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  • Rachel Egoian

Monstress by Lesley Tenorio Article; Growing Up as a Filipino Minority

Filipino author Lysley Tenorio’s stories has appeared in The Atlantic, Zoetrope: All-Story, Ploughshares Monoa, and The Best New American Voices and The Pushcart Prize anthologies. He has won the Whiting Writer’s Award and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University as well as receiving fellowships for University of Wisconsin, Philips Exeter Academy, Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In his most recent collection of eight stories from Monstress, I admire Lesley Tenorio’s preservation of its authenticity as the narratives are filled with rich and diverse perspectives and the telling of personal experiences growing up as a Filipino minority.

Tenorio brings up controversial topics that need to be addressed in today’s conversation, providing an established voice of inclusivity that advocates for women, the differentlyabled community, and the LGBTQ+ community. In Filipino and Filipino American communities, we need to allow for a dialogue that speaks about these controversial topics as sources of advocacy. If we seek out Filipino narratives like Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress, we are given an opportunity to further explore our identities and connections to Filipino culture and history.

Tenorio’s Monstress unveils the true essence of what it means to be Filipino and Filipino American in which his characters undergo an exploration of their identities as a process of understanding their roots and questioning where home truly lies. The representation of home is a transitional marker, where at times, home is within the relationships a character has with one another or physical locations in the Philippines and in America. At certain points throughout the stories, assimilation is a major influence that acts as a transitional experience to stress the character’s identity and development. The sense of belonging carries throughout each story as empty and dark spaces become symbolic settings to transport or develop the character’s hidden motives that question the possibilities and limitations of their futures, allowing for the growth of hybridity and transition. These hybrid and transitory spaces are signs of change within each story or character that breaks down barriers in a way that makes the character real and vulnerable. Vulnerability is used with the characters’ sense of will in making decisions and moments of finding themselves and their purpose.

In the first story “Monstress,” Tenorio sets a tone for his collection of stories in which he challenges the view of breaking down Asian stereotypes, where media and film industries are culprits to the lack of focus in portraying Asians and Asian Americans. The setting takes place in the Philippines and later in America, where the characters were once an actress and a director in Filipino films. However, with Hollywood’s influence to film and stardum, it diminished the popularity with Filipino films in which the characters find themselves with little hope. Later, we see that Hollywood acts as a setting that merges together the “East and West” ideology in which a hybridity sits waiting to unfold the characters’ identities.

Advocating the need of breaking down Asian stereotypes, hints of postcolonialism are reinforced to claim responsibility and accountability of how stereotypes are created. Tenorio identifies with a character’s role to be hideous and monstrous; however, the character is reminded that beauty is redefined and reconfigured as “monstress” and that she is a “thing of unequaled beauty.” His characters go through the realization and self-discovery of the pitiful truth that haunts their culture and identity. Tenorio indicates that hidden parts of an identity can be found only if we allow ourselves to look closer.

In the story “Save the I-Hotel,” Tenorio captures one perspective that reveals two Filipino characters’ lives, which shares the anxiety and struggle of discrimination that they face while assimilating in America. The I-Hotel is part of a historical event that identifies with Asian American history. This historical landmark rests as a turning point as one of the last buildings of Manilatown located in San Francisco, California. However, Tenorio reveals at the beginning of the story, that a protest is established against the I-Hotel being demolished, where the two characters find themselves remembering their past experiences living in the I-Hotel and how it has changed their lives. Location is one of Tenorio’s skills in connecting with the character’s development and background. Stockton and San Francisco are two distinct cities that require diverse ways of living in which migrant laborers and farmers took to Stockton, while others follow suit to San Francisco as one of many possibilities in rising towards the “American dream” at which point one of the characters idealizes San Francisco as “The Dreamland.” Tenorio provides the representation of the I-Hotel to reflect as a timely and transitional space in which a protest acts as a significant moment for characters during the present and in the past the I-Hotel represents as a symbol of hope and a home to come back to.

Monstress is a well-constructed piece that Lesley Tenorio masters the ability of storytelling by creating characters that shape the Filipino and Filipino American identities fallen to vulnerability and the sense of belonging. In addition, the questioning of home rests within themselves and rise against reality’s hardships of discrimination and loss. Tenorio’s eagerness for change acts through timely and transitory spaces, symbolically using emptiness and darkness to condition the self to reveal hidden aspects of cultural identity.

Reflecting on society’s issues with the lack of representation of the Filipino identity and bringing to light the Filipino narrative, why does Tenorio leave his stories open-endedly, almost like a “to be continued” factor? Maybe he challenges the reader to reflect on their own experiences as a narrative that is still developing, and hope is a major influence for change and perseverance. Maybe Tenorio is challenging us to be more hopeful and open-minded to the things we encounter within our own lives. The stories Lesley Tenorio captures are small but significant narratives of Filipino and Filipino Americans who go through many obstacles and challenges that society tends to push on them. Thus, finding themselves alone and vulnerable because of negative stereotypes, social norms, and limited freedoms they encounter from dominant rules of government. Reminding the reader to reflect, Tenorio encourages us to question what we do with these limitations and how we might shift them into perspectives or narratives of hope, as it certainly pertains to how we navigate our developing identities and celebrated cultures.

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Rachel Egoian - Pleasant Hill, CA


Originally from the Bay Area and a graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. In addition, she is a recent graduate student at San Francisco State University for the English Literature Master’s program. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.

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