Lysley Tenorio’s linked short story collection, Monstress, organically ties together stories of the misfits and outcasts of both the Philippines and Southern California.
The eight stories that comprise Monstress, the very-good-verging-on-excellent debut collection from San Francisco’s Lysley Tenorio, aren’t connected in the usual ways readers have been trained to expect. There are no recurring characters. It doesn’t all take place in one neighborhood, or on the same day. And there aren’t any of those knowingly offhand references in one story to some crucial item or moment from an earlier one, which tend to be about as subtle as a brick.
Come to think of it, when I say the usual ways, what I mean is the usual annoying ways. Rare is the story collection that comes by its interconnectedness in an organic way. Monstress clears this not-insignificant hurdle with ease. Tenorio’s stories, which were previously published in the usual murderer’s row of literary journals and magazines (your Atlantics, your Ploughshareses), are unmistakably of a piece with one another, and their common denominator is at once more obvious and more subtle. Namely, they all loosely orbit the same two places: the Philippines and Southern California. Residents of the former dream of the latter. And those that have escaped with both money and gumption (the lucky ones) spend the rest of their lives wondering if the journey was worth the price of admission.
In one sense, Monstress isn’t a particularly surprising book, connecting, as it does, many of the usual dots of immigrant fiction in the 21st century. If you think you’re going to avoid reading about questions of cultural authenticity, globalization, and Western threats to traditional conceptions of family and community, think again.
Where Tenorio finds a whole lot of extra legroom, however, is by doubling down on that outside perspective and positioning his characters at the fringes of Filipino culture, too. You have pseudoscientists conducting their ginned-up healing ceremonies from the safety of cheap hotel rooms in “Felix Starro.” You have the bullied child in “Superassassin” who takes to the streets gunning for revenge, armed with an industrial-strength slingshot and his dad’s old military uniform (a devout Green Lantern fan, he can’t even get the superhero costume right). And, in the title story, you have an underachieving actress who specializes in playing B-movie creatures like “Bat-Winged Pygmy Queen, Werewolf Girl, Two-Headed Bride of Two-Headed Dracula, [and] Squid Mother.”
Closeted gay characters, transsexuals, and an entire leper colony—not to mention an ever-present bubbling of good old-fashioned racism—further drive the point home: the mainstream is decidedly off limits. (Even the leper narrator in “The View from Culion” is an outcast amongst the rest of the colony, as her symptoms have been in remission for several years. Her face is enviably splotch-free.)
Tenorio, who is himself a native of the Philippines, and now teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California, writes with precision as well as a natural elegance. His dialogue, too, has that quality of easy spontaneity that almost always requires a painstaking process of tinkering and re-balancing behind the scenes. For readers, though, it’s a real treat: salute the effort and then enjoy.
Those virtues are on clear display in the collection’s giddiest story, “Help.” Our narrator is a 16-year-old whose uncle is head of VIP air travel at the Manila International Airport. The year is 1966, and the Beatles are passing through town on a massive arena tour—but when they snub the Philippines’s first lady by turning down a private performance, Uncle Willie, who is also the first lady’s most ardent fan, enlists his nephews in a plot to make the Fab Four pay for their insolence.
This story actually has its roots in fact, but by telling it through the eyes of a bunch of starstruck kids obsessed with the West, Tenorio gives it a wonderful humanizing touch. The would-be muggers feel duty bound to their uncle, if not their government. Mostly they just want autographs. One fantasizes about John singing “It’s Only Love” directly to him. Through it all, you manage to catch reflected glimpses of Uncle Willie’s lonely, almost ascetic devotion to the first lady.
As for the dialogue, well, let’s just say that there’s no mistaking who is approaching from down the hallway:
I heard Paul complain about the weight of his bags. “Porter shortage in the Philippines?” he said.
“No porter?” Ringo asked. “I’ll take whatever’s on draft, then.”
The narrator allows himself a few moments to freak out in private. But then—there they are:
Ringo was the first to speak to us. “There’s no porter shortage at all,” he said.
“No, but shorter porters they are,” Paul said, tapping each of us on the head. “But you can take these onto the plane if you don’t mind.”
What captures the narrator’s attention more than anything, though, is how tanned their faces are. “It was a sign of their travels,” he thinks, “evidence of a bigger world, proof that you could move through it and keep it with you.”
This is one of the rare instances in Monstress where cosmopolitanism isn’t represented by a Californian. Then again, when life gives you the Beatles, you write a story about the goddamn Beatles. It’s kind of a no-brainer.