We assigned three volunteers to review Monstress by Lysley Tenorio. Our first reviewer is Katrina Ramos Atienza.
On reading the back cover blurbs of Lysley Tenorio’s short story collection Monstress—stories about faith healers, Imelda Marcos, leper colonies and artistas; “tightropes strung between the Philippines and America”—my heart sank just a little bit. I cracked the book open, fully expecting the tropes and characters that form the shorthand for the Filipino experience in the West— hookers with hearts of gold, plucky street kids, flamboyant parloristas, drug kingpins with names like Don Ramon, Martial Law, and a strident, overarching Social Message to each story. Like a Brocka or Bernal film, except, you know, a few decades old and repeated so much as to be predictable and tiresome.
Luckily, my expectations were all proven wrong. Unlike the usual characters in the Filipino-by-way-of-the-West genre, those that populate Tenorio’s stories are not two-dimensional mouthpieces here to Teach the Reader a Lesson. Tenorio’s misfits are fully realized, heartbreakingly human creations that act in unpredictable but ultimately understandable ways.
It’s these astounding characters that draw one into the stories and upend genre expectations. Among them are a starlet with a long career of playing monsters, a reluctant faith healer, lepers in love, an Imelda loyalist vowing revenge on the Beatles. All are written with care and pathos, equal parts humor and melancholy.
It is also enjoyable to pinpoint the references and echoes that ripple through the stories. There’s Ed Wood and Rene Russo’s Karen from the movie Get Shorty in the title story “Monstress.” “The Brothers” reminded me very strongly of the conclusion to “A Game of You” in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. Then there’s “Superassassin,” which manages to evoke both the movie Kick-Ass and the school shooting tragedy at Columbine. They may or may not be the author’s actual intentions, but these are all Western pop culture references, which is probably why they resonate—for isn’t Western pop culture the lingua franca of today’s connected, hyper-informed world?
That Tenorio writes from the perspective of a new generation of Filipino Americans is evident from the way he approaches the aforementioned signifiers of the Filipino experience. The best example would be his treatment of Imelda Marcos. Gone is the mouth-frothing activist rage evident in post-EDSA revolution Philippine literature. In “Help,” her well-known reputation as the conjugal dictator is touched upon, but not as much as her airy-fairy, proto-New Age edicts on Beauty (a similar approach taken by Ramona Diaz in the 2003 documentary Imelda). His Imelda is beautiful, ridiculous, absurd and slightly unhinged, but her undeniable charisma and the power she wields through it is acknowledged and maybe, even grudgingly admired. It is this sort of clear-eyed detachment, written tongue-in-cheek and attempting some sense of understanding, that is only possible with enough distance to defining history.
All the stories in Monstress are lovely and sublimely open-ended, but come the fourth or fifth story one tends to feel America fatigue. The U.S. figures in all the stories, like the shadow of a mountain, whether it’s an absent TNT parent or actual immigrant experiences. It seems churlish to complain about this, since the America-angle is understandable as the collection’s unifying theme and the end-result of the advice to “write what you know.” At the same time, America’s constant hovering presence begins to feels oppressive somehow, and I found myself wishing for the next story to be set in Paris or Timbuktu— anywhere but this dominant nation-state that’s figured so much in our lives that we (or at least I) long to escape it at times.
Perhaps that was the point.
Fil-American author Lysley Tenorio is coming to Manila to give a talk and do a signing on February 9 at 4 pm, at the National Book Store flagship in Glorietta 1.