I have only one question regarding Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress: WHY ISN’T EVERYONE TALKING ABOUT THIS BOOK?! No, really…WHY? Alternating between the Philippines and the United States, the stories in Monstress explore areas of Filipino and Filipino-American culture, the traditions of the past, and the direction of the future. Further adding to the book’s complex layers is that a few of the stories feature gay and trans characters, while another examines a Filipino immigrant family’s response to teen pregnancy. The end result is a surprisingly stellar, beautiful, devastating debut immersed in familial and cultural history.
The book opens with the sadly nostalgic title story, about an actress and her B-movie sci-fi film director boyfriend. Initially dreaming of being cast as the beautiful heroine in her boyfriend’s films, the actress indeed becomes his star…only he lovingly casts her as his “monstress” every time, putting her in the grossest, weirdest costumes he can create. Years later, the two are living in poverty and obscurity. Then an American director appears one day wanting to buy their old monster footage, promising them money and the opportunity to go to Hollywood, and this proposition changes everything for them in ways they can’t foresee.
The most lighthearted story in the collection is “Help!” It’s a historical reimagining set in Manila in 1966, where the Beatles were on tour. The Beatles snub the First Lady, Imelda Marcos, and spark a national outrage (this actually happened). In Tenorio’s story, the narrator’s Uncle Willie is the executive director of VIP Travel at Manila International Airport. He’s furious that the Beatles would dare insult his beloved Imelda Marcos, paradigm of Filipina womanhood, and enlists his nephews to help him beat up the Beatles before they board their plane and leave the country. The narrator feels its his duty to help his uncle, while his cousins agree to the zany scheme only because they’d get to meet the Beatles.
For me, one of more memorable stories is “The Brothers,” about a man named Edmond who has just learned of his estranged twin’s death. The opening scene begins with the reason behind the estrangement: Edmond has always suspected his twin’s secret, but then his twin comes out very publicly as a trans woman named Erica. Their traditional mother was horrified and wanted nothing to do with her. She and Edmond never made peace with Erica’s identity and physical transformation (both continue to call her “Eric” throughout the story), and — requiring Edmond’s assistance — she goes to great lengths to keep Erica’s change a secret at the funeral. It’s devastating.
It’s not often that I come across a short story collection where I end up liking every single story, but it’s hard not to fall for Tenorio’s haunting prose. Here is a writer who is at ease developing an atmospheric story that’s rooted in tone and setting, and someone equally at ease just telling a good plot-driven tale. I would gladly read anything else he writes in the future, no questions asked.
Monstress: Stories was published on January 31, 2012 by Ecco Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.