Jenny's Reviews > Monstress

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
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's review
Nov 27, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: character
Recommended to Jenny by: ARC

This final Hyphen review ended up taking a different approach from my original version but it's probably better this way.

Lysley Tenorio’s debut short story collection Monstress takes us through the metropolis of the San Francisco Bay Area to wasteland cities in central California. Tenorio’s Filipino and Filipino American characters dream of California as a Promised Land that will give them money, love, fame, or acceptance. This may sound like a typical first and second-generation immigrant story, but these worn-out themes are resuscitated through Tenorio’s sharp voice, fresh perspective, and dark humor.

His protagonists are outcasts, freaks, or nonconformists -- like the transgender waitress in “The Brothers,” the AWOL American soldier man trapped in a Filipino leper colony in “The View from Culion,” the disturbed comic-obsessed boy in “Superassassin,” or even the teenager imagining escape from her drab life and overprotective parents in “L’amour, CA.” These outsiders yearn for a better life than what’s been given them and search for a place where they’ll be wanted. It is Tenorio’s uncanny ability to make us see the humanity in these outsiders that make his stories distinct.

In the title story, Checkers Rosario is a washed-up Filipino filmmaker who specializes in low budget horror flicks. His regular leading lady, Reva Gogo, whose acting credits include Bat-Winged Pygmy Queen and Two-Headed Bride of Two-Headed Dracula, is considered a “mistress of monsters” or a “monstress.” Their failed careers are given a second chance by Gaz Gazman, a California movie producer, who wants to take footage from Checkers’ monster movies and splice them into his own sci-fi thriller. The deliciously smarmy Gaz Gazman ends up being a no-name film student who works out of his mother’s basement. With a gay leading man delivering canned lines to a leading lady who normally howls and hisses at the camera, you can guess that the movie winds up being an ideal pick for a night of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (the real inspiration behind this story is Horror of the Blood Monsters, credited in some circles as the worst movie of all time). Though Checkers and Reva end up having creative differences and she shows him her actual claws, she still understands that Checkers loves her like she is “a thing of unequaled beauty” -- he is able to continue loving a monstress. Tenorio is able to make us see past the space sauna and homemade rubber tentacles and constructs a story that is, in the end, a sweet story about having Hollywood dreams with Roger Corman budgets.

The poetry of Tenorio’s writing style is further showcased in the story “Save the I Hotel.” Amidst the backdrop of one of the defining moments in the Asian American Civil Rights Movement, the forced evacuation of the I Hotel in 1977, the story tells how two Filipino immigrant bachelors in anti-miscegenation San Francisco carve out a space for themselves and find a home in each other. Forty-three years before, as a 24-year old, Vicente was Fortunado’s brash and charismatic guide to the ins and outs of Manilatown. After an event one night that lasts a few seconds, their illicit love affairs make Fortunado question both his identity and loyalty to Vicente. “[Fortunado] would stand by the rail and look out at the Bay Bridge, which was nearly finished. Its progress was evidence that the world still turned forward, leaving behind a night when he was truly happy, and the moment he was utterly finally known.” In this story, the characters embody the unbridled optimism of youth. Their excitement about the possibilities of love is captured in clandestine meetings and dark, forbidden kisses.

In an interview with the Examiner, Tenorio says his ideas come from taking snippets of bizarre historic events and re-imagining them as a backdrop in which to place his own characters. This process gives the reader sometimes playful or sometimes dark insights into possible motivations behind these events. For example, “Help” was inspired by the true story of how a group of Marcos sympathizers attacked the Beatles at the Manila airport for snubbing the president and first lady. Tenorio reinvents the reason for the pathetic attack as a display of loyalty from a fanatical high-level Marcos security guard. “Felix Starro” was based on a real-life Filipino faith healer who “look[ed] ageless…like Jesus or Dick Clark.” The shyster’s business prospects are threatened by his grandson who is tired of scamming poor and gullible Filipinos. These retellings infuse the actual events with a new take.

Lysley Tenorio’s moving collection takes you on the emotional journey of his characters and, despite their monstrosities, I wanted to make fun of Doris Day with them in a darkened Manila movie theatre, cry out our broken hearts listening to a record of “Johnny Angel” over and over again, look out at the night sky of San Francisco and contemplate our dreams, and slap the stupid out of them when they start dating losers. I can’t wait to see what Tenorio comes up with next.

Goodreads add: I learned if people call you "monstrous" you say "Bitch, that's monstress." Snap!
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