The Ones Who Leave and the Ones Who Get Left

Lysley Tenorio in Makati

In general, I prefer novels to short story collections, but Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress is an exception. Each of these eight stories has a satisfying fullness, and the collection has a novel-like breadth. It really dives into the Filipino-American cultural divide, particularly on an emotional level. Lysley and I met at the author’s book-signing in Makati. The following interview took place over Skype after he had returned to the States, where he teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California.

 CD:  Can you tell me about your immigration from the Philippines to the States?

LT:  I was seven months old, so it was a fairly easy transition for me, without a process of assimilation. But through my siblings I witnessed and maybe experienced vicariously the struggle and the joy and the uncertainty of making a place for oneself in the new country. My oldest brother was nineteen years old, and my older sister fifteen. The teenage years are so volatile that it’s hard not to get a sense of the impact of leaving for a new home. So the sense of transformation, of trying to adjust, trying to make one’s way, is such a heartfelt and intense endeavor that it was palpable to me when I was growing up even if it wasn’t my own personal experience.

CD:  Did you become part of a Filipino-American community, or was your family more isolated?

LT:  It’s hard for me to say about the early years, but I grew up in San Diego in a little community, Mare Mesa, which was nicknamed “Manila Mesa” because of all the Filipinos. There are so many different faces and ethnicities that I never felt isolated or alienated—certainly in terms of public life, like going to school or to the supermarket. I don’t recall a conscious effort on my part to immerse myself in the Filipino or Filipino-American community, but I certainly had Filipino friends. That was just the reality of the place.

The point-of-view characters (Click on for a better look.)

CD:  So you didn’t feel isolated or alienated, unlike perhaps your characters. I find them fascinating because they’re all in really extreme circumstances, but as the stories progress, they’re revealed to be very human and in some ways very ordinary people. Can you talk about your construction of characters?

LT:  I’m drawn to circumstances that seem almost too strange to be true because they provide good drama and tension. If the situation verges on the unbelievable, but is actually real, it comes with an emotional depth that’s worthy of exploration if you’re writing character-driven fiction. I’m drawn to strange but true intersections between the Philippines and America. For example, “Help” is about some Filipino guys, Marcos loyalists, who beat up the Beatles because one of them had supposedly said something lewd about Imelda Marcos. It’s based on a true story. I need to ask myself: who are the characters who might occupy this strange space? The challenge is to take characters arising from strange, weird, seemingly unbelievable situations and make them emotionally complex, give them psychological depth so the reader can experience an empathic tension with them.

CD:  Do you start with an emotion or some kind of emotional blueprint?

LT:  No, I would be cautious about that kind of approach. The construction of character really comes from situation and plot. I don’t want to call it a blueprint, but certainly the majority of characters are caught up in the struggle between a kind of collective history that they’re trying to honor or abide by and the individual need to be on one’s own. That’s a common emotional thread. But they’re really shaped by their individual circumstances, which are often dictated by weird, wacky thoughts.

CD:  Could you give an example of collective history?

LT:  I don’t mean a national history or the history of the Philippines, but family history and loyalty ties. For example, in “Help,” the young narrator is caught between loyalty to his uncle—so, honoring the family through his uncle—and his own individual desire, which in the immediate story is simply to meet the Beatles and have a moment with them, not attack them because of an insult to Imelda Marcos.

CD:  Where do you find the collective in the story in the lepers’ colony?

LT:  Well, I think the main character’s problem is that she doesn’t have one. When she was in America for a brief period, she was happy, and her mother was happy. But then she developed this terrible disease and was discarded. In the colony she identifies with the other American patient because she still sees herself as very American even though she’s been exiled for years. When she sees how disfigured he is, it hits her on such a complicated level that it reminds her she’s alone, she’s isolated. Then she can’t connect with this individual or, for that matter, with her claim to the American identity she once relished.

CD:  The collection opens with “Monstress” and this first line: “In 1966, the president of Cocoloco Pictures broke the news to us in English: ‘As the Americanos say, it is time to listen to the music. Your movies are shit.’” —  I hear from time to time that Filipinos don’t get irony, although I haven’t personally found this to be true. There’s a lot of gentle irony in these stories, both with words and with situations. How do your readers react? 

LT:  The ones I’ve spoken with seem to get it. Of course a lot of them are Filipino-Americans with American sensibility, or they may just have more experience with different forms of entertainment, maybe a postmodern sensibility.

My mother subscribes to the Filipino television channel, TFC, which she watches at home in San Diego. Sometimes I’ll watch the dramas or telenovelas with her. They’re very melodramatic, but I don’t think they’re meant to be ironic. It’s like the way Filipinos embrace their beauty queens. The Miss Universe Pageant is still a big deal, which is not to say that some Filipinos don’t look at it with irony or that admiration for beauty queens is inherently Filipino. But in the Philippines beauty queens are elevated to the point of becoming historical figures. I appreciate that they’re able to see something like a beauty pageant through a serious and respectful lens. Even though some of my stories may take a whimsical attitude toward things like monster movies, I do try to respect what they are in and of themselves. In “Monstress” the narrator has played the monster in B-movies, these terrible, tacky things. But when she watches them twenty years later they take on a kind of beauty. One could say that’s just nostalgia at work, but I think she comes to realize that those movie monsters, as silly as they might have been, were created as an act of love. So she comes to respect their purity.

CD:  I really like the way the San Francisco story moves back and forth in time. How did you construct it?

LT:  I’d looked at some stories that have that novelistic feel, that go back and forth between a present time situation and the character’s entire history. So I very willfully borrowed some of those structures. When I tried writing the story from a first-person perspective, it didn’t work, so I changed it to third-person. It felt easier to assert that kind of authority, to say, “Here we are in this small, present-time moment. Now I’m going to fling the reader back forty years and give a lot of information but also palatable drama, even if these are flashbacks. Hopefully those timelines will somehow emotionally converge.”At first I was afraid that it seemed a little too gimmicky to go back and forth between a single night and an entire life. But once I’d decided that this was what the temporal space was going to be, I had to commit to it. I think once I got over that initial concern it felt right. That was a hard story to write, so I appreciate [your saying that it works].

CD:  Your plots seem to turn on some kind of betrayal. Could you talk about that in terms of your construction of stories?

LT:  That’s been pointed out to me before. I don’t think I can speak about it because it’s not a narrative mechanism I rely on. Betrayal has to be dictated by character and circumstances. Hopefully, it’s believable, and whoever betrays does it for reasons one can both empathize with and condemn.

CD:  Your writing seems to go really deeply into the Philippines as I’ve observed it. I’d like to ask about your research, for example with the albularyo, the faith healers.

LT:  It’s very focused research. That story was based on Alex Orbito, a prominent faith healer. Years ago I borrowed a library book about psychic surgeons in the Philippines. So that’s when my interest first developed. Later I looked up “psychic surgery” and found a few videos which show it being performed and others showing it being debunked—like how the surgeons palm the little bags of blood. I tried to imagine the physicality of the gesture as I saw it. With Culion, the leper colony, I was able to get some primary sources about the island, and I did some research on leprosy. But I’ve learned you don’t want to be weighted down by an excess of factual information. You want to commit to the story, so you’ve got to pick and choose your facts and not be seduced by the fascinating information you might find. Stick to the story and the character, and use the information that’s most useful to you. Of course if your writing relies on some factual truth, you want to maintain that integrity without being oppressed by it.

CD:  How did you decide which situations to write about?

LT:  You know, not too many stories in contemporary fiction take place in a leper colony. If I were a reader stumbling across a story like that, I’d be interested. I need subject matter I assume will be interesting to a reader—even on the surface level, on the level of plot. More importantly, it has to be interesting to me, or I can’t commit to it. So I find subjects and themes inherent on those subjects that are both workable and fun to think about, although of course they may be sad, or even dark. I’m the one who writes these stories. I have to take care of these characters. It eats up a lot of my time. So the subjects have to be interesting to me.

CD:  What do you do in terms of constructing the setting?

LT:  If it’s based on a real place, certainly I’ll try to find photos or diagrams or blueprints. That’s always sort of my go-to source. If it’s fictional, I don’t draw it out, but I do have a visual sense of it. It’s never all that specific, kind of amorphous. For example, in “L’Amour, CA,” the narrator hates the house, which he says is too big. I don’t have a clear layout of it, but I have a sense of maybe the light in the room as it comes through the windows. Maybe the color of the walls. I have a visual sense of the most basic planes in the space. Rarely is it that important.

CD:  When you use a setting that actually exists, do you look at it and have the sense of the scene arising in it?

Sometimes, but not too often. When I was in the Philippines thirteen years ago—the last time I was there before the event where I met you—I was at the Manila International Airport, thinking about the part it played in “Help.” I’d meant to collect information and take notes, but as I looked around, I didn’t know how to use what I was seeing. In fact, it felt stifling. But then I saw a sign on the way to the departure gates which said, “No well-wishers beyond this point.” I thought it was such a great visual, such a great message, which works on so many different levels. It helped me understand my character more. He’s just a kid, and his mother is about to leave the country. He tries to follow her, but the guard pulls him back and points at the sign. He says, “I wanted to tell him that the sign didn’t apply to me, that I didn’t wish my mother well at all, that in fact, I wished her a terrible trip, a time so awful she would take the first flight back to Manila.” So that was a serendipitous moment where a detail which had seemed insignificant turned out to be pivotal.

CD:  You were traveling a lot while writing, so these stories were written in several different places. What effect does the place where you are physically have on what you write?

LT: When I go away to write, I rarely go to a place for a specific story. I can’t say the places where the work was written influenced it, although I’m sure on some subconscious level they did. When I’m writing about a particular place I don’t feel a strong need to be there. I used to think that because a lot of these stories are set in the Philippines I had to spend years and years there in order to get them right, but that hasn’t been the case. That may be different with stories or novels to come. Now I go off to a quiet place away from what’s familiar. I feel that the stories are more alive because there’s very little else to take my attention. It’s really helpful to detach from my life—like my teaching, my family, my friends, my apartment, the dishes, all that stuff—just to be able to disconnect for a little bit.

CD:  One of the reviewers of your book wrote, “Hard enough to make sense of life when you’re rooted to one place, one culture; how much more impossible it must be for those of us who straddle one place and another.” Do you find that’s true?

LT:  I would think it’s more complex when there’s more to juggle. That’s not to say that people who are only rooted in one culture, one place, don’t have an equally difficult time, which I would think has its own set of challenges. I do think, when you’re having to manage or negotiate one set of beliefs that are inherent to another place with the yet-to-be-defined sense of values from the new place, it’s complex. I don’t want to say one struggle is more fraught than the other. I won’t compare the two. They’re different.

CD:  In the final story, “L’Amour, CA,” the family’s firstborn is named Isa, or “number one” in Tagalog. After she runs away, the narrator says this:

“I put my head on my knees, close my eyes. Somewhere, Isa is fine without us; here, we are fine without Isa. And this is the truth I don’t want to know: that the ones who leave and the ones who get left keep living their lives, whatever the distance between. But not me. When I was outside in the night, I watched my family; I knew they were fine. When she thought she was alone, I watched Isa; I listened to her pray. For the rest of my life, I would be like this. It’s the difference, I think, between all of them and me; even when I was gone, I was here.”

I have the feeling, although you show both sides as painful, that you see going out into the world as being basically positive. Is that the case?

LT:  I don’t think it’s ever all positive or all negative. In these eight stories, I tend to think it’s admirable to strike out on one’s own with the willingness to see it through—although it may have bad results. It’s gutsy. I hope that’s how some people might see it. I wouldn’t say it’s all positive or negative. People are always going to gain things, and they’re always going to lose things along the way. I do tend to admire people who leave, but it’s important that my admiration for that kind of bravery not blind me to the consequences.

CD:  Is there something else you’d like to add about the book?

LT:  Just that I appreciate your interest in it and I hope that people who read this interview or visit your site will pick it up.

CD: So do I. It’s a real treat.