Lysley Tenorio’s debut short story collection, “Monstress,” astonishes with its brilliance and profound insight into the human experience. Tenorio also places emphasis on truthfully depicting the complications of American and Filipino identities, and the struggle to unite them with a hyphen. Through his melodic prose, Tenorio — also a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford — portrays the intricate psychologies of characters on the outskirts of society, creating stories that hold intense emotive weight in their thematic exploration and ultimate unravelling of what “identity” even means.
These eight stories are accessible and poignantly moving, with narratives that emerge out of the traditional borders of representation in fiction. Many of Tenorio’s characters — all Filipino American — struggle with loyalties to their families and themselves, the Philippines and the United States, and to tradition and modernity, a constant tug of war that informs the collection as a whole. In each work, Tenorio skillfully delves into the subjectivity of their experiences, nudging readers to sympathize with — and perhaps even find humor in — the chaotic mental and physical realities of quirky characters who are often alienated “outsiders looking in.”
But as approachable as these stories are in terms of language and readerly insight into the characters’ shifting central desires, Tenorio never shows a didactic, morally ‘right’ answer. Tenorio places his characters in unquantifiable moral gray spaces, oxymoronically expanding upon their worlds through his careful shaping of absence, which adds further significance to what remains. He subtly interweaves details that contextualize and ground the characters in their sociohistorical settings, amplifying the tension and emotive power of his characters who struggle to root themselves in new soil.
And the stories in order, from the table of contents:
“Monstress”: In the first and titular short story, amateur actress Reva Gogo — best known for monstrous roles like “The Squid Mother” and “Bat-Winged Pygmy Queen” — and her B-movie director and lover Checkers leave the Philippines for the United States to work with a Hollywood director, hoping he will jumpstart their careers. However, Reva contends with her own burgeoning ambitions and her lover’s growing homesickness that fuels his hurtful taunts of her acting, which ultimately leads her to leave Checkers and permanently stay, even though this decision later brings her sorrow.
“The Brothers”: Perhaps the most evocative short story in the collection, Edmond and his conservative Catholic mother bury his transgender sister Erica, even though their mother refuses to acknowledge Erica’s gender transition. Meanwhile, Edmond attempts to reconcile his understanding of the sister he never really knew with the help of Raquel, Erica’s former drag sister. Even on the level of the title, “Brothers” signifies Edmond internal inability to recognize his sister Erica’s new gender identity, with Edmond grappling with his physical complicity with helping their mother bind Erica’s breasts. Portrayed without authorial judgment, Tenorio viscerally highlights the mother’s grief that emphasizes her imperfect humanity, even as Edmond grudgingly aids, and later flees in horror at, his mother’s actions which drive him to tearfully confide in Raquel.
“Felix Starro”: The titular character, a third-generation inheritor of the name, assists his grandfather in the “family business” of faith healing, which involves a certain amount of fraud with chicken livers and fake blood. While he meditates on competing impulses between his family legacy and his search for individuality, eventually he must decide: return to the Philippines with his remaining family, or hide away in the United States with a new name and career. However, either choice will force him to leave part of his identity behind, and he must decide which aspect of himself he can live without.
“The View from Culion”: This piece depicts a young woman who bonds with and dreams of love with another American in a leper colony, far removed from the Philippines and her home in the United States. With conversations unveiled only through the comfort of the shadows, they find temporary consolation in each other, which manifests in her art. Nevertheless, perhaps driven by a desire to see her friend home, she sorrowfully works to instigate his removal by whatever means necessary, made especially heartbreaking by her inability to leave the colony herself.
“Superassassin”: A schoolboy seeks power to protect himself from his bullies and shield his mother from the perceived threat of her lovers, writing a report on his cherished “Green Lantern” comics which strengthens his courage. However, though he starts with the best of intentions, he ultimately spirals into a similar trajectory as his favorite hero, resorting to violence with disastrous results. Even as his narrative voice retains a childlike innocence, as he describes his mother’s alcoholism and his own exploits, his inability to distinguish fiction from reality soon reflects his troubled and slowly evaporating sanity.
“Help”: The narrator’s uncle recruits his cousins and him in an airport skirmish to defend the honor of Imelda Marcos, then First Lady of the Philippines, after the Beatles purportedly insult her. Spiced with Tenorio’s characteristic humor, the narrator wrestles with his fanboy desire for the Beatles’ autographs and his hesitant allegiance to his uncle’s orders, while subconsciously reflecting upon the global reach of Western culture which had ensnared his mother, who never returns to her family again.
“Save the I-Hotel”: Centering on the iconic International Hotel (I-Hotel), an originally low-income residency that housed Filipino and Chinese immigrants in Manilatown, San Francisco, an elderly man named Fortunado reflects on his unspoken romantic love and shared life with his male neighbor and best friend who lives down the hall, both on the cusp of eviction. Fortunado nostalgically recalls tender moments from their past that slowly build to his one-sided romantic realization, interspersed with vignettes in the present showing his continued care for his dementia-stricken partner, demonstrating the longevity of love in its many forms.
“L’amour, CA”: Retrospectively told through the eyes of a third-grader and recent immigrant to Lemoore, California, the protagonist narrates his initial excitement at moving to a military base with his family, and their struggles to assimilate into American society. This last story ends in uncertainty in the midst of a family crisis, yet is cloaked with the youthful brilliance of hope and the protagonist’s desire to make this new land his home. With the title’s play on words between the fanciful “l’amour” and the more downtrodden Lemoore, the inherent disillusionment and continued perseverance also makes this story a fitting end to the collection.
And considering the homonyms of “monstress” and “monstrous,” even Tenorio’s title suggests the clash of Filipino and Western worldviews from the level of phonetic pronunciation, reflecting how the expression of language colors how we view the lives led by this rich cast of characters. In these stories, every word matters, with intricacy upon intricacy of detail finally coalescing into stories that illuminate the Filipino American experience, the complexities of crafting an identity and the universal human yearning to belong.
Ultimately, this outstanding collection demonstrates Tenorio’s mastery over the short story form, signalling the debut of an unforgettable new voice in the literary landscape.