Tweet Sering knows there is nothing calm about the eye of the storm. Her self-published collection of essays, speeches, and blog entries Astigirl: A Grown Girl Living on her Own Terms finds her standing at the confluence of opposing forces—her Gen X birthright to aimlessness and her Millenials’ Special Snowflake syndrome, the western drive for personal identity and the indivisible nucleus of the Filipino family—that threaten to tear her apart as she drags herself, kicking and screaming, towards maturity and self-discovery.
The personal essay collection has shaped up to be la mode of expression du jour (pardon my French) for women coming into their own: Katrina Stuart-Santiago, whose blog RadikalChick hits many of the same notes as Sering, recently self-published her own anthology of essays titled Of Love and Other Lemons.
In America, Lena “I think I might be the voice of my generation” Dunham, whose TV show Girls is the absolute pinnacle of Millennial blaarrgh, has also hopped on the gravy train; publisher Random House paid $3.7 million at auction for the rights to put out a collection of Dunham’s essays called Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned. (Sound familiar?)
The personal essay’s intensely, well, personal nature is both its greatest strength and weakness: honesty ceases to be interesting once it becomes self-indulgence. The only thing more personal than a personal essay is a blog entry. It is a testament to Sering’s capabilities as a writer that, when she guts her innermost thoughts and spreads them across the page for her and us to consider, she does so with a focus that prevents the work from devolving into a stream-of-consciousness rant.
One of the main clashes throughout Sering’s life is how her self-actualizing drive collides with the traditional Filipino family. As a teenager, Sering resented what she perceived as the acutely hierarchal and ageist structure of her family. While foreign youths regularly escape on journeys of self-discovery before the 18 candles on their birthday cakes have been blown out, the stakes of leaving home were higher for Sering due to “the intensely tribal or family/group-oriented society of the Philippines.” So her first act of rebellion was to leave home at age 20.
At its self-indulgent worst, I can’t help but feel that a more appropriate title would have been Artegirl: An Overgrown Child Leeching on her Own Terms. After spending “years of trying to live my ideal of the strong, independent, self-sufficient woman,” Sering finally burns out and, at 34, returns home to live beneath the roof of her parents, “never once volunteering to pay any sort of house bill; blinking wordlessly, unhelpfully… as [my family] discusses which adult is going to do what adult chore that day.” She justifies this gleeful regression into adolescence by claiming that, as a teenager, she insisted on being treated as a grown-up and missed out on all the fun.
Nowhere in this litany of I, Me, Mine is there any mention of what her parents want. Sering’s intense focus on her own well-being ignores the fact that her road to self-fulfilment is paved with the sacrifices of her mom and dad; the question of whether or not they deserve a financial break from the decades-long grind of raising children is never asked. It’s enough to flip Helen Lovejoy’s tortured cry on its head: won’t somebody please think of the parents?
It would be unfair to pick on Sering for merely thinking about herself. It’s natural for her to view things through her own prism. It’s natural to chase one’s dreams. What’s alarming is Sering’s lack of shame as she revels in letting others pick up after her. “I saw that I could be thick-faced enough to borrow money from my parents and other relatives in order to fund my personal projects and workshops.”
Over the course of the book, Sering frequently examines the astig-ness of celebrities like Manny Paqcuiao and Angelina Jolie, especially in the context of what she sees as negative forces preventing them from reaching their full potential. While she makes genuine attempts to empathize, she too often mistakes walking in someone’s shoes for looking through their eyes.
Particularly telling is a passage where Sering posits a series of rhetorical questions concerning Oscar Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s failed marriage with Avatar creator James Cameron: “Had being James Cameron’s ‘Queen’ felt too small a role for her? Did she ever feel that, despite their both being artists, his work mattered more than her own?” There is a misguided assumpting here. Operating under the guise of feminist solidarity, Sering implies that, because Cameron was successful, Bigelow could only have felt like she was playing second fiddle. The concept of a marriage of equals and, by extension, a parting of equals, is too far-fetched, so she fabricates an oppressed wife narrative to mesh with her personal beliefs.
In her parting quip about Bigelow’s collection of Oscar awards, she asks, “would she be on that stage had she remained in her marriage?” There is an implicit double-standard here. If a man were to ask, “Would James Cameron have created the highest-grossing film of all time in Avatar had he stayed with his wife?,” he would rightfully be called sexist. By projecting herself unto the situation, Sering has done Bigelow a great disservice.
Tweet Sering is undoubtedly at the center of her universe; whether that helps or hinders her on her journey is almost entirely contextual. With Astigirl, she has created a suitably uneven manifesto for the notoriously aimless and fickle twenty-somethings beginning to dominate the cultural landscape.
Emmanuel Natola is a writer. While composing this bionote, he felt a rush of empathy for every interviewee who had to give him their life story in just two sentences.