"The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila."
That's the first sentences of Alex Tizon's recent viral piece at the Atlantic titled "A Story of Slavery" . Those lines tell you a lot—not so much about Tizon, as about the kind of story you're about to read. You start with "ashes" — that's death, a weighty subject. There's descriptive language right off; the "black plastic box" is the "size of a toaster"; that tips you off that you're looking at the world through a particular sensibility—one that is observant, precise, vivid. "It weighed three and a half pounds" is a short, declarative sentence; too plain, too unadorned, pregnant with too much meaning. And then the third sentence takes you to Manila, a locale that most American readers know but aren't necessarily personally familiar with, letting you know the story will give you a tour of new experiences and insights.
In short, the opening of Tizon's story lets you know, right away, that you are reading literary nonfiction by a Writer with a capital "W". "A Story of Slavery" is not just about what Tizon does, or what he finds, but about his style, his eloquence, his soul. Tizon, and the Atlantic, are presenting you, via genre markers, with a quality experience. It is meant to be savored, studied, contemplated. You should prepare to be moved.
Literary nonfiction can in fact be moving, thoughtful, and effective; James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers, so I'm hardly in a position to condemn the genre as a whole. But it's important to fit your genre to your subject—and here Tizon and the Atlantic run into trouble. Tizon is writing about a woman named Eudocia Tomas Pulido. She was enslaved by Tizon's grandfather in the Philippines when she was a girl. Tizon's parents kept her enslaved her entire life, taking her with them when they emigrated to America. Pulido raised Tizon, and as he grew up he slowly came to realize that his parents had enslaved and exploited her. The essay is about his anger, his guilt, his complicity, and his love for the woman who his family deliberately and callously abused for decades.
It's a complicated and painful story, and many people have read it and found it valuable for the way it raises awareness of modern slavery, and for the way it illuminates how people can become complicit in evil. Others have been horrified by Tizon's vacillating efforts to defend his mother, and by his apparently unthinking ongoing callousness towards Pulido. For example, when Pulido comes to live with him at the end of his life, he expresses irritation at her for hoarding garbage and refusing to throw things away. He doesn't seem to be aware that she no doubt got in the habit of saving all she could because his parents kept her in brutal poverty, and she had nothing of her own. Again, you could say that Pulido's blind spots are worth exploring, and that the essay is in fact made stronger by its willingness to show its author in a (sometimes very) unflattering light. Life is messy, good people do evil. Isn't the piece to be praised for its unflinching exploration of these truths?
The thing is, though, that this is itself part of the confessional literary nonfiction genre package. Literary confessional writing celebrates the writer for his or her flaws. Revealing weakness is courageous; delving into one's own inner conflict and one's own moral vacillation is a mark of sensitivity and daring. Tizon faced an ethical dilemma and captured it in beautiful prose; he is to be celebrated as a writer and a (flawed) human being. Pulido worked for Tizon's family her whole life, her labor was leached out of her, and contributed to their prosperity, while she received nothing in return. And now, Tizon returns to the scene of the crime—and queasily, literarily reproduces it. He takes Pulido, dumps her into the literary nonfiction machine, and turns the crank. Her plight, her pain, are taken from her, and added to his virtues.
Tizon himself died shortly before the story was published. That sad coincidence unfortunately only adds to the literary fiction mystique. The Atlantic printed a laudatory obituary note with the piece, and the essay will, of necessity, be seen as a capstone to Tizon's career—a final act of sensitivity and courage. Pulido labored her whole life, all so Tizon could get a viral cover story in the Atlantic. Presumably his editors think her sacrifice was worth it.