The Man Behind Monstress

Monstress MANILA, Philippines - The short story as a genre is not a terribly popular one—next to poetry, it’s one of the hardest genres for publishers to sell. One author who is getting praise for his mastery of the genre is Filipino-American author Lysley Tenorio, who is in Manila to talk about his debut collection, Monstress.

Published by Ecco, Monstress is a collection of portraits of eight “othered,” marginalized protagonists such as lepers, transsexuals, B-movie monster starlets, and a young comic book-obsessed immigrant.

In this interview, Lysley talks about how this collection took shape, how he writes, and what Filipino culture means to him.

About how long did it take you to complete the 8 stories in Monstress?

This collection took a long time... a little over 10 years. I work slowly, and once I became a full-time professor [at Saint Mary’s College in California] it was really hard for me. It started in grad school and I wrote a few pieces, but only a small percentage of those pieces were really usable.

Then I started working on my own for a couple of years, did fellowships, moved to the Midwest, and I got a writing fellowship at Stanford that gave me the time to rethink the book and the stories in it. Being in that kind of supportive environment was just something I needed at the time.

Do you have a favorite in the collection?

The one that’s closest to me emotionally is the last one, “L’Amour, CA.” It’s the only one that doesn’t have an overtly strange or fantastic element to it -- no Beatles, no lepers, no drag queens. It’s just about a family moving to America.

It’s so ordinary, and of course I relate to it on so many levels. It was also the most difficult one to write. I worked on that one on-and-off over 10 years. In most cases, I would’ve given up, but I couldn’t let that one go.

What’s your writing process like?

My process is very different for each story, but the early drafts of what I do -- or what I used to do -- would go through a lot. I’d finish a draft, print it out, and delete the file from the computer. That way I’d be obligated to rewrite or rethink and reconsider every single word.

I wanted to make sure that I took care of everything -- that I wouldn’t just switch around paragraphs, or edit a sentence here or there. I still do that -- I won’t delete it, because that’s crazy! But now I’ll keep a copy, I’ll print it out and work from that instead of the digital copy.

In terms of rituals, I don’t have anything too unusual. Definitely coffee is involved, especially if I have to write in the morning. I like it quiet -- door closed, no music... I also do much better when my personal space is clean, which is difficult because I’m a messy person. I pace a lot, I go out for walks, nothing too extraordinary.

Is the short story form a favorite of yours?

The short story form is so satisfying. You can read it in one sitting, and it’s an easily self-enclosed experience. Not that the novel doesn’t require that, but the short story writer has to do double, triple, quadruple the work.

Part of the aesthetic is the economy, so you have to work within the confines of a space, and I like the challenge. I like how when you finish a short story, you often want to go back and look at how it all came together.

In some ways, I think it’s the perfect form. We tell stories everyday, in anecdotes, and I wish it were a more popular literary form. I don’t think it’ll ever go away, but I always imagine that it’ll be a challenging genre for publishers to sell.

As a reader, I have a few favorite writers: Steven Milhauser, Lorrie Moore, Anthony Doerr, Karen Russell... I always feel transported when I read them. That’s not to say that there’s a fantastic element in their writing. Some of them do, but I mean that I feel very much whisked away from the ordinary, contemporary moment when I read these writers.

Also, they never put forth a dull sentence. Even the rhythm and pattern of words have to keep me entertained. As a writer and reader, you have to love how they work together, and what they can do.

You have to love the surprise of a sentence, and appreciate that it has momentum. A sentence has a literal meaning, but also an emotional meaning. I like being able to talk about sentences on that level.

PORTRAITS WITH WORDS. "Monstress" took over 10 years to write, according to author Lysley Tenorio

You’ve been praised as a writer that captures the “Filipino-American experience” and culture in your work. Where does that come from?

To be honest, I never got a strong sense of “national” culture growing up, apart from the food. I don’t really remember a conscious effort to bring the native culture into the house. What I saw instead was the family culture -- that pressure for everyone to stay together, where individual endeavors might take a backseat to a collective endeavor.

Perhaps because I was the youngest of five siblings, I didn’t feel that pressure and I think I had a degree of freedom that my older siblings didn’t have.

It has also exposed me to a sense of Filipino melodrama. Filipinos have a sense of melodrama, and I know I have a sense of melodrama as well. It’s something that an outsider might view with a hint of irony, but for a lot of Filipinos, it’s heartfelt, and not meant to be ironic at all.

So in this book, the characters are in situations that the reader might laugh at, but the characters are very affected emotionally. To me that feels very Filipino.

Do you feel an imperative to “represent” the Filipino/Filipino-American experience in your work?

I don’t feel that pressure; I don’t put it on myself. I understand that people might pick up this book and expect [a representation of Filipino-ness], but for me, it’s more important that I distinguish myself as a fiction writer. These stories represent 8 different psychological, emotional experiences, and so this book is not anthropology, sociology, shouldn’t be read that way.

If someone wants to read it that way, fine, but I wouldn’t present it as, “Read this book and understand my people.” I mean, falling in love in a leper colony -- that might not be the best way to represent the Philippines!

Of course the fact that my characters are Filipino-American is an essential part of their character, but it’s not the ultimate defining characteristic. I think if there’s something that ties these characters together beyond nationality or ethnicity, it’s the fact that they’re all good-hearted people trying to make their way in a world that puts them in difficult situations.

I think the most I can do is to be as accurate as I can about how I handle these characters’ emotional lives. If a character makes some kind of decision, or statement, I have to know why they’re doing that. I think that’s the only authenticity that I can control. Sure, I can do research, and get my facts straight, but I have to do my best to understand the psychology of my characters. -

Lsyley TenorioLysley Tenorio’s "Monstress" is available for P399 in National Book Store, Powerbooks, and Bestsellers branches.

Florianne L. Jimenez teaches Literature and College Writing at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is a Palanca award-winning non-fiction writer, with a creative interest in the self, places, and consciousness. She has a massive to-be-read pile dating back to 2008, which includes such titles as 'The Collected Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,' 'Book 5 of Y: The Last Man,' and 'The Collected Works of TS Spivet: A Novel.'

Date of Mention: 
Saturday, March 2, 2013