays that foreground subjectivity and literariness: “People value story, great writing, and honest emotion.” Although the “tragic, very personal story” was written by a relatively unknown veteran author, “the marketplace still rewards quality,” said Goldberg, flagging the commodity-status of the literary text. Readers bought (into) the Tizon piece because it is a true story told sincerely (a nod to the admirable humanity of the author) and skillfully (a nod to the admirable virtuosity of the author). Based on the discourse published online in response to the essay, however, the public’s reception of it could hardly be characterized as uniform. Some readers were touched, and others offended. Praise for the heartbreaking narrative of Lola’s suffering was countered by outrage over the author’s perceived reticence in putting a stop to her abuse. The one tenuous thread that arguably held otherwise polarized responses together was Tizon’s masterful writing. Amid impassioned debates over what the essay says, admirers and critics agreed on the faultlessness of how the author says it, employing the logic of the age-old division between form and content.
I regularly teach “My Family’s Slave” in an undergraduate literature course on creative nonfiction, and a passage that students often cite to illustrate the author’s skillful narration involves the whipping of Lola by Tizon’s grandfather, an incident that precedes the author’s birth but is relayed to him by his mother and corroborated by Lola herself. The scene is doubly violent because Lola is beaten for an offense she did not commit. It is Tizon’s mother (at the time still a young unmarried woman) who has broken her father’s rules and, in the face of his wrath, declares Lola to be the substitute recipient of her punishment. Accepting this proposition without question, the father punishes his daughter by whipping her maid. In class, my students point to this brief scene to demonstrate the power of Tizon’s storytelling: the brisk pace of the narration, the tension produced by minimal detail, the onomatopoeia generated by punctuation, the impact of italics used strategically. Of course, the story itself is appalling. The corporal punishment is stark evidence of the patriarch(y)’s control over women’s bodies, and the class privilege that “saves” Tizon’s mother from patriarchy’s violence is at the expense of Lola, whom she designates as her proxy. Doubly marginalized by gender and class, Lola literally suffers in silence. She is wordless when her amo, Tizon’s mother, uses her as a pawn to escape punishment, and she is soundless when her amo, Tizon’s grandfather, subjects her to his belt. But even as we feel repulsed by the situation, we also recognize the deft hand that crafted a tightly narrated sequence, the outcome of bare exposition accented sparingly by an adjective here and an adverb there. We trace the terror we feel from the grandfather’s violence to the strategic use of repetition, in which the severity of one statement (in this case a reprimand), written twice, creates the effect of amplification. The story is appalling, but the storytelling is not. There is beauty in Tizon’s telling of the story. It is this beauty that moves readers to say, in response to a narrative about a woman’s sustained abuse as a maid and migrant worker trafficked in the United States, “ang ganda.”
This suspension of the reader in the realm of the aesthetic encounter is, on the one hand, a marker of the essay’s success as a literary text. We dwell in its literariness, finding pleasure in the text in and of itself, a whole constructed from interlocking formal elements. On the other hand, the eloquence of Tizon’s piece could be regarded as a grave flaw. “Underneath the poetry, something was up,” writes Andrea Malaya M. Ragragio in Davao Today, suggesting that good writing as we know it could obfuscate rather than clarify. So finely crafted, the essay’s sheen as an art object distracts from its disturbing content, that is, Lola’s monumental suffering, which deserves the reader’s undivided attention, and not because it has been aestheticized in a literary work. Walter Benjamin said as much about the duplicity of art when he observed how photography “has succeeded in transforming even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment” (230). The backlash that plagued the Tizon piece soon after publication indicates an awareness among readers of the need to see “underneath the poetry” and go beyond the boundaries of an aesthetic response. This was evident in the diverse pool of early respondents to “My Family’s Slave,” who were not limited to writers, critics, or that abstract figure that is the general reader. People responded from extraliterary points of view and framed their responses in relation to their identities, whether as historians, sociologists, and anthropologists; or as advocates of women’s rights, workers’ rights, and human rights; or as Filipinos living in the Philippines, Filipino-Americans, and Americans.
The genre in which Tizon wrote played a crucial role in determining the provocation it engendered, both intentionally and unwittingly, and in compelling readers to engage with it in ways above and beyond the exclusively literary. “My Family’s Slave” is an essay. The woman whipped in the text was whipped in real life. The woman who worked for no pay in the text worked for no pay in real life. The woman who suffered for over half a century in the text suffered for over half a century in real life. The family that abused her in the text abused her in real life. The author really tried to make up for his family’s transgressions after his mother’s death and really brought her ashes home to her family in Tarlac. This direct line between what happens on the page (or screen) and in real life spells the difference in the reader’s reception of the text and clarifies the stakes of writing in the genre. If Lola Eudocia were in a short story, the reader would receive her as an imaginary character: the pivot around which a domestic drama unfolds, the foil to the mother and key executor of her abuse, the object of the narrator’s affection, guilt, and remorse. She would be, for all intents and purposes, an analog for millions of Filipino maids and migrant workers, many of whom, like her, are trapped in the formidable machinery of modern-day slavery and many of whom, like her, are silenced and suppressed to the point of invisibility, resurfacing only in narratives written by others about and for them.
In an essay, however, the reader’s engagement includes and exceeds these forms of analysis. Lola Eudocia is not mere representation but actual victim. What the text discloses is not merely an unsavory family secret, but the real-life commission of a crime. In reading Tizon’s account, we become secondary witnesses to the trafficking of Lola (by a consular officer, no less) and the sustained violation of her human rights. We know the identities of the victim and the perpetrators. We know that the victim, in life, never saw justice. There was no rescue from slavery, no repatriation and reunion with her family, no back wages for decades of labor, no recompense for the lifelong ordeal. (There is charitable treatment from the author, which is framed, perhaps unintentionally, in the essay as the result of coming of age in the U.S. and imbibing liberal American values, in sharp contrast to the author’s parents, whose formative years and early adulthood were spent in feudal and patriarchal Philippines.) As readers of nonfiction made privy to a crime punishable by law, our engagement leaps off of the page and into the world where we, together with Lola Eudocia and the Tizons, reside. That both Lola Eudocia and Alex Tizon are dead (the former in 2011 and the latter in 2017, a few months before the publication of “My Family’s Slave”)hardly deters readers from debating what is to be done with their case, how some form of justice might be arrived at, what the obligations of the perpetrators’ family are to the family of the victim, and how we are implicated in the system that permits the enslavement of Lola and countless others.
Despite the lack of Tizon’s own account of his motives in writing the essay, it is reasonable to surmise that the public confession of his family’s secret was partly prompted by confession’s promised rewards: relief and rectification. “I do not want to valorize the master,” writes Filipino-American poet Barbara Jane Reyes, for “to do so would be to valorize generations of class-based and gender-based institutional violences. I do want to give [Tizon] credit as a writer, for attempting to tell this story.” Honoring the divide between form and content, Reyes distinguishes between Tizon the writer and Tizon the master and treats their actions as separate, which permits the credit given to one to be simultaneously withheld from the other. In contrast, a statement issued shortly after the publication of “My Family’s Slave” by the Damayan Migrant Workers Association makes no such distinction: “[j]ust like murder, labor trafficking cannot be waived by a heartfelt apology, by a cathartic journalistic exercise, or by taking the victim’s remains back to her relatives.” Writer and master are intertwined in an essay that is literally a master narrative, where the slave, silenced in real life, continues to be silent and silenced on the page. Even in narrative, Lola exists only according to the terms set by the author, and the continuing power of the master over the slave in art makes his benevolence as portrayed in the essay, to say the least, self-serving. While Damayan is blunt about the insufficiency of the text in itself in addressing, let alone compensating for, the suffering that Lola endured, Ragragio contends that something can be done with the text in itself to make it more productive despite its fundamental inadequacy as a form of action. It is Tizon’s work as a writer that she demands more of when she writes, “given his talent for writing and his sense of the injustice done to Lola Eudocia, would it be unfair to look for more than painful family memories and a road trip narrative?”