We’re all monsters
In Lysley Tenorio’s debut short story collection he gathered eight taut stories that illuminated the kind of alienation Filipinos in America feel and try to cope with as they live the life of immigrants in the States. Filipinos have a reputation for having a knack to assimilate in any culture and society but experience told me that no matter how “assimilated” I appear to be, in another country the feeling that I am an outsider looking in does not entirely dissipate. A fertile ground, I might say, for a lot of angst and melodrama.
In Tenorio’s case, as I was delighted to learn; he eschewed the emotional wrangling and tear-jerking in favor of bizarre and unique premises that drive the themes of alienation and filial piety without sounding didactic and preachy. In fact, reading the stories in this collection reminded me of another short story collection which I read as a teen-ager.
While it is easy to dismiss the works of Clive Barker as ‘mere’ horror-fantasy, I believe that underneath all the horrific elements, there are many insights on the theme of alienation and identity. The stories in Clive Barker’s multi-volume ‘Books of Blood’ were filled with the unique and the bizarre: characters both human and otherwise going through experiences that challenge their sense of self.
Similarly, Tenorio’s stories were populated with brilliantly quirky characters that go through seemingly outrageous experiences in order to come to a reconciliation of their own inner conflicts and contradictions. The has-been B-Movie actress, the grandson of a famous faith healer, and the brother of a dead transgender man were all looking for some kind of transformation: a return to the limelight and finally achieving fame, an exit from the family business to a new life, and a way to understand his own identity.
The need for connection is another theme that was manifested by some of the characters in the stories: the uncle and his nephew, who plotted against the Beatles to avenge the honor of Imelda Marcos while yearning to actually meet the Beatles notice them at the same time, the comic book geek who coped with the rejection of his Caucasian father by inhabiting a fantasy world he was tempted to make real, and the girl from a leper colony who dreamed of love with an American soldier stricken with leprosy.
However, no matter how outrageous the proceedings in the stories get, I think Tenorio is at his best when imbuing his characters with real feelings and concerns, plus the right amount of moral ambiguity, just enough so that not one of his characters appear perfect and in turn, infallible. There is a kind of sadness that pervades the stories in this collection. I’m not sure if this is a reflection of my current state of mind but this is how the stories felt to me. But immigration is a word that is already fraught inherent sadness. I mean separation from loved ones, the struggle to build a new life in a new environment, and the attempt to come to terms with the changed self, among others.
But still, like the Filipino that he is, Tenorio manages to inject a touch of humor in the dreary situations. Case in point: can there be any sadder theme than unrequited love among the elderly who are about to be evicted from the condemned building that’s been their only home? Just writing the previous statement almost brought me to tears. But under Tenorio’s deft hands, the story is told gorgeously and ends up being life-affirming despite its dour conclusion.
In Clive Barker’s novella ‘Cabal’, the only character who behaved in a monstrous manner was in fact, human. The other creatures were basically like all of us: beautiful and tragic and always struggling to deal with our own alienation. Hence the phrase, we’re all monsters.
All told, the stories in ‘Monstress’ allowed me to view and appreciate the idiosyncratic nuances of the Filipino-American psyche, with the struggles between staying in the Philippines and emigrating, loyalty to one’s family and ambition, and adherence to culture and assimilation, among others. More commendable is the manner with which Tenorio laid these themes and issues bare; the stories were genuinely moving in its often off-kilter voice, showcasing familial dysfunction from fresh angles, and being insightful without being too smug and self-aware.
*A slightly different version appears in Jessica Zafra’s blog, to whom I owe my free copy of the book. Thanks!