Wednesday November 28, after a wet and windy day, the San Francisco Philippine Consulate hosted an evening reading with fiction writer and professor Lysley Tenorio. Organized by PAWA Inc, Tenorio read from his short story collection recently published by Ecco Monstress. Consul general Hon. Marciano A. Paynor Jr. kicked off the event, saying the SF Consulate was now on their ninth book launch: “there are 3.9 million Filipinos in the U.S. according to statistics, but the real number has to hover around 4.2 million, which means the reading audience is growing.” The Consul General stressed how happy the Consulate is to welcome Tenorio and other authors to read and launch their books, and they are eager to partner with more writers. He also gave a special thanks to Edwin Lozada, one of the organizers of the event and a board member of PAWA Inc., who the consul general calls his own “Jose Rizal.” His parting words were a wish for success for Tenorio and his book.
Poet, professor and PAWA Inc. board member Barbara Jane Reyes emceed the event announcing that Arkipelago Books were selling copies of Tenorio’s book. Your salonniere had the privilege of introducing Tenorio, and the intro went something like this:
A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Lysley Tenorio has received a Whiting Writer’s
Award, fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Zoetrope: All-Story, Ploughshares, Manoa, The Chicago Tribune, and The Best New American Voices along with Pushcart Prize anthologies.
His latest book, Monstress published by Ecco/HarperCollins was reviewed in the New York Times where ANDREW HAIG MARTIN called his collection “a refreshingly off-kilter approach to the lives of Filipinos in America.”
Katy Waldman from SLATE.com wrote “it is the unassuming pitch of these stories that makes them so exquisitely deadly.”
And Dan Lopez in Lambda Literary described the collection saying: Hard lives and hard choices take center stage in Monstress, but this is no bleak landscape that Tenorio limns. Woven throughout the collection is a wry narrative of ambition. These characters whether they are gay or straight, American or Filipino, all share an abiding desire to succeed, their shared identity of otherness paradoxically empowering as it appears to disenfranchise. In that sense, they belong to a larger project of outsider fiction.”
Tenorio teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California, and lives in San Francisco. In all earnestness, he’s the reason why I’m here in the bay Area. Probably the reason I have my current job. I wouldn’t be here without him, so it is my great honor to introduce my grad school mentor, advisor, a true friend, a godfather of outsider fiction and writer of stories off kilter, wry, and deadly, Tenorio.
Tenorio read from an excerpt from “Felix Starro,” the story of a Filipino grandfather and grandson, who are faith healers come to the U.S. to reap the rewards from gullible Fil-Ams. They scam the sick and desperate until the grandson can’t stomach it anymore and plots to defect from family and country. The tale is both sad and funny as most of Tenorio’s stories are, having his audience laugh through tears.
Some of the most memorable lines from “Felix Starro” include:
Like a birthmark the family business was mine.
Where are the Filipinos in Canada? The way he talked, the world was filled with ailing Filipinos waiting to be healed.
All this silver. Make it black.
Holy blessed extraction of negativities.
In the end your home is just the place you’re buried in.
a birthday in the sky
Tenorio left the audience wanting more by ending the reading just before the story’s conclusion,
Opening to Q&A, the first inquiry started with: “Many of your stories have a narrators who aren’t really the focal point, but at the same time are the focal point, such as Nado and Vicente from “Save the I-Hotel,” Isa and her brother in “L’amour,” and Eric and Edmond in “The Brothers.” Could you speak more on this kind of story-telling?”
Tenorio responded that his narrators aren’t peripheral narrators so to speak, but when he writes stories, he may be too invested in the drama and needs perspective and distance, so in “Felix Starro” he created the grandson to get another angle at the grandfather, who was the origin of the story. The grandson brings tangential drama, so the story is emotionally and psychologically layered.
Another attendee asked about the relationship between Filipinos and Filipino Americans in his story. Specifically how Papa Felix informs what it means to be Filipino and therefore Filipino American for the nephew who doesn’t want to return to the Philippines. For Tenorio, he was playing with this idea of how the grandfather viewed his grandson’s departure as sad. From Papa Felix’s POV, the narrator has to buy his way home and pay for a sense of belonging, which is in essence tragic.
Why a story about faith healing was asked when there are so many other lying professions to write about like lawyers? Tenorio spoke about how his stories are emotionally biographical. He purposefully researches for weird intersections between Filipino culture and American culture and had read a story about a faith healer named Alex Orbito, a psychic arrested in Canada for scamming Filipinos. Tenorio has to keep himself entertained and does so by writing characters who are obviously doing bad but do it with good intentions.
Outsider fiction grabbed the attention of another audience member, who was curious as to if Tenorio owned that description, which Tenorio didn’t shy away from, admitting that his characters tend to be eccentric or in the margins, but he made the distinction that it wasn’t because of their ethnicity. There is always more to the characters than where they come from or how they identify themselves racially, which is why he was drawn to their story.
A follow up to that question was if Tenorio believed there were any specific aspects about Filipino
culture that bent to the outsider experience, in which he answered that Filipinos tend to idolize and idealize what others might consider as campy such as beauty pageants, which are as popular in the PI as the U.S. election was for Americans though he believes that this love and devotion to camp is not exclusively Filipino, and in his fiction he wants to create characters that are unique and meaningful though they may be drawn to the campy, which is a weird and interesting intersection.
The last question cited a recent interview where Tenorio said Ramona Quimby was one of his favorite fiction characters. He was asked how Ms. Quimby had influenced his own writing.
Ramona was the first character Tenorio remembers reading who was really complicated. She “was so different from fairy tale characters” because she played in the dirt with worms. She was the “kind of character that readers and writers want to spend time with” because of how compelling and naughty she is. She taught Tenorio that it’s okay to be bad, especially when it comes to storytelling.
The event concluded with thanks to Arkipelago, Barbara, Edwin, and all the guests who came out braving mid-week busyness and the rain, and a final thanks goes to Tenorio for all his inspiration and talent!