“Westjacking is when you displace me from my narrative. It’s when you homogenize my struggle with yours. It’s when I look myself in the mirror and you insist on being part of the frame. It’s when I examine my own complicated relationship with my culture, and you tell me my grandmother’s name is a ‘slave name.’ It’s when you add salt and all sorts of things in my halo-halo and make it a huge viral sensation among Instagram foodies. It’s when you insist that we weren’t colonized, and invalidate that history in one swoop. It’s when you tell me to turn over the entire box while I’m unpacking my life. It’s when you somehow deny me the discomfort of closely and critically examining my life because you already have a framework and a template for it; all I have to do is cram things in, and discard what does not belong. It is to deny me the quiet of reflecting and atoning and finding a solution to my crises because your voice is louder than mine. It’s when you would rather talk over my story than to listen to it, and call it a gift.”
Yesterday, 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, such as this. I gathered together my own response and that of my friends' from our Facebook posts, to provide some of the many facets of the unfolding arguments...
I actually 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 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.
Dean Francis Alfar:
And so the conversations triggered by Alex Tizon's article continue, and one of the interesting ones asks the question: Can Alex write about Lola?
The question 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.
Louie Jon A. Sánchez:
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.
It's the job of artists to reflect and discuss the world around them and the world inside of themselves. 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.
It helps to get some historical perspective on the debate. For starters, "slavery" is not the same everywhere at all times. A lot of the comments tend to conflate Alex Tizon's family with white slave masters, Lola with black slaves, and their household with the antebellum slave plantation. Once you've made these alignments, it's easy to condemn Alex as insufficiently repentant, and the narrative as obscene and self-serving.
But that's not the case. Servants may be enslaved but are not slaves in the way it meant prior to the Civil War in the US. And while there is a history of slavery in the Philippines, it was flexible and contingent, whereby the slave was never merely chattel, but could become part of the family, albeit a lowly and exploited member. Power relations between masters and slaves were mediated not just by the imperatives of the market place and by ideologies of race. In Alex's narrative (and in everyday experience of Filipinos who grew up with servants), they are also materialized in affective ties of pity (awa), reciprocal indebtedness (utang na loob), shame (hiya) that hold together as much as they pull apart the master to and from the servant. (Thus the kinship term, "Lola", grandmother, used to refer to Eudocia. Not a "slave name" as others have said, but a term of endearment even as she was often humiliated and abused).
These affective ties in turn provide the servant a kind of moral leverage that she can use to hold the master accountable or account for her own status and acquiescence. And Catholicism, which has its own discourse about the universal enslavement of humans to God, provides a kind of ideological referent for reproducing and sustaining relations of inequality -- but also calling those on top to account for their treatment of those below.
It is this moral economy that pervades Alex's account and sometimes can come across as condescending, or politically naive. But it also opens up spaces for Lola to act and speak, however attenuated and elliptical. While her story may not be as fully fleshed out as, for example Americans may be used to reading in slave narratives -- hers' is not the narrative of Mary Prince or Harriet Jacobs, after all -- she is not entirely silent. Indeed, she speaks throughout the narrative not only through the author's voice but beyond and around it, even exceeding it.
Here, then, is part of what is so compelling, at least for me, about this story: that despite the history of her oppressive domestication, Lola remains, in the end, undomesticated. There is always something about her that is held back in reserve, unavailable for exploitation much less comprehension on the author's part (and the readers', too). He probes into her past, for example, and she retreats, her reticence a kind of resistance to his aggressive curiosity. She is not merely disempowered, but radiates a certain power that makes the family dependent upon her. Her labor is exploited, but not exhausted. She remains singular, even in death. Especially in death, as the author is taken aback by the grief that her return elicits among her relatives. That collective grief exposes his own limits, the lie underneath his philanthropy, the impossibility of reparation. His guilt, if that's how you want to think about it, does little to shore up his authority as the author of this text, or as the benevolent master who did right by his slave.
Honestly, keeping a maid is abominable if you have no intentions of weaning them off poverty and making sure their work is progressively rewarded as your own household's achievements track upwards. That is only fair since you are able to achieve the things you achieve because they free you of the mundanities of housework. You must let them study if they want to and learn new skills so they can find the kind of work that fulfills their potentials. People should also think about it in our own paradigm.
How much jobs do we generate in these islands? What kind of jobs would our housekeepers have if we don't provide them employment? I heard that even Karl Marx had maids. What is totally wrong is if you don't use your lot in life to emancipate another person. We are all economic slaves, one way or the other. Even if you're in an upper rung, the system expects you to produce efficiently just like everyone else.
There are some seamier, nastier sides to our society, apart from the obvious — the proclivity to ride around at night and blow the brains out of anyone remotely connected with drug use — that need to be moved out of the shadows and into the light; that we need to talk about; that we need to do something about.
Alex Tizon wrote a moving and beautiful and finely wrought piece not just about bondage and servitude, but about migration and his relationship with this woman, which was ultimately a story of love. We barely had a chance to let the searing beauty of the prose linger into the air before the fingers of moral rectitude came wagging their way in.
They said in literature class: the author is dead. In this case, the author is literally dead. Let him be. Let the family be. The literary form of the personal confessional is in a headlong collision with the Age of Ignorance and the internet, and the story and its truths are being buried under the self-righteousness and battle-cries and taking of sides.
This memoir only scratches the surface of that which we don't talk about in the Philippines. These are things that are horrific beyond comprehension while being at the same time tempered by love, compassion, fortitude, sacrifice, redemption. The snarling, brutal reaction to Mr Tizon's revelations will only push these deeper into the shadows.
We opted for a simple anniversary dinner, the boyfriend and I. I told him I was feeling overwhelmed by life of late, and I just needed three things to calm my spirit: Samuel Barbers' Adagio for Strings Op. 11, a hideaway of a restaurant where no one could possibly know me, and him by my side being a calming presence. Without hesitation, he said yes, took me to a place where I could be anonymous, ordered a simple meal of bangus, eggplant, and ampalaya, and instead of Barbers piping into my ears, we talked and talked. We talked about the nature of man and the nature of God, of good and evil, of entropy, of why we fight for the causes we believe in, of the divinity of labels, of how we are all capable of contradictions, of him enjoying RuPaul's Drag Race and me enjoying Dear White People. And while he talked, seeing him think deep to say the words that must be properly articulated, I thought: how lucky I am to be with someone intelligent, someone emphatic, someone with a cause and a dream, someone who can easily forego -- because I asked -- a fancy anniversary dinner at some swanky restaurant for good stimulating talk over an ordinary meal of milk fish in a place nobody knows me.