Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysley Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.
“A wonderful story collection that’s as wide and rich and complex as the geography it spans.”— Ben Fountain, PEN/Hemingway award-winning author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevera
“Tenorio is a deep and original writer, and Monstress is simply a beautiful book.”—Jessica Hagedorn, author of Dogeaters
A luminous collection of heartbreaking, vivid, startling, and gloriously unique stories set amongst the Filipino-American communities of California and the Philippines, Monstress heralds the arrival of a breathtaking new talent on the literary scene: Lysley Tenorio. Already the worthy recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a Stegner Fellowship, Tenorio brilliantly explores the need to find connections, the melancholy of isolation, and the sometimes suffocating ties of family in tales that range from a California army base to a steamy moviehouse in Manilla, to the dangerous false glitter of Hollywood.
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About the Author
What People are Saying About This
“Lysley Tenorio is a writer of sly wit and lively invention—these are stories bursting with wonders...but most wondrous of all is his intimate sense of character. Each story is a confession of love betrayed, told with a mournful, austere tenderness as heartbreaking as it is breathtaking.”
“In these fantastic stories, Tenorio skillfully blends the unlikely and the emotional, the bizarre and the humane. His writing portrays the universal human condition through unique specificity, and is very deserving of attention.”
“Tenorio is that rare breed of writer who mines gold from the impossible. He sees everything—the absurd and the tragic, the funny and profound—and delivers stories that are as true to life as any you will ever read.”
“Tenorio’s wit is understated; his writing is deft and self-assured; his dramas don’t shout, but whisper, seductive and heartfelt. Monstress is one of the wisest and heartfelt collections I’ve read. I’ve waited a long time for this book.”
“Monstress is an exhilarating rollercoaster of a book. Deeply funny, heartbreaking, hopeful, philosophical, bawdy, and wise, Tenorio’s stories, written from the underbelly of the American Dream, present one brilliant portrait after another.”
“The stories in Monstress announce the debut of an electric literary talent. Brilliantly quirky, often moving, always gorgeously told, these are tales of big-hearted misfits who yearn for their authentic selves with extraordinary passion and grace. Bravo for this fabulous American fiction!”
“Lysley Tenorio’s first book [is] better than I hoped: poignant, imaginative, somehow sad and funny all at once. Tenorio’s characters walk tightropes strung between the Philippines and America, between illusions and reality, between family ties and the need to strike out alone. Monstress is a wonderful read. ”
Lysley Tenorio’s darkly funny stories capture the contradictions and complexities of being both Filipino and a citizen of the world. Tenorio is a deep and original writer, and Monstress is simply a beautiful book.
The stories in your collection are wildly different in terms of setting, plot, and character. You write about a young woman with leprosy falling in love with an AWOL soldier in "The View From Culion," a group of teen-agers attacking the Beatles in "Help," two filmmakers, one from America and one from the Philippines, team up to create a sci-fi/ horror movie. How do you get your ideas for your stories, and what would you say they have in common with one another?
With a few exceptions, most of my stories are based on real places or events. Culion was an American-run leper colony in the South China Sea, the Beatles really were attacked at the Manila International Airport, and the movie the characters make in "Monstress" is based on an actual film that consists of an awful American sci-flick spliced together with footage from a Filipino caveman-monster movie. These scenarios are full of thematic possibility, at least in terms of what I'm interested in writing aboutidentity, dislocation, home, etc.but perhaps more importantly, there's so much weirdness to those circumstances; they're almost unbelievable. I like the challenge of that, finding the real emotional drama in the seemingly ridiculous, nonsensical, and strange. These strange places and events from the real world, from history, present me with that challenge.
Your stories have been described as "[illustrating] the clash and meld of Filipino and American cultures." What does this idea of "clash and meld" mean to you and for your stories?
Besides sounding like a new dance craze ("Everybody clash and meld!"), the phrase "clash and meld" feels like an accurate way to describe any two cultures that have been as historically intertwined and American and the Philippines. There's obviously conflict and tension between both cultures, but there's also harmony and synthesismy characters, I like to think, embody those complexities. The young narrator of "Superassassin," for example, is the son of a white U.S. navyman and a Filipina woman. He demonizes his father (he ditched them right before the narrator was born), is unflinchingly loyal to his abusive mother, and contemplates "the potency of [his] hybridity"he believes the combination of traits from both parents is its own kind of superpower, something different and uncategorizeable. He's that clash-and-meld, incarnate.
Publishers Weekly, in a review of your book, said, "The tales are tragic, but Tenorio makes the most of his gift for black humor." Do you see your stories are tragic? And if so, how do you infuse emotionally dark stories with a sense of humor?
I can see how these stories can be read as tragic; for all they stand to gain from the decisions they make, my characters suffer immeasurable loss. If there's humor to be found in these stories, its presence should be organic; the job is to draw out the humor, so that it textures and complicates the emotional truth of each situation.
How exactly do you pronounce "Lysley?" Where does your name come from?
It's pronounced, "Less-lee." "Leslie," like the Naked Gun's Leslie Nielsen, also works; "Lies-lee" or "Lis-lee," does not.
The story goes that my oldest brother named me, and came up with the spelling, but there was a brief moment when my father considered naming me "Lindon," which was inspired by "Lindol" which is the Tagalog word for earthquake (I was born during one).
Besides literary fiction, what are some other things that have inspired your writing?
Here's a partial list:
1. Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary. My favorite book as a kid. Even then I understood how flawed Ramona's character was, but that I was still on her side. I think that kind of empathy is essential if you want to write fiction.
2. Crisis On Infinite Earths, the seminal DC Comics mini-series. DC put this out in 1985, and it was the company's way of streamlining their chronology. In the process, major characters were killed offSupergirl in one issue, The Flash in the next. These were characters I'd loved since I was three years old. I remember sitting in a Pizza Hut, mourning, and feeling like the world had changed with their passing. I would never say my characters have this effect on any potential reader, but that doesn't mean I don't try.
3. Room in New York by Edward Hopper. Through a window, you see a man reading a newspaper and a woman in a red-orange dress plunking away at a piano with one finger. Those single gestures, the blurred faces, the colors that are bright and dull at oncethere's so much complicated life in that image, that single moment in time. Fiction should work that way too.
4. Minute 1:58 from "Top of the World" by The Carpenters. I grew up listening to them, and this song is unabashedly cheery and optimistic. But the brilliance of their music is, of course, the synthesis of Richard's buoyant arrangements and the beautiful sadness of Karen's voice. If you listen to that song, to that line where Karen sings, "When this day is through I hope that I will find/ that tomorrow will be/ just the same for you and me," she sings the word same (at 1:58) with this quiet desperation and sense of longing. Many of the stories in Monstress are trying to hit that noteagainst these seemingly whimsical and offbeat backdrops are characters desperate to make their way in the world. That's what Karen Carpenter's voice sounds like to me.
Who have you discovered lately?
I'm a big Ishiguro fan, but only recently read his first book, A Pale View of Hills. Even in this early work, he shows how powerful restraint can be, all that seethes quietly beneath the self-protection of decorum. Recently, I read The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. It's a wild and utterly unique riff on the western genre, hilarious and unexpectedly moving.
As Monstress is my first book, I'm compelled to mention three amazing writers who are currently working on theirs. One is Jack Livings, whose stories have appeared in The Paris Review, A Public Space, Best American Short Stories, and The Pushcart Prize. Another is Otis Haschemeyer, who's had work in The Missouri Review, The Sun, and Best New American Voices. Finally, there's Serena Crawford, already an NEA recipient, whose novel, This Side of the World, I read in manuscript formit's beautiful and sharp, so quietly sad. I can't wait for their books to come out, and for readers to discover them.