The Messiness of Love, Family, and Identity: Q&A with Lysley Tenorio

Lysley Tenorio (photo by Tara Runyan)

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, exploitive 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 Monstress as there is material for a good cry.

We talked to Lysley Tenorio via email about Monstress and about his life as a writer.

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ZYZZYVA: Much of your writing is set in California and the Bay Area. Do you see your writing benefiting from the fact that you live and work in the Bay Area? Does that create a stronger sense of connection than if you lived in, say, New York?

Lysley Tenorio: It’s funny, but I didn’t actually realize how California-centric my stories are until that was pointed out to me, so if California and San Francisco have been an influence on my work, I wasn’t conscious of it. An exception though, would be [the story] “Save the I-Hotel” which is based on the International Hotel in San Francisco, a residential hotel whose final tenants, many of whom were old Filipino men who’d lived there for decades, were evicted in 1977. When I researched that, I learned that San Francisco once had its own Manilatown—that felt like important and necessary material for me, and made me grateful that I was living—and writing-—in this city.

Z: Who or what has influenced your writing?

LT: Here’s a short, seemingly random list: Bharati Mukherjee, Salman Rushdie, DC Comics, The Carpenters, ’70s and ’80s television, Kazuo Ishiguro, Vesuvio, Tosca, the giant squid, Edward Hopper, Ramona the Pest, Best American Short Stories of the Eighties, etc., etc., etc.

But perhaps most of all: growing up in the Tenorio household.

Z: Has teaching influenced or changed your writing?

LT: Teaching keeps me on my toes, makes me re-examine over and over my own beliefs about writing, which is essential whenever I sit down to write. It also forces me to read things I might not read otherwise (Don Quixote, Euclid, Sappho). But perhaps most importantly, it lets me interact on a regular basis with people who care about writing as much as I do. For all the good that isolation and retreat do for my writing, that interaction is invaluable.

Z: Your female characters seem to have a more realistic outlook on life than the male ones, who sometimes seem dreamier, or even deluded. I’m thinking of the uncle who wants to “defeat” the Beatles (“Help”), the young boy who believes he’s a superhero (“Superassassin”), the navy deserter who thinks he can leave the leper colony for a different life (“The View from Culion”), and the horror film director who wants to make it big in Hollywood (the title story, “Monstress”). Whereas the women seem more pragmatic, more ready to deal with their worlds as they are (except perhaps the alcoholic waitress who brings men home hoping they’ll be “the one”). Would you agree?

LT: When you put it that way, I’d have to say yeah. I totally agree. Maybe it’s because the women in my family and my closest female friends are some of the toughest people I know.  Wow…thanks for pointing that out. That’s really interesting to know.

Z: Do you hope to enlighten readers about the Filipino experience through your stories? How does that particular experience allow you to explore universal themes of love, family, and what it means to be an American? 

This will sound odd, but no, it’s not my objective to enlighten readers about the Filipino/Filipino-American experience. Recently, I read a review of my book, which described the stories as “generic” because the reviewer felt that the stories, collectively, didn’t give her an understanding of the Filipino/Filipino-American experience. I don’t mind if one thinks the stories are generic in terms of style, content, etc., but it’s odd that anyone would expect a kind of comprehensive understanding of an entire group based on eight short stories. And frankly, it’s an unfair expectation often put upon writers of a particularly minority group—because we write, we’re expected to represent. That’s too large a project for any one fiction writer to take on, so I would never try, or want, to make such a claim for this book. The way I see it, Monstress, is a collection of stories about people trying to make their way in a difficult world.

That said, the Filipino/Filipino-American experience, as I know it, is full of fascinating historical facts and obscure news stories which, when looked at metaphorically, are full of emotional and psychological complexities and contradictions. And that kind of messiness is inherent in love, family, the American identity, so it often feels inevitable that my stories will evoke those themes in these weird, seemingly ludicrous, but ultimately (hopefully) believable and empathetic ways.

Read more from Larissa Archer at her blog,

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