by Alex Gallo-Brown
When Alex Tizon’s deeply personal, staggeringly painful, and morally complex long-form essay “My Family’s Slave” appeared in The Atlantic in 2017, it became a minor cultural sensation. Readers clicked, shared, commented, and forwarded it onto their friends in droves. It became, according to Sam Howe Verhovek, a friend and former colleague of Tizon and the editor of Invisible People, a new posthumous collection of Tizon’s work, “the most read English-language article on the internet for all of 2017.”
Tragically, Tizon, who lived in the Seattle area for much of his life, died of natural causes in Eugene, where he was a professor of journalism, shortly before the article was released. Only 57, he had enjoyed a long journalistic career with The Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times; he had also written a prize-winning memoir, Big Little Man, about Asian American identity, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his reporting on corruption in the Federal Indian Housing Program. But “My Family’s Slave” was, by all accounts, the most personal and painful (and ultimately popular) piece he’d ever written. There is something almost morbidly poetic about the fact that Tizon, who had committed his career to documenting the lives of the uncelebrated, passed away before he achieved such a wide readership.
Invisible People collects articles that he wrote over the course of three decades, and while it is much more than Tizon’s well-known Atlantic cover essay, “My Family’s Slave” remains the standout. Tizon’s family, who was from the Philippines, immigrated to the United States when he was 4. To outsiders, his family may have appeared hardworking, industrious, education-focused— meagerly resourced yet part of the professional class. But they had a secret. The diminutive, dark-skinned woman named Lola who bustled around their house preparing food and doing laundry and taking care of the kids was not an aunt or grandmother, as they sometimes claimed. Instead, she was a domestic servant who had been “given” to Tizon’s mother by his grandfather when she was still a pre-teen. (The grandfather, who Tizon describes a “cigar-chomping army lieutenant,” later committed suicide.) Lola was never paid by Tizon’s parents, rarely left the house, and did not know how to read or write. When Lola’s parents died, Tizons’ parents even refused her request to return to the Philippines to mourn them.
Tizon’s article, which chronicles his attempts to make reparations to Lola before and after her death, examines his own complicity in the arrangement that he straightforwardly describes as “slavery.” It paints a complicated portrait of his mother, who treated Lola shamefully and yet loved the woman who served her for most of her life. And it gives true attention (attention being the purest form of generosity, as the French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote) to a woman who spent her lifetime toiling in a state of profound unrecognition.
Tizon had a genius and passion for illuminating corners of society that often exist outside of mainstream view. The range of his subjects is on full display in Invisible People: Seattle’s Cambodian refugee community, which struggles to adapt to American society while coping with the enormous emotional trauma they experienced in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge; the members of the Nisqually Indian Tribe who seek to clear the name of their former leader Chief Leschi, who was wrongly executed by Washington’s Territorial Government in 1858; a Marine-turned-pacifist-turned-poet who publicly opposes the war in Iraq from his home in Port Townsend; a former janitor in Olympia who claims after winning recognition as a writer that his life has become hell; teenage gang members in Ballard; Christian surfers in Hawaii; peace activists in Palestine; and an army lieutenant who refuses to deploy to a war that he believes to be unjust. Despite the subjects’ differences, Tizon’s articles amount to a coherent vision, demonstrating a dedication to making visible the lives of those who reside at the margins.
It is often said that the responsibility of journalists is to speak truth to power. Tizon more often gave voice to the powerless, acts for which he will long be remembered.
Sam Howe Verhovek, David Boardman, and others will read from Invisible People at The Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday, December 12th, 2019, at 7 pm.