Tenorio’s Provocative Short Stories Cast Light on Economic Disparities, Immigrant Experience

Lysley Tenorio’s debut collection of short stories, Monstress, has drawn widespread acclaim, with glowing reviews by the Los Angeles Times, the Paris Review and NPR, among others. On October 17, more than 100 members of the Saint Mary’s community came to the Soda Center to take advantage of the rare opportunity to hear Tenorio, an associate professor of English at the College, read from his thought-provoking work.

Introducing Tenorio at the reading, which was co-sponsored by the Creative Writing Reading Series and the First-Year Experience, Professor Alex Green praised his colleague’s writing for its wealth of heart and soul, and those qualities were on evident as soon as Tenorio approached the podium. Upon seeing the packed Soda Center, he was so humbled that he took a photo of the audience, saying: “This is probably the largest audience I will ever read for.”  

Truth and Fiction - Both Strange

The reading began with “Aviary,” a new short story not included in the book Monstress. Immediately and almost jarringly, the story introduces the severe wealth inequality that plagues the Philippines. The setting is the Philippine financial center of Makati City, where third-world slums are only a turn away from the booming cosmopolitan area.

According to Tenorio, “Aviary” was based on a true story he found on Yahoo News. Someone had put up a sign on Makati City’s Greenbelt Mall that read, “Poor people and other disturbing realities are strictly prohibited.” The sign was proven to be a hoax, but Tenorio was captivated by it, and the result was “Aviary,” which details what he imagined a group of vigilantes would do to retaliate against the sign. The young vigilantes, although they each remains nameless, form a collective consciousness that is portrayed in such a deep, personal manner that their strength radiates through to the audience as if they were real.

Empathy and Mystery

Tenorio has a marvelous way of creating and presenting characters with little background information, yet making them easy to empathize with. For example, before his second story of the night, “Lemoore, California” (which can be found in Monstress), he offered only this description: a family of five who have just emigrated from the Philippines to the United States, narrated by a 7- or 8-year-old boy.

In the story, the narrator’s sister Isa goes missing after sneaking out of the house to go out with her boyfriend. Assuming she has run away, the narrator and his family search for her, going from door to door and seeking the help of the Navy and the police, to no avail. Suddenly, without any semblance of an “in between” period, the family of five is decreased by one, and only four plates are set at the dinner table. They continue with their everyday lives in silence, never returning to the issue of the missing daughter.

This is a story that hits home with all immigrants, since it represents the struggle of adjusting to a new culture and the conflicts of loyalty that go along with that. It is also the story Tenorio relates to most personally. During the Q&A session that followed the reading, he revealed that his family had in fact emigrated from the Philippines to Lemoore, California, but he said that is the only actual parallel between him and the characters in the story. Instead, he said the story is “emotionally autobiographical.”

Straddling Cultures

Both Tenorio and the narrator express the “desire to be everywhere at once.” Tenorio, who calls San Diego home, admitted to being torn between his home and Northern California. But the desire to be everywhere at once is not just limited to a geographical meaning. Immigrants can identify with the sense of straddling the lines between two or more cultures, torn between each one. It is the struggle of balancing the culture of one’s homeland or parents and a new culture. Some cultures may conflict more than others, creating a situation that truly defines an individual.

When asked how he would define himself, however, Tenorio answered eloquently that he would not deny being a Filipino writer or even a Filipino-American writer, but if anyone were to ask him, he would say that he is first and foremost an American writer.

In his work, Tenorio grapples with big themes, such as transformation, injustice and cultural as well as generational disparities. In the process, he creates stories that are uniquely his own but still reach out to the reader on personal levels close to the heart.

By Audrey Agot