Each story of Lysley Tenorio’s debut collection Monstress essentially tells the same story, that of Filipinos attempting to immigrate to America and integrate into its society. It’s a story not unlike Tenorio’s own; he was born in the Philippines, but came to America as a child and now lives in San Francisco. Though it might sound like a disservice to say that, because of this, the stories feel a bit formulaic or even repetitive, it’s actually more of a backhanded compliment; the structure ends up working to the collection’s benefit. While the frame and structure of the stories are similar, as the collection progresses, it becomes apparent how each expands upon the previous one, with a character at a different step in the immigration or integration process. Unlike the collections of many short story writers, like those of Lydia Davis or Nathan Englander, best characterized as “a collection of stories,” where each story seems to stand alone with no relation to the one that comes before it, Tenorio’s feels more like “a story collection.” The stories here come together, some a little bit better than others, to create a more cohesive whole. For this reason, one of the collection’s greatest strengths is the narrative that emerges when these stories are read one after another.
The title story “Monstress,” tells of a failed Filipino horror movie director and his B-level actress wife who always plays the monsters in his films. When an American producer interested in collaboration brings them to Los Angeles, she is given the opportunity to play a lead roll, something that ultimately comes between them. The story has two layers: one which depicts the transformations that result from moving to America, and a second layer, which describes the costumes the characters wear as they dress up and pretend to be someone else, someone monstrous. Throughout the book, Tenorio plays with these multiple meanings. In moving to America, each character looks to change an essential element about themselves, be it material, physical, or spiritual.
The transformations, while perhaps initially about purity or redemption, ultimately become more about deceit, which can be seen most clearly with “Felix Starro.” The story is told from the perspective of a boy from a long line of Filipino faith healers, all with the same name. While his grandfather purports to heal people, he really deceives his patients with fake blood and chants; meanwhile, in search of a better life, the boy attempts to deceive and abandon his grandfather in America while on a trip to Los Angeles. Ultimately you get the feeling that everyone knows they’re being deceived and they’re ok with it. They’re resigned to this fact because there’s nothing else for them to do. This America isn’t the one that one hopes for.
The collection ends with a nice coda in “L’amour, CA.” More than any other story, it deals with the actual move to America and what growing up in this new country means for a brother and sister. The older sister, initially excited to come to America, ends up running away from home only to get pregnant and return. From her brother’s perspective, this encapsulates the immigrant experience, “This baby is like being in America—a thing that just happens, a thing you learn to live with.” Yes America is home, but like all the stories in this collection, it leaves the tumultuous relationship open for more exploration, never offering a happy ending. While the repetitive structure helps acclimate the reader to the magical, yet dangerous world Tenorio creates—there’s no need for artificial introductions or explanations of customs or context—in the end, the stories feel generic; they lack specificity, and this is where he fails. Unlike with the work of Junot Díaz or Jhumpa Lahiri, where there is a clear sense of cultural identity, Tenorio attempts to tell the story of a people but never clearly paints a picture of them. While the immigrant story is a powerful one, I wish Tenorio, someone who seems so steeped in his heritage, had built more on his experience and created a more detailed image of the nuances of the Filipino-American experience.