“Monstress” by Lysley Tenorio: The Vivid Theatre of Filipino-American Communities

Last month I reviewed the novel Beauty is a Wound by Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan. Getting into Indonesian literature made me curious about the neighbouring Philippines, and I went through titles by a few Filipino authors—dead and living, based in their homeland and abroad. Prominent names that emerged were: Mia Alvar (In the Country: Stories), Tess Uriza Holthe (When the Elephants Dance), Nick Joaquin (The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic) and Jose Rizal (Touch Me Not). 

But the book that ended up catching my attention—for now—was Monstress (2012), a collection of eight short stories by Lysley Tenorio (website, Wikipedia@LysleyTenorio). Tenorio was born in Olongapo, the Philippines in 1972 and currently lives in San Francisco. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Stegner Fellowship, he is an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga, CA.

Monstress: Stories by Lysley Tenorio (2012, HarperCollins)

The tales of Monstress are set across the Philippines and America, and speak of “the need to find connections, the melancholy of isolation, and the sometimes suffocating ties of family”. They are deeply rooted in popular culture, with references to movies, music and comics. Tenorio’s writing is unassuming and proceeds in small steps. The author examines little intimacies and disagreements and disappointments and achievements—preferring not to load us with too much in one go—somehow the cumulative effect of this approach is vivid and magical.

My favourite story was the title tale “Monstress” itself, in which a movie director named Checkers and his girlfriend actress called Reva Gogo (both unsuccessful—having been pushed out of business in their home country with the influx of American films) travel from Manila to Hollywood at the request of a filmmaker called Gaz Guzman (who is supposedly coming up with the science fiction adventure). Here is the comic yet poignant episode wherein Checkers and Reva arrive at Gaz’s “studio” in Pasedena—his mom’s basement:

Freeway traffic was slow; I fell asleep in the backseat, and when I woke we were in front of Gaz’s mother’s house. It was an old, peeling Victorian with a singled roof that had almost no shingles left, and the shutters dangled from the uppermost windows, like limbs attached to a body by one last vein…The basement was like an underground studio set, sectioned off by plywood partitions and cardboard walls: each room was a different section of The Valedictorian—the bridge, the science lab, the weapons bay, the sauna space…I didn’t need to touch anything to know its cheapness:…


“It was an old, peeling Victorian with a singled roof that had almost no shingles left…” (Photo: Pixabay)


…the helm was made of Styrofoam and cardboard, painted to look like steel; the main computer was a reconfigured pinball machine; the Intelli-Bot 4-26-35 was an upside-down fishbowl painted gold atop a small TV set, and its bottom half was a vacuum cleaner on wheels. But I was used to this lack of marvelousness, because Checkers worked this way too, attempting magic from junk: wet toilet tissue shaped like fangs was good enough for a wolf-man or vampire, and our ghosts were just bedsheets…


“…and our ghosts were just bedsheets.” (Photo: Free Images Live)


“On film,” Checkers used to say, “everything looks real.”


I found Checkers and Gaz in the space lab, the contract between them: Gaz would pay twenty-five dollars up front, then pay five percent of the profits. “Jackpot-Eureka!” Checkers said after he signed, though neither of us knew how much that would be worth back home.


Learn more about the author in these videos: