Vibrant, ironic and often heartbreaking, the eight stories in Lysley Tenorio's debut short story collection, Monstress, are awash in the unmistakable blend of absurdity and fatalism that have blessed Filipino-American literature at least since the publication of Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters. For all the outrageous situations and ironic tragedy, however, Tenorio's stories are most noteworthy for the gentle care he takes with his doomed and yearning characters.
In the titular opening story, Lorena Valdez, a B-movie queen in the Philippines who has long since tired of donning monster suits for her director boyfriend's ridiculous films, finally gets a part in a Hollywood movie--except it turns out to be a joke, a no-budget mash-up. "Felix Starro" is about a medical charlatan who comes to America to ply his fake organ-extraction routine on Filipino immigrants. But the story that best encapsulates Tenorio's passion for his characters, "Save the I-Hotel," perfectly mixes the singularity of the Filipino-American experience with the universal experiences of longing, regret and heartbreak. In it, two old Filipino men are forced from a San Francisco residential hotel by redevelopment after 43 years. Though Tenorio raises righteous ire describing how emigrating Filipinos in the 1930s were unable to bring wives--and then, upon arrival, de facto banned from dating white women--what lingers from the story is the tender feelings these men have developed after living what amounted to a stunted life together. Like all the characters in Monstress, they suffer because they are Filipinos--but the soulful way Tenorio renders their suffering feels like an indictment of the human condition in general. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic