The duality of immigrant life in Lysley Tenorio’s 'Monstress'
Many Filipinos work abroad or immigrate to carve out a better life for themselves and for their families. Despite the promise of prosperity and the fulfillment of one’s dreams, it’s not always all rainbows and sunshine.
“Leaving home is difficult,” said Filipino-American author Lysley Tenorio. “There’s always some sense of alienation and vulnerability. It’s an experience of gain and loss. No immigrant experience is truly wonderful or truly miserable.”
It is a sentiment that runs through his anthology of short stories entitled “Monstress”, which was published early last year. Tenorio flew to Manila for the first time in 13 years to promote the book locally at a talk and book signing last February 9 at National Book Store in Glorietta, Makati City.
Tenorio was born in Olongapo City, but he immigrated to the US with his family when he was only seven months old. He grew up in Mira Mesa, a multicultural suburb of San Diego, California, which is also nicknamed Manila Mesa because of its significant Filipino population.
His immersion in migrant culture influenced the way “Monstress” is, as Tenorio calls it, “emotionally autobiographical,” because the emotional concerns of his characters are the same as what he and the people close to him have experienced. The characters are also nostalgic, conflicted about their identity, and caught up in the dualities of life in a country that is not truly their own.
“For all the victories that some of these characters might have, I think there is also an inevitable sense of defeat, and vice versa,” he admitted. “It's never black and white. It's not always just about leaving a country for a seemingly better country.”
“Monstress” also showcases another kind of duality: its genuine emotional heart is framed by quirky, whimsical, too-strange-to-be-true stories – from the indie B-movie world of the title story, to the bloody, secret dealings of a faith healer, the adventures of a superhero, and the ambitious plot to take revenge on The Beatles for slighting Imelda Marcos. Tenorio reveals that as strange as these stories may seem, they are actually inspired by real events.
The 1966 incident involving The Beatles – the subject of the story called “Help” – actually did happen. Tenorio, however, crafted a “secret history” for it by writing a fictional sequence of events told from the point of view of fictional characters, which led to the all-too-real riot at Manila International Airport that saw the British pop icons harassed, and their manager beaten up.
The hotel-based faith healing activities of “Felix Starro”, meanwhile, was inspired by the true story of a faith healer named Alex Orbito who was arrested for doing business out of a Canadian hotel.
“It all seems too strange to be true but it happened, so if it did, I thought there's got to be some emotional complexity there,” he explained. “I try to find these real life situations and just try to imagine who the characters are, and who might be involved with them.”
A conventional path
Tenorio’s not-so-secret history as a writer began when he was 21. He admitted that he wasn’t one of those writers who used to jot down stories in notebooks for friends to read when they were kids; when he was younger, he actually wanted to be a comic book artist.
After realizing in College that he wanted to pursue writing as a career, he followed what he called a “conventional path” for writers in the United States by taking up a Masters course and applying for writing grants.
“I would move to any part of the country that would support me while I was writing,” he relates. “I moved to New Hampshire, and then I was lucky to be able to get in to Stanford. ‘Monstress’ was written at Stanford, in New England, New York, Wisconsin, Paris. . .I remember writing some of this book in a department store in Paris. I would basically go anywhere where I can get some writing done.”
During his tenure in various institutions, Tenorio was fortunate enough to have worked with talented writers like Chang-rae Lee and Tobias Wolff, who became his mentors. He also counts Indian-American writer Bharati Mukherjee, Salman Rushdie, and Kazuo Ishiguro as some of his influences.
No room for mediocrity
Tenorio likewise described his journey to publish “Monstress” as conventional and traditional: he found an agent who shopped his book around to various publishers.
While the wait to find someone who would pick up the manuscript is a stress-filled time for most authors, Tenorio accepted that it was out of his control. He felt that a writer should focus more on the one thing that he has absolute control over: the story.
“Before you even start to think about publishing, you need to make sure that your work is really good. It should be as perfect as you can make it,” he counseled aspiring writers. “You need to be honest with yourself and find out what you are capable of, so you also need to have a few trusted readers who would be honest with you and say this part of your work is really good, but this part sucks."
“I tell my creative writing students that writing is not just giving information. You’re trying to give the reader an experience,” he added. “It takes a lot of practice and a lot of work.”
The next experience that Tenorio plans to take his readers on will be in novel form, as he was contracted to write one for his current publisher. He is optimistic that his recent visit to the Philippines will give him more images and experiences to draw upon for his future stories. In the meantime, he hopes readers here will give “Monstress” a look.
“People are busy, so I appreciate them taking the time to read my work. I worked really hard to make these stories and these characters emotionally and psychologically complex. I hope [readers] are moved by them, and at the very least, I hope that they’ll be entertained.” – KDM, GMA News
“Monstress” is available at National Book Store outlets.