For someone who grew up in San Francisco hearing Tagalog spoken by a playmate’s father and his friends, Monstress, a debut collection of short stories by Lysley Tenorio, is a gift: A chance to understand what those Filipino émigrés might have been saying about their lives, loves, disappointments and sense of being the other.
The cover art, a tropical bird, upside down, talons with a precarious grip on a branch, gives a clue of what to expect. Inside, we’re in a world populated by outsiders and eccentrics. Tenorio’s writing, assured, economical, often lyrical, zings from the outrageous, to the hilarious, to the tenderly wise. The eight stories take the reader from the Philippines to America and back. Throughout, the characters experience longing and ambivalence for the place left behind and for their lost illusions. In “The Brothers” we meet a transgendered son; in “The View from Culion” a lonely young woman in an island leper colony; in “Felix Starro,” a legendary Filipino “healer” who performs ritualized cures involving fake blood and chicken livers; and in “Superassassin” a comic book-addicted outcast. “Help” is a slapstick look at what happens when the Beatles play Manila and Uncle Willy plots to take revenge for a slight against the woman he loves, none other than Imelda Marco. “Save the I-Hotel,” a haunting tale of forbidden love, tells of a life-long friendship, between Vincente and Fortunado now in their sixties, who are evicted from San Francisco’s International Hotel. In “L’Amour, CA” love is not what the child narrator or his adored older sister finds in Lemoore, California when their family moves from a rural village in the Philippines. Fog shrouds the barren streets of this godforsaken town, and the terrible end is a bleak finish to this original and satisfying work.
Don’t expect happy endings, but do expect to be moved, dazzled and surprised by this book.