Honouring the slave who raised him

Due to an unfortunate health problem, Pulitzer prize–winning reporter Alex Tizon died three months before “My Family’s Slave,” his incredible tale about Eudocia Tomas Pulido, appeared on the cover of the June issue of the Atlantic Magazine.

We called her Lola,” wrote Tizon. “She was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes that I can still see looking into mine—my first memory. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding.”

Had he lived to tour and answer questions about his experience, Tizon might have prompted an even bigger discussion about modern slavery in North American than his article set off.

A Story of Mutual Dependence and Love

“My Family’s Slave” details Tizon’s complicated relationship with his nanny and household maid. Initially, Lola was trapped due to decisions made by his mother and grandfather. After Alex became responsible for Lola, he tried to free her, but by then, she didn’t have anywhere else to go. He paid to send her back home to the Philippines, but she returned to his household soon after saying she no longer fit in with the few people still alive in her hometown.

It’s hard not to wonder how many similar situations exist across North America.

When he came to us with the enthralling, vexing story of his immigrant family and its terrible secret, we recognized that this was the sort of journalism The Atlantic has practiced since its inception,” wrote editor Jeffrey Goldberg, in a companion article to the piece. “The magazine was founded in 1857 by a group of New England abolitionists eager to advance the cause of universal freedom. When I first read a draft of Alex’s piece, I imagined that the founders—people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—would not have believed that 154 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, humans would still be enslaving other humans, in America and across the planet. The eradication of all forms of slavery remains an unfinished goal of civilization, and of this magazine, and stories like Alex’s help us understand slavery’s awful persistence.”

A structure that weaves through time and place

Tizon’s story follows a complicated structure that weaves four storylines together. One storyline follows the author’s journey as he carries Lola’s ashes to her birthplace outside of Manilla, told in the order in which it took place in narrative fashion, complete with flashbacks to previous visits to the region. A second storyline outlines the history of slavery as an institution from modern times dating back to some time prior to the 1500s. Another storyline highlights the history of the Tarlac Province and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The main storyline connects each of the other three by describing Lola’s service to Tizon’s family, highlighting key moments of connection, cruelty and turmoil.

We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then. In many ways, she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby, I uttered Lola’s name (which I first pronounced “Oh-ah”) long before I learned to say “Mom” or “Dad.” As a toddler, I refused to go to sleep unless Lola was holding me, or at least nearby.”

Classic Feature Style

Like most of the stories in The Atlantic, “my family’s slave” represents exquisite long-form journalism. No errors appear in the text and each sentence flows easily from the one it follows.

I highly recommend My Family’s Slave by Alex Tizon , The Atlantic, May 15, 2017,  accessed April 2, 2018.

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Can Sherry Simon understand cities by studying language?

Earlier this year, I attended a bilingual lunchtime discussion led by Sherry Simon about power struggles in multilingual cities at McGill’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal.

As Keynote speaker, Simon, a Professor in Concordia’s French Department presented a collection of stories she edited within a book called “Speaking Memory: How Translation Shapes City Life.”

Even though this book is a collective, it is a result of my obsession with Montreal and with Montreal-like cities which I’ve studied over the last ten or more years,” she said. “It all started in the early 1990s in my neighbourhood, which is Mile-End, when I became aware that the day-to-day life in my neighbourhood, the way languages were handled, the way people thought, the way identities were construed were diametrically opposed to what I was hearing on the radio and what I was reading in the newspapers. That was a shock.”

My focus was a profile for the February issue of the Montrealer, but Simon’s work is so fascinating, I decided to present our conversation in this podcast as well.

Sherry Simon’s Diverse Career

As a Jewish Anglophone who grew up in Snowdon, went to school in Westmount and spent much of her life integrating into Montreal’s Francophone culture, Simon knows how it feels to be an outsider. Unlike many of us, however, she has used her minority status as a strength in understanding and explaining changing identities.  She is one of the few Anglophones I’ve met who speaks about the French and English dichotomy in Quebec from a position in which she absolutely believes that it is vitally important to keep the French language dominant in the city. Despite not agreeing with her, I couldn’t help but recognize how well-considered her opinion is.

Simon is currently a professor in the French Department at Concordia University and author of “Genders in Translation,” “Cities in Translation,” and “Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City” in addition to “Speaking Memory.”

 

What some people see as a disadvantage I turned into an advantage,” she said. “I remember that very existential sense that I had as a kid when I took the bus across town and felt unwelcome. Bilingualism in Montreal affects everything that we are. Culture is constantly being transferred back and forth.”

Simon was born on April 16, 1948. The Royal Society of Canada and of the Académie des lettres du Québec count her as a member. In 2009 she was a Killam Research Fellow and in 2010 she received the Prix André-Laurendeau from l’Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS).

During our conversation, we discuss the bonjour/hi controversy,  Quebec’s influence on France when it comes to gender,  the improvement in Francophone pride in their own identity, and the removal of gender from Canada’s national anthem.

This is a change that is long overdue,” says Simon. “Language regularly changes. This is totally normal and fundamental. It’s absolutely essential that people recognize themselves in the language they use.”

A fascinating part of our conversation for me was our discussion about Montreal’s fundamental shit from English to French between 1940 and 1980.

People don’t realize that what was happening on the French side of town was exciting to a whole group of Anglos at the time,” said Simon. “My favourite character of that time was Malcolm Reid, a journalist in the 70’s who wrote about Francophone Montreal. He wrote this wonderful book about the Shouting Sign Painters. It’s a fabulous book about how the poets and songwriters were transferring the identity of the city and how exciting that was for English Montrealers to watch.”

Sherry Simon’s next book will be a tourist guidebook to polyglot places.

Once my Montrealer profile is online, I’ll link to it, but in the meantime, I highly recommend that readers who understand French watch Simon’s bilingual speech called “The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures.”

 

 

 

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