Monday, February 20, 2012


Few Americans could likely name a well-known Filipino-American short-story writer. Perhaps Bienvenido Santos or Carlos Bulosan, or the short works of Jessica Hagedorn, but I can’t think of other possibilities right off the cuff. I know they exist, but they seem eclipsed by better-known immigrant novelists such as Julia Alvarez, Oscar Hijuelos, Jamaica Kinkaid, Jumpha Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, Amy Tan, and Bharati Mukherjee. Well, a new writer has emerged who deserves attention and is destined to gain literary recognition well beyond that of being simply another immigrant writer, if his first collection is any indicator of what he will produce in the future. Lysley Tenario’s Monstress is a delightful first book, eight wonderful tales of life in the Philippines and America that are light, funny, and revealing. Not only does he open windows to worlds that many Americans cannot fathom (although the immigrant experience is central to a large portion of us, including me, who is the son of a Ukrainian-American woman), but he tackles as well larger issues of family, loyalty, heartbreak, and pain. Unlike some collections, I liked every one of his stories, each crisply told with little extraneous material to weight them down. One common underlying theme is the attraction of the United States for Filipinos, strong enough to draw individuals away from their families and homeland. Tenario is excellent at revealing the immigrant experience. The title story focuses on how the desire for movie success can dissolve an otherwise loving relationship between a low-budget monster-movie director and his lover/main actress; “The Brothers” covers the heartrending tale of a man thinking over both his mother’s and his reactions and treatment of his brother, who discovered he really was a woman inside and shocked them with the revelation; the desire to forge a new life while rejecting false promises of a beloved faith-healing grandfather is the core of “Felix Starro,” ; in “The View from Culion,” Tenario tackles the relationship of two inmates, both with ties to America, in a Filipino leprosy colony; “Superassassin” follows the comic-induced actions of a young man who struggles against racism in his new home; “The Help” addresses the reaction of a faithful employee of Imelda Marcos, who feels The Beatles have dissed the first lady and who seeks revenge as the singers prepare to leave the country after a tour stop; in “The I-Hotel” two old men face eviction from the only home they have known for thirty years and one remembers his immigrant experience and his relationship with his friend; and in “L’Amour, CA,” a young Filipino boy faces new surroundings as his family moves to America and his sister rattles their relationship. One line seems to encapsulate much about the Filipino-American experience: “being in America---a thing that just happens, a thing you learn to live with.” Although some of the themes may bother close-minded readers, this collection is a must read for anyone interested in the immigrant experience, as well as for Filipinos. I strongly recommend it and hope this book earns Tenario a strong following.

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