In a world with an internet-afflicted attention span, one obsessed with blustering tweets and cat videos, news sometimes comes packaged like fast food: chicken nuggets pumped with synthetic flavor but lacking nutrition. The rich and raw stories written by Alex Tizon, in contrast, were more like a top-notch hole in the wall with no menu, where the chef surprises you with each curated course. Each word earns its place, and the result is satisfyingly powerful.
Tizon reported for The Seattle Times for 17 years and served as the Los Angeles Times’ Seattle bureau chief for five more. He shared the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting with Seattle Times reporters Eric Nalder and Deborah Nelson for exposing corruption in a federal housing program for Native Americans. He died of natural causes in 2017 at age 57. Tizon made his career writing stories often left untold, and last month, a collection of his published stories, “Invisible People: Stories of Lives at the Margins,” compiled many of his most powerful narratives in one text.
But his legacy is complicated.
Less than two months after his death in March of 2017, The Atlantic published a cover story by Tizon, “My Family’s Slave,” which detailed the life of Eudocia “Lola” Tomas Pulido, who followed Tizon’s mother from the Philippines to the U.S. and involuntarily served their family for more than five decades. In Pulido’s 2011 Seattle Times obituary — requested, informed and originally drafted by Tizon — Lola was portrayed as a de facto member of the family, a fill-in grandmother who lived a life “marked by a devotion so rare that even those closest to her still struggle to comprehend it.” In reality, the woman who raised three generations of the family was a slave.
In “Invisible People,” editor Sam Verhovek and Tizon’s widow, Melissa, amassed his most compelling pieces — including “My Family’s Slave” — to preserve his unique storytelling ability and to inspire future journalists with stories of marginalized communities. Colleagues from across the industry introduce each piece in the collection.
Tizon made his career by ignoring trends, writing deep instead of fast and highlighting subjects whose stories might otherwise never be told.
“When it’s really well done, [journalism] can start approaching a level of art. I think Tizon was determined to be an artist,” said Verhovek, who worked alongside Tizon for three years at the Los Angeles Times Seattle bureau. “It’s a bit like a pointillist painting, where the whole painting is based on dots. Each daily story you do might be a dot or a dash, but in Tizon’s case, I do think they add up to a masterpiece.”
“A lot of his stories weren’t pegged to anything in the news or even the zeitgeist,” Verhovek said. It makes Tizon’s work all the more engaging because “he was always telling us about things we didn’t know.”
Tizon penned stories of a fisherman who helped the Nisqually regain fishing rights in a landmark court case, of the sole Muslim family living in a Wyoming town just after 9/11, of surfers for Jesus and a mail-order bride who was murdered during her divorce proceedings.
Tizon spent hours interviewing ancillary subjects and kept in touch with them long after stories went to print. One story details the cold case of two men lost, swallowed up by Alaska’s wilderness, a story prompted by a follow-up email sent 10 years after the initial disappearance.
How could his editors give him such latitude in a 24/7 news cycle?
Tizon could “extract raw and often painful material from vulnerable subjects and weave it into elevated, purposeful gold,” writes David Boardman, former Seattle Times executive editor, in an introduction.
“We had learned early on to have confidence in his eye for a story, and in particular, his ability to find universal themes and lessons in everything he saw, read or reported,” writes Scott Kraft, managing editor of the L.A. Times.
Believing every human being has an “epic story,” Tizon’s fascination with and compassion for life’s shadowy margins was informed by his experience as an immigrant, arriving in the U.S. at 4 years old.
“He grew up trying to find his own identity being Filipino in this country, being around mostly white people, so for his whole life he struggled with shame and insecurity,” Melissa said in an interview last month.
Having gone into journalism to pay bills, she says, Tizon realized it could help him learn about other people, “and by doing so he could elevate his own self.” He had no time for small talk and didn’t “shy away from painful things,” Melissa said.
“Alex used to say, ‘Somewhere in the tangle of the subject’s burden and the subject’s desire is your story,’” says Verhovek. “And the more I think about it, the wiser I think it is.”
Melissa has said that her husband’s epic story was about Lola, the woman who helped raise him and then later, his children. She says he wrestled with it for years, coming to terms with it by his death, but evidently not by the time he requested her obituary in 2011.
“My Family’s Slave” explains what Tizon concealed after Pulido’s death. According to the original obituary, Pulido made a promise to watch over Tizon’s mother after the death of Tizon’s grandmother. He later revealed Pulido was “given” to the family and came to the U.S. as his parents’ unpaid housekeeper and caregiver, a status they kept secret. Tizon was 11 when he realized Lola was, in fact, a slave. The essay etches a conflicted web of love, complicated by a crime both moral and civil. When Tizon’s parents died, he and Melissa brought Lola into their home. They gave her $200/week, and though asked not to, they say Lola insisted on cooking, cleaning and caring for the children as she always had. She passed away Nov. 7, 2011.
“This time of year is a surreal and emotional time for us,” Melissa says. “I was in tears yesterday. We were so close to her.”
Even if “Invisible People” reignites controversy, Verhovek felt compelled to gather the stories, noting that Tizon would have had no problem defending himself from backlash. He said “My Family’s Slave” was the writer’s way of sorting through his decadeslong internal conflict over the role Lola played in his family’s life.
“To me, the story beautifully, painfully captured the tension, the difficulty, the crime at the heart of why [Lola] was there in his life,” Verhovek said. “And yet, she clearly loved him and he loved her. I thought he clearly got at that and was unsparing in the implied criticism of himself and his family.”
Melissa agreed when Verhovek approached her about compiling the collection, hoping to inspire future journalists and preserve her late husband’s work. And she said Tizon would’ve welcomed the debate over his biggest story.
“He had such an incredible storytelling technique,” Melissa added. “I wanted to capture it so future journalists could use it to inspire their own.”
Proceeds will be donated to the Asian American Journalists Association, a lasting commitment to telling those stories of the underrepresented. In Tizon’s case, the most “epic” story was close to home, one left untold for decades.
“I hope we can support young journalists and find the next Alex Tizon,” Melissa said.
“Invisible People: Stories of Lives at the Margins,” by Alex Tizon, edited by Sam Verhovek, Temple University Press, 248 pp. $25
Editor appearance: Sam Verhovek and David Boardman will host a free reading of “Invisible People” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, elliottbaybook.com