English-language authors who write about Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia have to jump significant hurdles to avoid the dismissive label of “ethnic literature,” especially if those authors are immigrants themselves. But there have been breakout Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese-American short-story authors (e.g. Nam Le and Yiyun Li), and now they’re joined by Lysley Tenorio and the sizeable Filipino immigrant community in San Francisco. Tenorio uses unique, bizarre premises to liven up the standard difficult-immigration and filial-piety themes, ensuring that Monstress isn’t just another short-story collection about a foreign community at home and abroad.
As with many collections in this style, Tenorio alternates between stories set in his native Philippines, and others set in his new home, the San Francisco Bay area. The title story depicts a Filipino B-movie horror actress from the 1960s who gets a chance at a career revival with a low-budget Hollywood producer. She’s in a relationship with her director, having played all the monsters in his films. The American producer bestows the title “Monstress” upon her as a supreme compliment and sweet-talks her into appearing in his films, extending her stay in Hollywood long enough to destroy her relationship. It’s a former star’s lament for the possible family she left behind, and Tenorio strikes the melodrama-vs.-humor balance of other B-movie nostalgia pieces like Ed Wood.
In “Help,” a devoted nephew agrees to help his uncle plan a surprise attack on The Beatles after they turn down Imelda Marcos’ request for a private concert in 1960s Manila. He and his cousins secretly plan to ask for autographs, while their uncle spends his time worshipping pictures and quotations from Marcos, who was seen at the time as the Philippines’ ambassador to the world, not the out-of-touch dictator’s wife with 2,700 pairs of shoes. Tenorio often finds a humorous tone even in bleaker stories, such as “Save The I-Hotel,” in which an aging Filipino man reflects on his unrealized dreams while helping his lifelong friend move out of their condemned apartment building in San Francisco.
All of Tenorio’s plots find a compelling topic along the way, even if they don’t contain deeply emotional revelations. The brief scenes brought to light in Monstress’ stories are memorable without being preachy, focused on important transitions and decisions, with just enough moral ambiguity to keep Tenorio’s narrators from seeming infallible. His debut collection echoes Le’s The Boat, but Tenorio lacks the gut-wrenching powerhouse punch of a story like Le’s “Love And Honor And Pity And Pride And Compassion And Sacrifice.” That distinct peak overshadowed Le’s entire debut. Thankfully, Monstress’ minor low points aren’t that far below the highs.
As with many authors who find a groove in writing about a culture rarely in the spotlight, a major, lingering question is whether they can avoid being pigeonholed. Tenorio’s work shows influence from Li and even a bit of Amy Tan, but his work stands out for its off-kilter voice, which approaches dysfunctional-family stories from unseen angles, like the stories of George Saunders or Karen Russell. “Ethnic literature” doesn’t have to be a derogatory label, but too often it’s seen as a drawback instead of an asset. Monstress is the best kind of ethnic literature, one that introduces a unique voice from an underrepresented slice of the American experience.