By Heidi Carreon
On March 23, 2017, journalist Alex Tizon unexpectedly died at age 58, just weeks before The Atlantic published “My Family’s Slave,” a high-profile piece in which Alex critically looked at his family’s relationship with Lola, their nanny. He was one of the few Filipino American journalists to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. This is the piece I wish wrote last year.
If you Google Alex Tizon’s name, you’ll see a few tidbits about his life and career. He was one of the few Filipino journalists to earn one of the highest awards in the field, a professor at the University of Oregon, a husband, and a father. One thing you’ll also find is that he wrote a memoir about coming into his identity as a Filipino American — “Big Little Man: In Search of my Asian Self.”
When I read his memoir as a college sophomore in 2014, I was floored. It was like I peeked inside the head of my male Asian friends and understood the causes of their insecurities. I suddenly had even more reason to cringe when I heard white guys fetishizing Asian women. Alex’s story about his father massaging his Filipino nose in an attempt to shape it into something more European-looking echoed something my mother had done with me.
Alex’s writing weaved his memories with history like any long-form journalist worth their salt. But of all the pieces I’ve read in journalism school, this one provided context and shed light on parts of my world that I didn’t realize I needed to be aware of. I learned about colonial mentality and the importance of representation because of his book.
I was fortunate enough to meet Alex when he and his family visited Los Angeles that year. He bought my friend and me coffee, and we spent an hour swapping stories. He was warm, enthusiastic, and just as attentive to our stories as he was hearing our thoughts on his. We touched on a lot of things that day: similarities in our upbringing, representation in media, figuring out our identity and dignity as Filipino Americans. Yet the biggest thing that stood out was how patiently Alex listened to us, and I quickly realized it was why he was able to spend so many years telling the stories of those on the margins…when the world seemed busy with other types of narratives, Alex listened to the ones who were hidden or forgotten. And he told the world what he heard.
That meeting, though brief, remains one of my most memorable experiences in college. It was why it was so hard to process his unexpected death nearly three years later. As I read his slightly controversial Atlantic piece, “My Family’s Slave,” which was published shortly after his passing, I remembered just how powerful a writer Alex was.
His gift was his ability in bringing his own life to scrutiny for the sake of creating something that resonated with others like him — those who identified with experiences of writers of color, Asians, Filipinos and immigrants. The strength of his storytelling came from a intense vulnerability that few Filipinos see even within their own families. This is what makes Alex’s passing so unfair. A family lost a key member, a journalism department lost a great mentor, and the Filipino community lost one of our best storytellers.
But it wouldn’t do to grieve for the articles and books that Alex didn’t get to write.
When I met Alex, my friend and I were poised to become Co-Culture Chairs of USC’s Filipino American student organization. I asked Alex what we could do to keep Filipino culture and history interesting to those who have no interest in learning about their ancestry.
“Tell stories,” he said,
“Tell stories that makes the culture rich and alive enough that they’ll want to learn more.”
A year after Alex’s death, I still think about how much his life and work have touched mine. I’m particularly reminded of the final part of Alex’s memoir, which muses on small moments that can inspire people to change their worldview or life course. A movie can inspire someone to become a missionary or a documentary can inspire someone to study marine biology, for instance. Alex wondered whether having such inspiration sooner in his life would have drastically changed how he came at peace with his identity and his manhood:
“[In the examples mentioned] timing was crucial: exposure had to occur when the seeker was able to receive the revelation.”
What might have comforted Alex was knowing that he wrote many, many stories that could touch people should they care to look. And at least for this Filipino American writer, Alex’s memoir came into my life at the perfect moment. Just like the Delano Manongs were central to the Delano grape strikes, the words of modern-day Manangs and Manongs like Alex continue that legacy of pride and empowerment for Filipino Americans.
As people who carry the blood of those who have been colonized for nearly five centuries, we are born to wield our own power and thrive. If there’s anything to learn from Alex’s life and career it’s that our stories are powerful, and they matter.
Like Alex Tizon, we have the ability to create our own largeness wherever we go.
This month Kubo is exploring the theme of Pilipin@ representation. No matter what industry you’re in, we’re here to share the stories of Pilipin@ millennials because our voices matter.
Follow Heidi on Twitter @HeidiCarreon.