The people of Lysley Tenorio’s story collection, Monstress (Ecco), are straddlers. Most obviously, they straddle cultures. Filipino immigrants in America pine for their native land or wish, often hopelessly, to assimilate indistinguishably into the culture of their adopted home. Life in the Philippines seems just as conflicted; the West’s exported culture muscles out the endeavors of Filipinos, with the Beatles and Hollywood dominating the collective imagination there just as much as they do here.
But Tenorio’s characters also seem to straddle the high and low. He imbues them with profound (but never cheaply sentimental) longings, and with refinement of feeling and self-awareness worthy of poets — while simultaneously placing them neck-deep in kitsch, dragged down by, or simply muddling through, risible circumstances. The world they move in is one of hilariously awful B-horror flicks, faith-healer quackery, cartoon super villains, delusional celebrity-worship, exploitative daytime TV. Yet behind his characters’ preoccupation with low culture, their inner lives couldn’t be more humane, or deeply humanistic: there’s tenderness toward a mother beset by alcoholism and bad judgment, (and a precocious awareness that that tenderness is deformed by its futility), the guilt of knowing one could have been kinder to a troubled sibling, the giant-hearted, doomed bravery of a love affair between two people who know they can never be together or even look upon each other.
Monstress does what all the best art does: it reveals the nuanced depths of people one might otherwise overlook or casually judge and dismiss. And it does this without polemic or the tiresome earnestness some writers succumb to when doing or attempting to do the same thing. There is as much humor in Monstressas there is material for a good cry.
I talked to Lysley Tenorio via email about Monstress and about his life as a writer. (continue reading)