Lysley Tenorio’s debut collection Monstress (Ecco) is a wild and memorable ride through the world of transsexuals, lepers, healers, B-movie actors and, of course, the Beatles. What Tenorio accomplishes in this strong collection is providing the reader with an intimate view of complex characters that navigate their strange worlds while also negotiating their sexual/ethnic/cultural identities.
I’d been admiring Tenorio’s work for years, and had the pleasure of meeting him in person at a recent InsideStoryTime reading. He agreed to an interview, so we met up over cocktails to discuss Filipino culture, writing, imagination and his fascination with strange events.
Rumpus: Filipino parents are often unsupportive of their children’s pursuit of the arts. Were you conditioned, like me, to become a doctor or lawyer? What did your parents think of your English major in college, and what does your Mom and siblings think about your work now? Did they read your book?
Tenorio: My parents certainly liked the idea of my becoming a lawyer or a doctor, but they never sat me down and said I had to become one. For the most part, they were really hands off and that was a real saving grace for me. When I was in graduate school doing my MFA at the University of Oregon, I don’t even know how much my mother understood what I was doing. She knew that I was trying to write a book, and that was it. She was thinking, ‘My son’s getting a master’s,’ and that made her really happy. I love that. That’s all she needed to know.
My family has been nothing but supportive. When the book came out, they were really happy. My mother dropped out of school in the sixth grade in the Philippines, and while she can speak English, reading my work would be really tough for her. But my sister told me when my mother saw my book at the bookstore, she got weepy and kissed it.
Tenorio: It sounds strange but I love the fact that my mother loves a book that she can’t read. It’s the kind of emotional response I can’t get from the average reader.
Rumpus: I love so many of the stories in your collection but have a particular fondness for “Brothers,” the story about Edmond and his transsexual younger brother Eric who dies shortly after he comes out to his family on TV. What struck me most in this story was the mother’s attempt at saving face—a very Filipino trait.
Tenorio: Years ago, maybe in my late teens or early to mid-20s, I would’ve looked at a character like the mother, with her preoccupation and obsession with saving face, as really selfish. But now I have more sympathy for a person in this kind of position, an older Filipino woman with traditional Filipino values. She’s obviously concerned with saving face but I believe she’s also motivated to save face for her son. She really thinks she’s doing him a favor. While I don’t agree with it, I actually recognize the valor in the mother’s efforts.
Rumpus: I admire how you move beyond cultural stereotypes by presenting characters who openly display sexuality and desire, including Eric, the transsexual in “Brothers” and Fortunado, a gay man in “Save the I-Hotel.” Exploring alternative sexuality in Filipino culture pushes the boundaries wide open, forces us to look beyond characters consumed with “saving face.”
Tenorio: I wanted to write about sexuality in those two stories because it’s another way of looking at the very complex subject matter of immigration, dislocation, changing from one physical space to another physical space. I’m really interested in the idea of legacy—the history that has come before an individual’s family. The definitiveness of that is always at odds with the endless possibility of the future. And I think the idea of sexuality in those two stories evokes that tension.
Rumpus: Can you say more about that?
Tenorio: In “The Brothers,” for example, Eric, the transsexual brother, knows his family history, and one would never imagine that history would lead its natural course to transsexuality. But that’s what Eric has done. He had the guts to take that on. That’s why I have such sympathy for the mother’s character because she is reliant on her own personal history and culture to help her understand what the future was meant to be. She’s a Filipino woman who grew up in Philippines. She knows the history that came before her and that makes her think, ‘I will have children, they will have weddings, they will reproduce, they will give me grandchildren.’ That’s the sort of historical line that’s supposed to continue, but it doesn’t. I’m interested in that conflict
Rumpus: You draw upon Filipino/Filipino American history in your stories. Do you feel a responsibility to evoke cultural and historical references in your work, to bring them to the forefront, as an act of continuity?
Tenorio: I can see that there are writers that feel that responsibility and I think it makes a lot of sense to feel that, but I personally do not. As the years go by, I realize I’m just trying to tell a story. If the only response I get from a potential reader is that they read my work and were entertained, I’d be happy with that. But I do think my stories convey this idea that Filipinos are here, that we’ve been here a long time, and that we’ve woven ourselves into the fabric of the culture whether or not people recognize that.
When I first started writing, I was so determined to bring that idea to the forefront of each story, and it made the work didactic, overly politicized, and sloppy. If my main job is to represent then I may as well write information. Fiction is not information. Fiction is experience. My job is to try to build a narrative that a reader can experience.
I also think it’s more important that I consciously say ‘No, I don’t mean to represent,’ because I think that can encourage a lazy kind of reading. I read a review where the reviewer said my stories were generic because she came away from the book without a more comprehensive understanding of the Filipino American experience. How are you supposed to understand the experience of an entire people based on one book of literary stories? That’s impossible. To have that expectation because I’m a Filipino writer is unreasonable. I have trouble believing the reviewer would approach (and I’m not comparing myself to him) Don DeLillo’s recent collection and expect to understand the Italian American experience. I expect a reviewer to be smarter than that.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the writing process. In his essay “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie argues that a writer writing outside of his native country may not be able to reclaim “the thing that was lost” but the writer may gain the distance needed to “speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal.” You immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines when you were seven months old, and returned once as an adult when you were twenty seven. That visit had an impact on your writing, so much so that you are hesitant to return any time soon. Did your visit to the Philippines interrupt this ‘distance’ Rushdie talks about in his essay?
Tenorio: I’d love to go back to see family, the country itself, but as a writer, I would be hesitant to return. When I went back at twenty seven, I thought it would feed the writing, but it actually had the opposite effect. I suddenly felt obligated to remember everything with total accuracy, but I don’t work like that. Certainly I do research, but I’m a fiction writer. I really need that kind of space, or that liberty, to make stuff up. But the stories I write aren’t meant to represent “real life” in any way. Even though they might be based on real life or history, they’re ultimately about characters.
Rumpus: So visiting the Philippines gave you a sense of responsibility you didn’t want to take on as a fiction writer.
Tenorio: Yeah. I felt like I needed to remember everything I saw so I could turn that into a story. But that’s not how I work. The only thing I only got in terms of my writing was a sign at the security gate in the Manila airport that read, “No well wishers beyond this point.” I have a story in my book, “Help,” where the young narrator’s mother is leaving for the U.S. He points to that sign and thinks, ‘This doesn’t apply to me, I don’t wish her well at all. I want her to stay here. I’m wishing her a terrible time.’ That was the only thing I took from that trip, which of course made the trip worth it. It was the only thing I experienced that felt emotionally and psychologically true to the characters I was writing about.
Rumpus: You write mainly in summer when you’re on break from teaching at St. Mary’s College, where you’re an associate professor. Do you find this frustrating?
Tenorio: It can be tough to find writing time, sure. But at Saint Mary’s, I’m lucky to teach a variety of classes in the MFA program, the English Department, in our Great Books program. The variety keeps me on my toes, and the students are great. And the fact that I get to talk about writing, about books I love, that’s a pretty amazing thing to do for work. When I’m teaching a story like “The Knife Thrower” by Steven Millhauser, which is one of the greatest short stories of all time, I think to myself, I’m getting paid to do this! It’s kind of incredible. That said, it still takes up my writing time, so I really need long chunks of time when I can just get away and write.
Rumpus: You describe yourself as a plot-driven writer.
Tenorio: Yeah, I’m very plot driven. And the stories I come up with are based on real life. So if I can find a weird, oddly intriguing situation that seems dramatically and thematically rich in terms of my interests, which is the shared history and culture between America and the Philippines, I’ll pounce on that and try to make a story of it. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is understanding what those stories are really about in terms of my characters.
Rumpus: What’s the fascination with strange events?
Tenorio: You might have something as silly as a bunch of Filipino prisoners who are choreographing a Thriller dance routine. That just seems so ridiculous, right? But if real people are involved, then real emotional stakes are involved as well. I want the challenge of taking something seemingly whimsical or foolish and trying to create a sense of empathy for that character. As silly or laughable as it may seem to us, it could mean life or death in a way to them, and I want to explore that.
It’s hard to create a psychologically and emotionally complex and persuasive character. There are only eight stories in the collection so it’s not that long of a book, but each story kind of knocked the wind out of me. It took forever to realize who these characters were.
Rumpus: You fully immerse yourself in one story at a time. It isn’t until that story is complete and submitted to publishers that you begin a new story.
Tenorio: It’s a very silly way to work. For the next bunch of stories, whenever that happens, I’m not doing that again. No fucking way. I certainly did a little bit of multi-tasking over the years, but for the most part, I was immersed in one story until I felt I got it right. I couldn’t move on to the other one, I couldn’t commit as deeply.
Rumpus: You must be monogamous since you like working on one story at a time.
Tenorio: I don’t slut around. That’s why I’m so relieved to be working on a novel right now.
Rumpus: When I was about eleven years old, I wrote to the producers of the soap opera General Hospital, a program my grandmother watched everyday, and asked if I could be on the show since there were no Asian characters. I was reminded of this childhood fantasy when I read your Paris Review interview about how, as a young boy, you had to rewrite the script in your mind so you could imagine yourself in a sitcom, on talk shows and on Dynasty.
Tenorio: Those were concessions I had to make as a kid. If I wanted to be a child star like Gary Coleman, I’d first have to rewrite the script in my head to figure out how to get a Filipino kid on the show. The story line I had in my head was that I was adopted and had parents from the Middle East.
But now, I don’t worry about it. That’s why writing is such a good choice for me, because I don’t have the patience or the endurance to have to work against those limitations, that kind of institutional tokenism and racism that exists in a lot of the other arts. That’s not to say that doesn’t happen in publishing. I mentioned that reviewer earlier. There’s always going to be that kind of bullshit. But I don’t ever recall feeling like I couldn’t do this because it was too Filipino or not Filipino enough. I never felt any pressure to make concessions or write for a particular audience, editor, magazine or agent, so in that way, I feel really lucky.