Personal essays; we’ve all read one at some point or another. They are the slates of non-fiction that are not long enough to be considered an autobiography nor a memoir, and yet to some extremity, strive to prove a point by way of sharing whichever selected aspect of the writer’s life. While it’s a genre of writing that has existed for the longest time, it seems that it’s only within contemporary times where there’s a surge in terms of the quantity of them out there. If you think about it, it’s not too surprising. We have the Internet, and as a result, publishing online and immediate satisfaction has never been easier than before.
There are examples all around to go off of; some more ridiculous, others more heart-wrenching. However, you can probably imagine my surprise when I read a piece from The New Yorker recently on how the personal essay boom has simmered down since the election of Trump to office. Honestly, I don’t know if the writer of this article has read essays beyond those on Jezebel and xojane. Maybe it’s because of the community I surround myself with, for I feel that every other week, at least one personal essay has hit a point on my radar; many of which having quite a bit of relevancy in this current political climate. I can’t say that they’re necessarily viral pieces in the same way as that of the late Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave,” but I find it understandably wise to share our stories now more than ever before. It’s not a way of drawing pity attention to ourselves (although the writers who do write such essays with this motive in mind definitely need to rethink their intentions), but rather a way of getting people to understand each other better.
I can understand if my thoughts aren’t sinking in properly without any context to go by, so for the sake of the matter, take Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” for example. For those who haven’t read it (which, by the way, I highly recommend you do take the time to read it all the way through), this posthumous essay details the unpaid domestic worker Tizon’s family has kept around for nearly six decades. Apart from being unpaid, she was abused, was never properly fed, didn’t have her own living quarters, and yet cared so deeply for the family she was, as Tizon came to realize by adolescence, enslaved by. This essay turns the katulong culture on its head, as Tizon’s words place a mirror in front of it, showing exactly everything that is wrong and inhumane about it. If there is a point to gain from this last work from Tizon, apart from calling out this problematic aspect of Filipino culture, it was another way of showing how slavery did not fade from existence following the Black slaves kept prior to and during the Civil War.
Tizon’s family having a slave is something that I can imagine to have been a long kept family secret, and I’m sure he understood the potential reaction the essay could face upon publication. If there is any change going forward in the culture surrounding domestic workers in the Philippines and in Filipino culture in general, we’ll have Tizon to thank for shedding light on this dark topic.
Now as a writer who’s had work published online in several outlets, I’ve had my fair share of writing personal essays as well. However, I always am very careful with not only how I word them, but also to make a point. I try to not put too much about my personal life in my writings for the Internet if I can help it, even though there are experiences that I’ve been through that, when I really think about it, would make for wise topics for personal essays (such as sexism, hypocritical religious relatives, and overcoming being stalked). If I were to ever write about these experiences, I want to make sure that I’m in the right head space and that there is an adequate point that can easily relay to readers who maybe have been through similar experiences.
I don’t see an end to personal essays, for in this political climate, such stories are necessary. All I hope is that they’re being written and published for the right reason in mind.
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