Review: Alex Tizon makes his case in ‘Big Little Man’
Throughout my education, the topic of race was always firmly in place in our curriculum. It started in kindergarten, when Mrs. Rohloff had us draw Martin Luther King Jr. in celebration of his holiday. Every year from then on out, a few weeks were consistently devoted to learning about the black experience in America. We close read Langston Hughes poems. We listened to slave hymns. We skimmed through articles about racial profiling in the Portland Police Department.
Now, as I prepare to graduate from college, I look back at my years of schooling feeling armed with a basic, yet credible, understanding of racism’s deeply planted roots in the American system. But one thing sticks out to me: learning about race and identity in America was always a black and white story. In class there was never time for any other color.
But just weeks before I leave school behind forever, I read the book Big Little Man: In Search of my Asian Self by University of Oregon professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon. Suddenly, a new color was added to the black and white palette my teachers had left me. Dealing with race meant dealing with “yellow,” too.
The themes in Tizon’s book are blaringly clear: Big Little Man is about race, masculinity and shame. He tells the story of his family’s migration to the United States from the Philippines in 1964 and shares intensely personal tales of his struggle to find comfort in his skin. He dives deep into every nook and cranny of his personal shame.
But Big Little Man is far from your typical “coming-to-America/identity crisis” memoir. As much as the narrative is fueled by anecdotes, non-fiction stands out as a dominant ingredient in Tizon’s storytelling. He buttresses life moments with detailed history, sociology and science. Tizon is at once a human being telling his story and a lawyer presenting his case. He is both the witness testimony and the defendant, with his Asian masculinity on trial.
More often than not, this pairing of raw memoir and investigative journalism is effective. In one particular chapter, called “Seeking Hot Asian Babes,” he uses his experience with Bobby, his driver in Cebu, Philippines, as a precedent to launch into an eye-opening and entirely journalistic look into the state of sex tourism in Southeast Asia. In doing so, he makes the case that Asian woman are hyper-sexualized. He immediately counters with the reality of the Asian man as unwanted and unattractive. He uses multiple examples from pop culture to make the point that Asian male figures, when not represented as karate masters, are weak or simply nonexistent. In a recent book talk at the University of Oregon Knight library, Tizon challenged the audience to name one strong, heroic Asian man from TV or film. He got silence in response.
When pitching his book to publishers, Tizon received 26 rejection replies. There seemed to be consistent response, along the lines of “this is too much of a sociologist essay.” Even after Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Press accepted his pitch, his editor continued to steer him in the personal memoir direction rather than having him pursue his non-fictional tendencies as a journalist. While facts and history help make his case crystal clear in his plea for the struggles of the Asian male, he does sometimes go a little overboard.
In chapter 8, his most polarizing chapter in which he tackles the myth of the small Asian penis, Tizon is at his most open, honest, and quite literally, naked moment. He effectively dives headfirst into a very popular stereotype about the Asian male. But, in the following chapter, his writing loses steam. In “Getting Tall,” he devotes an entire 15-page section to talking about the long history behind the connotations of Asian smallness. Sometimes this shift between memoir and non-fiction is too rapid. And in this case, he provides a series of lists that is somewhat exhausting to sift through.
Tizon says writing Big Little Man was a “magical and poetic process that felt more like he was cutting himself open and digging his shame out.” This book is about being an Asian male in America. But universally, the work encapsulates a much broader perspective. It’s about being the “other,” the outcast, the underdog, the ignored. And by the end, it’s about optimism and hope.
This review was written by Emerald guest contributor Reuben Unrau, who graduated from the School of Journalism and Communication in June 2015. You can reach him on Twitter