I feel like I have to start this out with an apology.
Lysley Tenorio is a nice guy, who was very accommodating even after a day full of interviews. He answered every question I had, and they were great answers too! He would often be quiet for a few seconds, really digesting the question in his mind, I guess, before replying.
What I feel I need to apologize for is that I could have done better. I feel like I could have asked better questions and dug deeper, but this was an off day for me. Everybody has them, I guess.
In this interview, Lysley Tenorio talks about growing in a multicultural neighborhood in California, getting the emotions rights, and why he loves working with the short story.
RONREADS (RR): Is this your first time in the country since you left?
LYSLEY TENORIO (LT): I’ve been here a couple of times. We left here when I was seven months old and then we came back when I was seven years old for about a month. And then I came back when I was 27 for about three weeks, and now I’m back. I’ve spent very, very little time in the Philippines.
RR: That’s surprising to me because when I was reading the stories in “Monstress”, I thought that you had grown up here. The way you’ve written about Filipinos and the Philippines feels authentic.
LT: I appreciate that because that’s one of the worries that I had. I’m not trying to say that this book represents anything, but I did want it to seem authentic, especially to a Filipino reader. I’m glad that you believed it.
RR: Where did you get this authenticity then, if you didn’t grow up here in the country?
LT: I grew up in a Filipino family, and in many ways we are a traditional Filipino family. We grew up in a suburb in San Diego called Mira Mesa, which is called Manila Mesa because there are a lot of Filipinos, so I think just growing up in that kind of environment and being aware of the Filipino popular culture. My family would sometimes rent Tagalog movies and we’d watch it as a family. In recent years, my mother watches TFC. You can watch an episode of Wowowee (laughs) and glean a lot from that, at least for a story. Growing up in a multicultural community helped with some of the characterization.
RR: You’ve never been to Culion then?
LT: No, but I did a lot of research. I was able to get a primary source, a book about Culion, a very old book that had pictures, illustrations. I saw pictures of their currency, of their money there. I had to do a lot of research for that.
RR: At which point did you know that you had enough research? Or do you research as you write?
LT: I definitely do some preliminary research just to lay down some groundwork, and I research as I write. But at a certain point, these stories are about characters. I can only do so much research, and you know I would love to make sure that I get everything right, but there’s probably stuff in there that I get wrong. But it’s fiction, and the things that I need to get right are the emotional lives of the characters. That’s the thing that needs to be authentic; their emotional, psychologic, and interior lives.
RR: Were there actual Filipino films that actually inspired some of the fictional ones mentioned in “Monstress”, or were they all American B movies?
LT: I don’t remember the titles, but I remember watching a lot of really bad Filipino vampire movies that bordered on comedy. I actually couldn’t tell if they were meant to be funny. I named one of the movies in “Monstress” “Dracula, Dracula” because it’s a Filipino thing to repeat names (laughs). That to me felt like it could be Filipino. Seeing a couple of those growing up I think influenced me a bit.
RR: What are particular Filipino things in the household that you grew up in?
LT: The food. Corned beef in the cupboards. Santo Nino. Crosses. Rosaries dangling from the rearview mirror. We had the upright piano (laughs). It seems like every good Filipino family, at least in America, has an upright piano. Definitely some of the furniture is still covered in plastic. That was very Filipino growing up.
RR: You were talking about growing up in a traditional Filipino family, but did you also grow up in a family that was into reading and writing? Or are you the first one in the family?
LT: My older sister is five years older than me and she loved to read when she was younger, but no one in my family pursued the arts. That’s not to say that there aren’t any of them artistically or creatively-inclined, but I’m the only one who made it into a pursuit and a career choice.
RR: So where did this fascination with writing and the arts come from?
LT: I’m the fifth of five children, and we were all about five years apart. There’s almost a 20 year span between me and my oldest sibling. By the time I came around, my parents were pretty hands-off. They didn’t neglect me, but they let me do my own thing, which I really appreciate. I was the kind of kid who at four or five years old, would go into my room, close the door, and be in there for hours and just draw. I would just read comic books. That’s all I cared about. They didn’t force me if I didn’t want to play outside. They didn’t make me do any sport or anything (laughs). I did what I wanted to do and I did what I knew. And so I think just having that idea of just reading and drawing, these two very creative hobbies as a kid, naturally lead me to writing.
It took a long time to get there. I did not grow up wanting to be a writer. It was not some childhood dream of mine. I didn’t start writing until I was maybe 21. But having that love of drawing and reading comic books, especially when I was younger, is probably the seed of this writing thing that I’m doing.
RR: Do you still remember the comic books you were into as a kid?
LT: The Justice League, Teen Titans, Legion of Superheroes. I was DC. Everyone made fun of me but I like DC. I was not a Marvel kid.
RR: Can you still remember your first story?
LT: The first story was about a young woman who has this repressed memory of her mother having to sell their youngest child, her baby brother, out of desperation. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
RR: It sounds very Filipino teleserye.
LT: Right! But I think I made them Mexican. I was writing these immigrant tragedies of the week. Really bad, bad stuff. It was bad, but at least it gave me the energy to write. I knew I wanted to get better.
RR: What made you move away from those “immigrant tragedies” then?
LT: I moved away from them because they were so one-dimensional. I was trying to offer a kind of political thesis, that immigrant life is hard. But everyone knows that (laughs). It’s not like i’m saying anything new. What I realized is that what I needed to commit to is not so much the subtextual message, but the story and the character. Here is a character who is making a really bad movie. Here is a character who is trapped in a leper colony. Just focus on the situation that these characters are in and find the drama there. All the other stuff — identity politics, issues of home, issues of leaving home — that stuff will just naturally rise to the surface if the reader is so inclined.
RR: I also liked how there seems to be a running theme about the families we make for ourselves in the stories. Is that something you gravitated towards when you first started writing?
LT: In “The Brothers”, for sure. Family is a big deal for me, and in some cases you do need to create your own family. I think that is true for a lot of people who leave one home for another. They’ve got to create their own communities. He did have his family here, but that was when he was Eric. When he became Erica, he had to find his own family. It’s definitely something I think about.
RR: Which comes first when you write a story? Did you find out about Culion first, or did you want to write about a leper colony and Culion was conveniently there?
LT: With that story, I wanted to write a story set in a leper colony because I read an article about a leper colony in Japan in the Wall Street Journal. It was a very moving article.
When I started doing more research about leper colonies, I found out that there was a leper colony in the Philippines and that it was run by Americans and full of Filipino patients. There was all these different layers of tension and conflict. That was one where I wanted to write about a leper colony and then I found out there was one in the Philippines.
But usually it all begins with the research. Sometimes I just look through the news just to find ideas. I wrote a story, it didn’t quite work. There’s corruption in the police force in Manila, and at a certain point a lot of them had gained weight and they were forced to climb Mount Pinatubo as punishment or exercise. I tried writing something about that. You find these weird situations that can be interesting, and you try to create characters out of those situations. I couldn’t get that story right.
RR: Is there anything within the collection that you feel the closet to?
LT: I feel closest to the last story in the collection, “L’amour, CA” It’s the story that took the longest. It took 10 years to finish. And I think the reason that it was so hard for me is because it doesn’t have that overtly strange factor of faith healers or leprosy or drag queens. It’s just about a family moving to America and having a difficult time. It’s a really ordinary story, and it’s ordinariness was really hard for me to capture and dramatize. That was the story that was hardest for me and that’s why I feel closest to it.
RR: What is it about short stories that you like and you like working with?
LT: I like that the short story demands that you be economical because you only have a certain amount of space. I feel like every word and every sentence has to do extra work. Everything that you leave out, you have to leave out for a purpose, because you can only pick and choose the things you want to include. I like having to work with that sense of economy and precision, and I think it makes for a really satisfying read. You can read a short story in one sitting and it’s done. You can think about the whole thing and you can look at it. As human beings, we tell stories everyday. We don’t tell novels to each other. We tell stories. And I like the package of it.
RR: How different are the reactions between Filipino readers and Fil-Am readers?
LT: I think with Filipino-Americans, they’re not as familiar with these situations, like faith healers. Culion is something they’ve ever thought about. It’s all very new. What I’m finding being here in just the past day and a half, a lot of these stories are things that they’ve heard about. I appreciate that they seem to appreciate having these things they know about appear in ficiton. It feels almost validating to hear from Filipino readers that the book sounds authentic. Whereas for Filipino-American readers, it’s just new and strange material. Here, it’s stuff that Filipino readers recognize and is being rendered with some sort of authenticity. At least that’s what I’m hoping for.
RR: What do want people to take from these stories after they’ve read them, whether they’re Filipino or Fil-Am?
LT: I hope that they’re going to feel like they were taken away to another life, to another world. I hope that they’re moved. I hope that there are things that make them happy and I hope that there are things that make them sad about these stories. I feel like all these characters win but they also lose. I hope that they have a real emotional journey and a complicated one, because I’m hoping that these stories are multi-layered and complex emotionally. And more than anything, I hope that they’re entertained. People lead busy lives, and their time is very valuable. If someone were to read my story and feel bored, I would feel horrible (laughs). I wasted your time! I hope that they’re entertained for an hour or for however long it takes to read the story.
(Photos are from the National Book Store Facebook page)