While we’re on the subject of short stories: My write-up on Lysley Tenorio‘s debut collection of short stories, Monstress, plus an interview with the author. I had an amazing and fun and exceedingly awkward time interviewing Lysley; Monstress is too good a book for me to retain certain dignities. Below, my ever-rambling:
Leaving—and its twin attendants: staying away, and the tease of return—is the damnably rich near-imperative of Filipino life. One that, unfortunately, has been mined only to raise high the Filipino immigrant experience as social commentary—as both battle-cry for our ilk and a take-it-or-leave-it message against the rest of the world—and almost always a sentimental capturing of a truth of the Filipino way of life. I leave/left/will leave the Philippines for a better life for me and for my family—this is the new tenet of the provider pulling luggage in his wake. I will always straddle two identities: that of the land that bore me and of my adopted country—this is the old standby of the expatriates in stories, who tend to gaze at their own navels darker in sheen than the rest of the country they’ve shuttled themselves into.
Lysley Tenorio, then, is godsend to this latest literary preoccupation. His debut collection of short stories Monstress—well received far and wide for its startling storytelling and its insight into a subset of immigrant America—proves that debates about the necessity of Filipino-ness in Filipino literature can rightly be rendered moot, so long as story is king. The usual clincher—What makes you and your story Filipino?—does not take precedence over the immediacy of the story one needs to tell well; the kerfuffle that does nothing but distract is, at last, duly sacrificed before the altar of good fiction.
The noticeable ambivalence to questions of nationality is what allows Tenorio’s short stories to freely focus on the outliers that people his stories. Race and sense of place, the politics of leaving and of staying gone-too-long—are relegated to simply being among the many circumstances that make life a pain in the ass to live. The country one was born in is simply an inherent part of one’s character—one that, via Tenorio, willfully shuns preeminence. Yes, itt’s the color of one’s hair, the tinge one’s skin takes in high summer, the hardness of one’s consonants—the fact that, at a certain era, one couldn’t enter a bar through the front door. And it’s up there alongside figuring how to kiss someone onscreen for the first time, after a career of having “gouged, bitten, clawed, stabbed”; alongside watching one’s grandfather scoop chicken liver from the sidewalk, glimpsing the white on the crown amid the haphazardly applied dye; alongside learning how to make a habit of hiding in the garage as a child, waiting for one’s too-young, too-beautiful sister to return from her date with a no-good asshole.
Q: It’s fairly natural to have the culture—or your family’s memories of it—rub off on you. How was the dynamic within your family?
TENORIO: We left the Philippines when I was seven months old, and I grew up mostly in San Diego, Southern California. I don’t know if I could have done what they did, packed up in your late thirties or mid-forties and just start over. My parents were brave and smart and gutsy; and they were wildly successful at it. We helped them in certain ways, but they made their own lives here—there.
Q: I’m generalizing, but a big reason why people go to the States, or anywhere, is to have “a better life.” And when you suddenly announce to your parents, “By the way, I’m going into the arts!”—that’s not exactly textbook “better life” around these parts.
TENORIO: I’m really lucky with my family. I knew, growing up, that a lot of parents of Filipino kids were really invested in their education. But mine were really laid back. I think they figured if I wasn’t getting in trouble, then I was okay. They let me do what I want. I don’t think I would have been a writer if they hadn’t been as hands-off. My father would have loved for me to go to law school, I know that. But they didn’t pressure me. But I have to say I never made that announcement. So that’s probably why I got away with it. [Laughs.] But, you know, had my father been alive—because by the time I started writing seriously, my father had passed away—maybe he would’ve been concerned. Especially since I was just moving around the country, going from fellowship to fellowship, wherever I could get support for my writing. He might have been a little worried. But my mother—even if she was worried, I think she knew that I was okay.
Q: (That’s because you’re the bunso [youngest].) So, how many times have you been back?
TENORIO: Well, we came back when I was seven years old, for about a month; then I came back when I was twenty-seven—and then now. (I haven’t been back very much.) Yeah, I’m the youngest of five, and I feel like a lot of the culture or maybe some of the personality of the Philippines—I think I got a lot of that from my family.
Q: I think this kind of passing-on also lends to how subtle and almost deliberately downplayed whatever message on Filipino-ness there is in your stories. Nationality seems almost incidental to your characters. It’s something that concerns them when they think about it, sure—but they’re still, primarily, human beings trying to deal with all the crazy, curveball things you have to deal with as human beings.
TENORIO: That was my hope for it. I appreciate anyone who reads the book, and I appreciate anyone who might read the book will see it as a group portrait of Filipinos or Filipino-Americans. For me, it’s not. I mean, I don’t mean for the book to be anthropology or sociology. It’s impossible. How can eight stories about lepers and faith healers and The Beatles represent a group? So, to me, they’re individuals who are just trying to make their way into the world, while caught in some very strange circumstances. A lot of those circumstances are rooted in the tangle between the Philippines and the West.
Q: Those strange circumstances—I think you tend to double-damn your characters. Which is a gutsy thing. Sure, they’re strangers in an even stranger land, which poses its own set of challenges—but they also have to deal with, say, being a leper, or taking care of Mom when she goes on one of her benders. And it’s the latter bits you focus on, have the characters focus on. In many ways, that’s what seems to matter to you, to your characters.
TENORIO: Hey, thanks, I appreciate that. And I understand how fiction—how writing—can be overtly political, and be useful and be very meaningful that way. But although that’s one of my interests, too, I don’t think it would be one of my strengths. So I’d rather have that message just be yet another one of the givens of their lives that sometimes comes to the foreground, sometimes not. They have other things to deal with, like the new American patient in the leper colony or the opportunity to make it big in Hollywood. For a writer, for me, that’s material that’s more fun. And I have to keep myself entertained to write.
Q: And otherwise, it’s just social commentary hiding under the guise of fiction.
TENORIO: Yes, and that’s what I was doing when I started writing in college. It was literally like Immigrant of the Week Tragedies. This week, I’ll talk about the Mexican experience; next week, I’ll try the Chinese experience.
Immigrant-of-the-Week stories, the tales in Lysley’s debut Monstress are not. Which is enough to ensure that Monstress is on its way to being competent, if conscientious, literature. But Monstress is damn-good literature because it takes care to pause for silences, nestled as they are in the minute pockets between sensationalism. One of the strongest, most haunting scenes in the collection involves one mother, firmly of the old world, binding her dead transsexual son’s breasts—the son who had debuted his new identity on television a la Jerry Springer, parading himself for all the world to see. And all while her other son, the one alive, the one still truly a son to a mother’s thinking—cradles his brother’s corpse in assistance, and in apology. The mother she chants, winding elastic around her dead son’s strange new torso, “Ang bunso ko.”
These are stories that respect the craft; respect the truth about people and their foibles, even within the slow and careful revelations. Monstress succeeds because of poignancy amid a strangeness that is nonetheless familiar or comforting to all its outcasts and outliers, immigrants or otherwise; the stories are earnest, they’ve got a tenderness that disarms the reader in the best possible way. It’s just damn good writing, is what it is—the kind that can have you slowly shaking your head and muttering “Jesus, Mary, and all the saints” under your breath.
Arguably the hippest story in the collection is “The Help,” about a group of ragtag adolescent boys, charged by an airport terminal guard all but obsessed by the Grand Dame of Philippine Politics to beat up The Beatles. Beyond the doomed-from-the-start planning (as one may surmise, it doesn’t bode well to have one’s mastermind have a house tattooed with images of The Beauteous Mrs. Marcos) and its madcap execution—not to mention the story’s near-overwhelming nod to kitsch—“The Help” shines because it, too, takes care to find the quiet within its characters. Our narrator gazes at his nominal uncle mooning over a poster of Imelda and goes, “I thought that this might be love, that if something could change you so much, then maybe, in the end, it was worth fighting for, even if your weren’t going to be loved back.” And, much later, our narrator sets loose what just might encapsulate the reverse side of the diaspora experience—that of those left behind: One’s mother going away, meaning: She left us. “I thought leaving,” says the narrator, “was a terrible thing, the saddest of acts, something you do to the people you love.” And there’s the turn, you’ve got to tell yourself, that sweet necessary turn.
Q: There’s a tenderness to your stories that disarms. On the one hand, you have all these sensational characters, caught in the grip of melodrama—and true to the martyr role in every soap opera, they suffer quietly and with dignity. And then the story—it turns.
TENORIO: I definitely think that’s something I’m going for. I think these moments of dramatic pause, or where characters do something that on the surface may be shocking against a backdrop of relative quiet—I think that helps generate, for the sake of the story, good tension. But I also think it’s true. For all the melodrama of the Philippine culture, it’s not melodramatic to us. It feels like the ordinary and the everyday. To contextualize something this way, though—I think that makes it more real, more true.
Ask Lysley how and why he began writing, on what drew him into the craft in the first place, and he’ll say, matter-of-factly: “Because I felt like it was something I’d be good at.” And later, “I realized that a Creative Writing class was the only thing I cared about.” Later still, with a verbal nudge, Lysley Tenorio will almost sheepishly say that he is working on a novel—Lysley, on the expansiveness, on the luxury of the new form: “The thing that is most liberating is also the most daunting”—and Lysley will say that he “always thought that the stories in [Monstress] are a little strange. I’m hoping I have that same kind of strangeness.”
Strangeness comes in different forms. There are faith healers and charlatans plying their trade, struggling in a time of waning belief. There are young boys, tasked to care for their flawed mothers, as they construct an elaborate life of fantasy. There are lepers who roam freely in an island, though one turns her face away before a stranger who refuses to accept the undoing of his own skin. And then there’s simply being two men, refusing to dwell on the distance between themselves and home—two men in a land that’s tolerant at best and hostile at worst—men who attempt to figure out how to remain whole, how to love and how to love secretly and what to do when a little of that love seeps out and refuses to remain anonymous, how to battle the loneliness and at the same time use it as a protective mantle.
“Save the I-Hotel”—the most accomplished, most finely tuned, and most in-possession-of-gravitas story in the collection tells us at one point: “Fortunado had never struck a person before—but there were ties in his life he wondered what it might be like, and now he knew: the force of everything you are in a single gesture at a single moment; the hope that it will be enough and the fear that it won’t. No different from a kiss.”
Over lunch—before the questions—Lysley Tenorio tells his host that he was born in Olongapo. The city in his mouth compels you to think, Balikbayan. He dabs at his mouth after a bite from his sandwich and he asks his host, “Have you ever been there?” It’s a simple, un-weighted conversational gambit, something to break the stillness of a cavernous room prepared for a half-hour with a magazine. His lunchtime companion answers in the negative, offers that he’s been in Tarlac, which is not a ways off. After his meal, Lysley Tenorio stands up and asks, “Is it okay if I brush my teeth first? I just—” And the two other people in the room with him, relieved, wave him off, assure him, “Yes, of course,” in chorus.
Things not to ask the writer-expatriate (one touted, in seeming threat, as the New Voice of the Filipino Immigrant Experience): What do you think of “sense of place,” and have you lost yours, and did you have one to being with, and are you trying to find it in your fiction? Where is home? Why are the lepers in you story driven to touch one another? Should your firm handshake recall the old-world (the this world) fathers with their rough hands? Should your unerringly polite questions, offered to keep the ball rolling, mirror chirpy mothers who croon bunso to all and sundry? Will you ever come back? Why does the star of many a B-movie Reva Gogo allow herself to be used as a cash cow by the near-deluded, too-hopeful man she loves? What’s the ratio, among your characters who have left, of those who wish to return and those who want to keep on going? Are you partial to adobo? Do you believe “adobo” or “sinigang” or “taho” or “balut” should be italicized in text? What did your home in San Diego smell like, growing up? Do you recognize smells from your childhood walk-up in the streets of Manila? Ditd you live in a walk-up, are there walk-ups in San Diego? Can you spot a Filipino in an unspeaking crowd? Do you realize that your clear, heavy baritone will make everyone you meet in this country stutter, eloquent or no, reminding them that unlike you, English will never be their first language?
You can, however, ask the writer-expatriate when he left the Philippines—Lysley Tenorio was seven months old—and you ask the writer-expatriate how many times he’s been back. “I haven’t been back very much,” Lysley Tenorio will tell you—and you nod in encouragement, and you do not look for regret or apology or self-censure in his voice.
(You will, however, find comfort at the oddness of this man’s name: Lysley, or Leslie to the rest of the world. There’s a Filipino spelling, if there ever was one. “It’s a strange name,” Lysley will acknowledge when you ask him about it—and there’s the apology in his voice. “My siblings did it, they named me. It’s kind of a cruel joke.”)
Do not, most of all, ask if he wishes that the line from “L’Amour, CA” could distill the politics of departure and remaining—if it could serve as a literary credo in place of the trend of social commentary that manages to be self-aggrandizing and empty at the same time—the line that goes: “Somewhere, Isa is fine without us; here, we are fine without Isa. And this is the truth I don’t want to know: that the ones who leave and the ones who get left keep living their lives, whatever the distance between.”