Review of Lysley Tenorio’s “Monstress” by Sue J. Kim


I found this review on my newsfeed. I thought it was an excellent review of Tenorio’s work. I’ve read a few of his short stories in the Atlantis (Superassassin and L’amour, CA), and, as she describes it aptly, these two stories were devastating and full of deft, subtleness, and humanness. I love his writing and am an ardent fan. His book is coming out in January 2012. Please mark it on your Xmas list, as I am!

Also, you can check out his story, L’amour, CA in the Atlantic here.

Source of review: Asian American Literature Fans found on LiveJournal. More specifically, check it out here.


By Sue J. Kim (under the alias of “skim666.”)

The cover of Monstress, Lysley Tenorio’s debut collection of stories, features a blurb by Chang-Rae Lee that reads, “The stories in Monstress announce the debut of an electric literary talent.” I’m usually skeptical of such hyperbole because it’s all too common, but in this case, Lee is absolutely right! These stories are literary fiction at its finest; deft, subtle, human, and devastating in small and unexpected ways (And they have the publication record to prove it; some of the stories included in this collection previously appeared in The AtlanticPloughshares, and two volumes of Best New American Voices, 2001 and 2010).

Tenorio excels at situating the most intimate human relationships, feelings, and experiences in large historical currents, but without the latter overshadowing the former. We see cultural globalization, immigration and labor flows, U.S. imperial relations with the Philippines, and other “big” things not quite as backdrops, because they’re integral to the stories – rather, the stories explore how the minutest human actions (including thoughts and feelings) are what constitute these larger patterns. We see human lives in human history. There’s also a sense of lives struggling out of decline (of fame and fortunes, of relationships, of love); many of the characters implicitly ask, “What do I feel? What do I want? What do I do now?”

For instance, “Monstress,” the first and title story, centers on Filipino B-movie director Checkers Rosario and his leading lady (with the awesome name of Reva Gogo) who has made a pseudo-career playing monsters in Checker’s films. But because by 1970 Manila filmgoers prefer Hollywood to Checker’s cheap monster flicks, Checkers and Reva are near the end of their cinematic reel, so to speak. Enter Gaz Gazman, an equally small-time American filmmaker who wants to use monster footage from Checker’s old films and transforms Reva – unexpectedly and not entirely willingly – into a leading lady in films. The change in their fortunes, however, forces them to make partly wrenching, partly inadvertent emotional choices, something we see in new and unexpected ways in all the stories.

In “The Brothers,” Edmond struggles with what the death of his transgender brother Eric means for him and his mother. In “Felix Starro,” Felix (the 3rd) has to figure out what exactly he feels for his uncle, the first Felix Starro, a fraud faith healer on a money-making jaunt to the U.S. The devastating story “The View from Culion,” set in 1964, recounts the always below-the-surface (emotionally and visually) relationship between a biracial Filipina-American and Euro-American soldier in the famous leper colony. “Superassassin,” another devastating story (yes, I’m going to use “devastating” multiple times in this review – because the stories are devastating!) is from the perspective of a deeply troubled ninth-grade son of a Filipina woman, brought to the U.S. by an American soldier for whom she was “a living knickknack from his military days” (117). Now she continues to be passed, knickknack-like, from man to man, desperately searching for love (and left bereft every time), and her son seeks a way to protect his mother via comic book heroes and increasingly violent real-world actions. “Help,” set in 1966, is a darkly hilarious story about a nephew aiding his uncle to defend Imelda Marcos’ honor against The Beatles. In “Save the I-Hotel,” Fortunado reviews his forty-three years living next door to and loving Vicente in the historic International Hotel (also the title of Karen Tei Yamashita’s 2010 magnus opus I Hotel) on the day they are evicted in 1977. In the appropriately titled “L’Amour, CA,” an eight-year-old boy, whose family moves to the U.S. after their Filipino father serves in the U.S. Navy, struggles to understand (without even realizing that he’s struggling) his sister’s determined search for love, wrapped in Americanness.

I say that the final story is appropriately titled because, ultimately, these stories are about love – for mothers, siblings, lovers, idols, dreams, oneself – and the crazy-ass things that love makes us do. Monstress really is an amazing collection of stories, and I’m excited that this is only the beginning for Lysley Tenorio; I look forward to a lifetime of reading his work!

[Important disclaimer: remember, this wonderful review is not by me, but by Sue J. Kim. <3]

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